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Russet Woods and Apple Wine

Autumn in Connecticut brings hearty new vintages

Ask any New Englander what they love about living here and chances are they will tell you it is the change of seasons. Not only do seasonal changes afford us the fun of varying our outfits and activities, they also provide us the pleasure of filling our glasses with wines that are weather inspired.

By the time warm summer evenings turn into cool fall nights, we’re ready to swap our Sauvignon Blancs and trade our trendy rosés for more fall-appropriate libations. From apple-based wines to rustic reds to delectable dessert wines and digestifs, Connecticut wineries are ripe with wines that toast to autumn.

Nothing announces the arrival of autumn in Connecticut as definitively as apple picking season. The aroma of baking apples emanates from busy kitchens all over the state, as glorious pies are pulled from hot ovens and set on counters to cool. And while there are many who await apple pie season for months—anticipating these mouthwatering homemade creations—there are those of us who would just as soon enjoy all of the flavor and nutritional benefits this fruit has to offer by drinking it from a glass.

The good news for those who choose to sip their apple a day is that the interest in alcoholic apple beverages (especially craft ciders) is on the rise. Whether it’s their relatively low alcohol content, their ability to stand in as a flavorful and gluten-free substitute for beer, or simply that they are refreshing and delicious, sweet and tart apple wines and craft ciders are tantalizing taste buds everywhere. Fortunately, we needn’t look much further than our own orchards for some excellent examples.

Although these days it’s all about challenging norms and creating new standards, old school rules still apply for the majority of wine drinkers when it comes to replacing the white wines and summer rosés with their red counterparts. Palates start to crave warmer, richer, and earthier wines as cooler weather approaches. The tastes and textures of these marry well with the heartier fare New Englanders favor during harvest season.

While many wine-loving residents still think of Connecticut as a white winemaking state, our red wine offerings continue to grow at a rapid pace. From well-known old world favorites to grapes whose names have never graced our tongues, a varied and abundant selection of red wines exist here to please even the most discriminating red wine lover.

Many a New England romance has begun in front of a roaring fire on a chilly autumn evening, and this is the perfect time and place to enjoy our love affair with the after dinner drink. Connecticut wineries offer a variety of fortified wines and dessert wines, both traditional and avant-garde, to punctuate the end (or even the middle) of a fall day. Late harvested grapes provide the foundation for sweeter, more viscous libations perfect for pairing with fruit and dairy-based desserts. For those whose sweet tooth demands even greater amounts of sugar, ice wines made from grapes left to hang on the vine in hearty weather may satisfy you. Chocolate lovers seeking a suitable accompaniment for their cravings might delight in a fortified wine produced in the traditional style of Port. They may prefer a semi-sweet red with the versatility to be enjoyed with dinner or dessert. Whatever your predilection, there’s a digestif produced in Connecticut to satisfy your desire.

You can find fall-friendly wines at any of the farm wineries scattered throughout the state. With more than 30 wineries in Connecticut from which to choose, multiple day trips can be made to one or two at a time throughout the season. Or, take a break from back-to-school busyness and plan a multi-day, winery-hopping staycation. Either way, here are a few wineries with excellent fall selections to get you started.

Holmberg Orchards & Winery focuses on white wine and fruit wine at their coastal location in Gales Ferry. One sip of their Apple Cranberry Wine will put you in the mood to plan your Thanksgiving menu early this year. After studying horticulture, owner Russell Holmberg returned to the family farm in 2004 to develop a winery. Recognized as a leader in modern techniques for fruit tree production, Holmberg makes sure the apples from their orchards that go into your glass are top-notch. If you’re in the mood for something a bit cheekier, try one of their hard ciders. Hard ciders (or what the Brits just call cider) have been popping up everywhere on this side of the ocean. A single-variety cider made from 100% McIntosh apples, Holmberg Winery’s semi-sweet MacIntosh Hard Cider would make a fine companion for many autumn meals.

Bishop’s Orchards Farm Market & Winery in Guilford is a purveyor of all things apple—from applesauce to apple pies to apple cider donuts. The Bishops have been making sweet apple cider (non-alcoholic) since the late 1930s and produce it fresh every year from September to June. It is this cider they ferment to create their Farmhouse Style Hard Cider, an off-dry, low alcohol alternative to beer. Their hard cider lineup also includes the off-dry Golden Hard Cider, made from 100% Golden Delicious apples with a hint of local honey. If you’re not sold on cider, Bishop’s also offers a bountiful array of off-dry to sweet wines. While you won’t find any wines made from grapes here, you will find wines crafted from fresh fruit grown in Bishop’s own orchards including apples, peaches, pears, strawberries, and blueberries. Celebration, a semi-sweet, 100% apple wine made from a combination of tart and sweet varieties, is a popular item all year long but especially appreciated at this time of year. When you’re in the mood for something extra special, try Rubus Nightfall. Released in 2013, this sweet sparkler is made from Bishop’s own raspberries and is a perpetual favorite among both wine judges and wine drinkers.

If you are looking to parlay your wine tasting into a full day’s outing with autumn-themed activities, make sure to visit Jones Winery in Shelton. The winery, a 2004 addition to the 150-year-old family farm by sixth generation-member Jamie Jones, offers a variety of white, red, and fruit wines, along with hayrides, corn mazes, and one of the largest selections of pumpkins, gourds, and winter squash in the state. Harvest Time, made from a blend of Connecticut grown apples and pears, is always a popular autumn wine, and one the staff recommends pairing with Thanksgiving dinner. Jones acknowledges their customers’ transition from whites to reds this time of year. Not a problem for this winery, whose medium-bodied and earthy Cabernet Franc Vintner’s Select pairs well with a wide variety of fall foods. When you’re ready to wind down for the evening after a day of fall photo ops on the farm, try the newly released late harvest Vidal Blanc, making an appearance on the tasting menu for the first time this fall. You can also curl up with a glass of Seven Generations, a dessert wine created from seven different vineyard grapes in the style of traditional Port.

While you’re in Fairfield County, travel a bit farther north to DiGrazia Vineyards in Brookfield for one of the most eclectic wine selections in Connecticut. Autumn Spice, a holiday favorite among DiGrazia fans, is a white wine made from native North American Niagra grapes and seasoned with real pumpkin and pumpkin pie spices. Owner and winemaker Dr. Paul DiGrazia applied his many successful years in the medical profession to the creation of his best-selling wine, Wild Blue. Hailed as one of the highest antioxidant wines in the United States, Wild Blue is a blueberry wine blended with brandy. Its sequel, Wild Blue Too, forgoes the brandy for apples, resulting in a lighter and fruitier wine, while still delivering the nutritional punch of the original. Both versions use blueberries grown by Jones Family Farms, a fact that is graciously acknowledged on the wine labels. Like Jones, DiGrazia offers a traditional Port-style wine, Blacksmith, perfect for after dinner imbibing.

When planning your leaf-peeping itinerary this fall foliage season, take the opportunity to schedule a few stops at Connecticut wineries in Litchfield County, where the scenery can be absolutely breathtaking this time of year.

Hopkins Vineyard, located in the Litchfield Hills in New Preston overlooking Lake Waramaug, was one of the state’s first farm wineries, established just one year after the 1978 Connecticut Farm Winery Act took effect. The latest vintage of Hopkins’ recently released Apple Cider Wine is the perfect accompaniment to fall fare. This beverage, made in the style of a traditional English cider, is produced using a combination of apple varieties grown in Connecticut at Bishop’s Orchards. Hopkins’ president, Hilary Hopkins Criollo, believes their use of a mixture of varieties produces a better product.

Echoing Jones’ observation about wine preferences, Criollo notes the rise in popularity of red wines once temperatures begin to drop, especially their oak-aged, estate-bottled Cabernet Franc. Hopkins’ Ice Wine also sees a surge in sales this time of year, one of only two ice wines produced in the state. This liquid gold bursting with tropical fruit aromas is the wine to select when only the sweetest of nectars will suffice. If it takes more than the promise of fantastic foliage and titillating tastes to entice you to hit the road, then plan your fall foliage trip for October 24, and enjoy the extremely popular Hopkins Wine and Cheese Festival, now in its sixth year.

Continue your foliage trek a little farther north to Goshen, host of the annual Connecticut Wine Festival, for a visit to Sunset Meadow Vineyards. While you’re appreciating the autumnal scenery outside your window, don’t miss the rows and rows of vines planted along Route 63 as you approach this popular venue. The tasting room provides more than ample seating, but you’ll want to grab a bottle and head out to the patio where you can sit and sip in a relaxed atmosphere while enjoying the spectacular vista. Depending on when you visit, you might be treated to live music. While soaking in the scenery, try Enchanted Apple, a relative newcomer to the apple wine category, and the most recent addition to the already impressive SMV lineup. This wine, with its deliciously designed label, is produced from a blend of over 20 apple varieties grown locally at March Farm in Bethlehem.

If apples don’t thrill you, try one of several popular dry red wines that SMV owner George Motel says are in even higher demand during this time of year. Explore the spicy yet fruity notes of their estate St. Croix, or opt for a glass of the well-balanced blend, Twisted Red, for a more robust experience. When the sun starts to sink and you begin to feel the chill of the evening air, you can head back inside and belly up to the bar for some mulled spice wine, served by the glass in the tasting room throughout the season and available in both red and white styles.

There is something very special (almost decadent) about being able to celebrate the equinox in Connecticut by changing what’s in your wine glass. It almost makes one feel sorry for those living in a one-season region. But if you find a certain style is more to your taste all year long, worry not. As Mark Twain (supposedly) said, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, wait a minute.”

If you’re not a fan of the periodic wines that are popular in Connecticut, just wait a minute. Your favorites will always be back in style when the next season rolls around.

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