Vines and Wines on Aquidneck Island

A Middletown winery preserves local land and legacy


If you live anywhere near Aquidneck Island, you’re probably already familiar with Newport Vineyards – but what you probaby don’t know is that the expansive winery is among the largest in New England. Spanning 60 acres over three farms, the vineyard hosts more than 20 grape varieties that are used to make a wide selection of wines.

Newport Vineyards is owned and operated by brothers John and Paul Nunes, whose family has been involved with the vineyard since its establishment in the 1977. Their history with the land goes back even further, to 1917, when their great-grandfather purchased one of the Middletown farms. The brothers formally acquired and branded Newport Vineyards in 1995 and have since partnered with the Aquidneck Land Trust and the State of Rhode Island to preserve the agricultural land. John was kind enough to speak with me about their vines and wines.

Given our region’s rocky soil and topsy-turvy weather, it’s hard to believe that New England can support so much agriculture, never mind wine grapes, some of which are notoriously temperamental. However, Aquidneck Island happens to be well-suited for this venture, enjoying a microclimate ideal for growing grapes. Nunes says, “Being close to the ocean gives us a long, cool growing season to develop great aromas and flavors. It’s not too hot in the summer and the ocean provides protection from extreme cold and frost.”

The white wine grapes that perform the best at Newport Vineyards – the “work horses” as Nunes calls them – are chardonnay, riesling and pinot gris. The red wine grapes lean toward the French style with merlot, pinot noir and cabernet franc, opposed to bigger reds such as cabernet, zinfandel and syrah, which require much more warmth to thrive than our summers offer. The white wine grapes are harvested at the beginning of October, followed by reds into November. A portion of the vidal grapes are left on the vine until they freeze, usually in December, and are then used to make ice wine.

Newport Vineyards focuses on developing flavors in the vineyard, rather than “manipulating the winemaking.” Nunes says, “Everything is meticulously groomed. We remove each leaf by hand to best expose the grapes to the sun and breeze. It requires a lot of attention and handiwork, but all of this helps the flavors and ripening progress.” The vineyard’s original winemaker, George Chelf, continues to employ traditional techniques on modern equipment to preserve the natural character of the grape and achieve the best quality wine, which is aged in 75 percent French oak barrels.

When it comes to choosing a wine, Nunes doesn’t play favorites but makes his selection based on his meal and mood. He is proud to discuss the vineyard’s many accolades, though, saying that “Probably the most meaningful award was a couple years ago, when our riesling was chosen as best of show out of more than 450 entries. The competition was invite only and held in D.C. This really sent us to another level in terms of being recognized for winemaking.”

In the year ahead, Newport Vineyards will release its 2011 vintages. The first is a moscato, a style of wine becoming more popular by the day. Years ago, the vineyard produced a dry version of this variety, but for the 2011 they chose to go sweeter in the vein of a dessert wine or aperitif. Excited about the release and pleased with the result, Nunes says “On the nose, it’s all wildflowers. It’s a very interesting wine.”

Should you find yourself in the mood for something other than wine, fear not; Newport Vineyards offers the homemade hard cider, Rhody Coyote. Made from handpicked apples from local orchards, the cider is produced by fermenting the apple juice cold with champagne yeast. It’s then bottled quickly to preserve its fizz. “We have produced the hard cider for at least 10 years. It’s an easygoing beverage, not too sweet with nice acidity. It’s very refreshing and not high in alcohol,” says Nunes. He makes a point to say that the apple selection includes all the apples native to Rhode Island, not just the overabundant McIntosh. Rhody Coyote has been extremely well received and typically flies off the shelves of both the vineyard shop and liquor stores throughout Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Regarding the future of Newport Vineyards, Nunes hopes to keep it in the family. “I have 52 cousins and most live around here. At the vineyard it’s primarily myself and my brother, but we get lots of help, especially when we first started and every year around the harvest. It’s nice to have a lot of family.”

Newport Vineyards is open Monday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm and Sunday from noon to 5pm. Tours are available at 1and 3pm.


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