New Jersey’s Cape May Wine Trail

A colorful listing of the wines available for tasting at Natali Vineyards in Cape May, N.J. (Credit: P. Grant)

A colorful listing of the wines available for tasting at Natali Vineyards in Cape May, N.J. (Credit: P. Grant)

My family has been going to Seven Mile Island for beach time most summers over the past 50 years and never once did we catch sight of a vineyard in our travels. Maybe that’s because we weren’t looking? Recently, I read that in June 2012, the American Association of Wine Economists held a blind wine tasting called Judgment of Princeton that included New Jersey wines alongside top-ranked Bordeaux and California wines. Surprise! New Jersey wines won BIG — ranking among the top (3rd of 10 in the red tasting and 2nd second of 10 the white tasting) so we made it a goal to hit the Cape May Wine trail over our Memorial Day beach trip — and are really glad we did!

There are now 46 licensed wineries in New Jersey with several more in various stages of development. In 2013, the state ranked as the 7th-largest wine-producing state. According to Wikipedia, “beginning in 1981, the state legislature relaxed Prohibition-era restrictions and crafted new laws to facilitate the growth of the industry and provide new opportunities for winery licenses. Today, New Jersey wineries are crafting wines that have earned recognition for their quality from critics, industry leaders, and in national and international competitions. As of June 2013, New Jersey has 46 licensed and operating wineries with several more prospective wineries in various stages of development.” The southern half of the state is on the same latitude as Bordeaux with the desirable sandy soil for drainage and moderate temps that being near the coast provides.

Sal Turdo, owner and winemaker of Turdo Vineyards & Winery sums up the desirable growing conditions nicely: “To have great wines, you have to start with great grapes…Cape May was chosen because of its proximity to both the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay, creating a microclimate that is perfect for growing vinifera grapes. Therefore, the grapes grown in this vineyard enjoy a more leisurely ripening process with longer hang time on the vine. Cape May has close to six extra weeks of growing season compared to northern and central New Jersey. Also, Cape May’s sandy soil provides excellent water drainage. As a result, the vines focus their nutrients and energy on the grapes, rather than finding a steady source of water. The final results are grapes that are able to achieve full maturity and wines capable of reaching their highest potential.”

As more and more wine lovers and wine adventurers discover New Jersey wines, it won’t be long before New Jersey becomes better known as Napa East or Bordeaux West.

Let’s get started on the wine trail…

Cape May’s Wine Trail is convenient to several Mid-Atlantic cities: 70 miles from Philadelphia; 79 miles from Wilmington; 160 from New York City and 180 from Washington, D.C. The trail has six wineries spread over 23 miles of the southernmost area in New Jersey and includes more than 1,000 acres of vine plantings.

Our tasting adventure started at Natali Vineyards in Rio Grande. From Avalon on Seven-Mile Island, where we were staying for the week, it was a quick 20-minute drive down the Garden State Parkway to pick up Rt. 47, but once on Rt. 47 our Google directions for the rural roads needed some fine-tuning. Fortunately, a friendly young man nearby directed us 5 miles farther down the road telling us to look for Mile marker 12/9 and we’d be there. Spot on!

As we drove down the gravel driveway to Natali Vineyards, row after row of healthy vines about 2½ ft high (end of May) spread out before us. While walking towards the tasting room we were surprised to be greeted by a 6-foot pirate statue but soon learned Natali adopted the pirate as its mascot for wine fun with some buccaneer spirit. Our inner pirates coughed out some playful AARGHs and unknowingly prepared us for their Pirate’s Wine “inspired by the hearty Portuguese tradition of full-bodied, bold red wine” — according to their Captain Ninho wine label.

While perusing their list, we were joined at the wine bar by Bill DiLossi, our tasting server. We were fortunate to have him. Bill was a fountain of information on the winery operations and all of Natali’s wines. Since it was a quiet time in the tasting room, Bill suggested we have a look in the adjacent room “where the action is” during harvest time and demonstrated the steps they use to bottle and label Natali wines. He then encouraged us to try the machines for corking full bottles, and adding the foil caps. Next he  showed us their array of labels and described their winemaker’s vision for Natali Vineyards wines.

Next was our tasting. Their list includes 28 wines covering the spectrum from very sweet to very dry with several European varietals among them including Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Dolcetto. Although some were sold out, we still had plenty of choices. Each tasting includes six wines of your choice. We decided to share two tastings, that way we could each get sips of 12 wines. This being our first taste of vinifera wines produced in New Jersey, we were amazed at the quality. On the sweet side, the non-grape fruit wines include a wine for almost every fruit. The Beach Plum and Banana wines were new to us so were sure to try them. We liked the Banana a lot more than expected. Bill offered us chocolate chips to try with the Banana wine — the perfect food pairing. We’ll be sure to remember that when opening the bottle bought for making banana spritzers at home. The non-grape fruit wines are fun for sipping and partying. Warning: they are refreshing with reasonable sweetness but not cloying. However, beware of their high alcohol content — 15.4% for the Banana!

Besides the Banana wine, we purchased a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc that had very nice balance of fruit and crisp acidity — a good match for many a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that I’ve tasted. Also purchased was a bottle of Nonna’s Cellar Wine, a non-vintage blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Tempranillo.

Next on our list was Jessie Creek Winery. Fortunately, it’s just about 2 miles east down Rt 647 from Natali’s. Watch for a Jessie Creek’s roadside sign shaped like a wine bottle. When pulling into the driveway, Al, one of the co-owners, was about to close up for the day. He readily encouraged us to come in, and made a U-turn to unlock the tasting room. Our conversation got off to a fast start. In the first two minutes, we learned Al grew up in Springfield, Pa., which is close to my hometown of Havertown (both suburbs of Philadelphia) and attended Bonner High School at the same time as my brothers. My high school was Prendergast for Girls — right next door to Bonner — so we had a short walk down “memory lane” comparing favorite spots from our teen years before starting our tasting.

Jessie Creek harvests five acres of grapes by hand. Their wine production ranges between 13,000 to 18,000 bottles per year. Although their first harvest was in 2010, they’ve won silver and bronze medals for their Cabernet and Merlot, respectively, in the New Jersey State Wine Growers Association competition.

Anytime we can try a new wine taste experience, we take the opportunity to do it. In favor of trying the Banana at Natali, we passed up their Cranberry. So, we made sure to try the cranberry at Jessie Creek. Their cranberry wine is aged for three months in stainless steel. Makes for a very pleasing summer sipper and would make a good spritzer with seltzer, Sprite, or Ginger ale. Al says they sell a lot for summer picnics, Thanksgiving and holidays, too. Besides their Cranberry wine, we also came away with a bottle each of the 2012 Chardonnay and the 2010 Merlot.

Jessie Creek’s pretty vineyards make for nice photo ops, and Al pointed to a guideline about a foot up from where the vines are to show us the expected growth in another month. Jessie Creek also has a B&B on their property for anyone wanting to stay awhile and relax close to the vines.

While at Natali, we asked for suggestions for a local moderately-priced restaurant for dinner and were directed to Rio Station. Their chef spent three years in France at culinary school and worked for five years in San Francisco before heading home to chef at Rio Station. The restaurant has a pleasant ambiance and extensive menu. We ordered two entrees to share. I can highly recommend the crab-stuffed shrimp, which had good-sized shrimp and cooked just right with delicious crab stuffing. But, we found the beef tips were disappointing. There were a lot of other menu choices to consider the next time we’re in the area.

The next day looked to be a good day for morning biking and afternoon beach time in Avalon, so that’s what we did. We took an enjoyable bike ride around the back bay area and saw a wide variety of pretty beach houses. Many had beautifully landscaped gardens with gorgeous summer flowers blooming through the season, making both Avalon and neighboring Stone Harbor a delight for biking, walking and running on most days. Plus, bikers have the safety of special bike lanes on Dune Drive, which runs the entire length of the island. A favorite spot for lunch when biking in Avalon is Mack’s on the Bay where you can get one of the best Italian hoagies in South Jersey and eat on a deck table overlooking the bay. Yum!

Our winery visits resumed the next day — this time farther south in Cape May. We took the Garden State Parkway from Avalon, this time going to the last exit off the parkway (Exit 0) to Rt. 109 to get to Cape May Vineyards and Turdo Vineyards. After we got to the location for Cape May Winery directed by Google, the vineyard was nowhere in sight. We asked a local guy for directions, which took us Hawk Haven Vineyards, instead. But, it was a pleasant diversion. Arriving at noon, we were Hawk Haven’s first visitors of the day, so had a head start on our tasting before many more groups of twos and threes arrived.

Like many N.J. wineries, Hawk Haven Vineyards was originally a farm. Currently, they have nine acres of vinifera grapes under cultivation and offer 12 varietals, six reds and six whites. Among the whites, one of their specialty wines is American Kestrel — a blend of 82% Chardonnay and 18% Sauvignon Blanc. Their reds included Proprietor’s Red, a blend of Chambourcin and Merlot with nice acidity and cherry fruit flavors; Quill, their Bordeaux blend of Cab, Merlot, Cab Franc, and Petit Verdot. Our favorite, for its uniqueness, was their Red-tailed dry rosée made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. We had not had a rosée made from Cabernet before and enjoyed the pleasant fruity flavors with nice balance of acidity. In fact, we liked it so much we took two bottles home planning to include one bottle in a blind tasting of rosées.

Our next destination was Cape May Winery, just a short ride from Hawk Haven. On the way, we made a quick stop to check out TreeHouse Antique Center, a lovely light yellow, sprawling house containing two floors of antique items from multiple vendors plus a pretty garden area with a nice variety of birdhouses. There looked to be something for a wide variety of collector interests so be sure to make it a stop if you’re into antiques.

Cape May Winery was next. Its tasting room is much larger then the others we visited on this trail — with a nice variety of wine gift items and an attached room for group tastings. They have four acres of vineyard adjacent to the winery tasting room but more than 150 acres overall spread over four different vineyards where they grow more than 16 different varieties of grapes to make 24 wines. Primary focus here is on the viniferous grapes including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Grigio, Riesling and Chardonnay from which they produce single varietal wines as well as some nice blends, both reds and whites.

Cape May’s primary label design is a pretty foil clamshell but they also have an interesting and unusual “coffin” label designed to honor Isaac Smith, Cape May’s coffin-maker in the 1820s who was also a ferry boat captain and builder of the home where the Isaac Smith Vineyards is located. It’s not every day that you see a coffin-shaped wine label.

Tastings here are $6 for your choice of six wines. Since we had one more winery stop ahead of us, Rick and I decided to share one tasting. Of the 14 wines available for tasting, our two favorites here were the 2012 Pinot Grigio and the 2011 Pinot Noir. My tasting notes for the Pinot Grigio show that we judged the melon and lemon flavors as “wow” from Rick and “refreshing, zesty” from me.

Tasting Pinto Noir grown in New Jersey was a new experience. And, knowing that growing Pinot Noir where the summer temperatures often climb into the 90s, making it more challenging, made the awesome tasting result even more surprising. Hats off to the winemaker! The label describes the Pinot tasting of “cherry cola with a peppery edge,” but I thought that was an understatement of the layers of flavor that I experienced — and this was only the second year they’ve produced Pinto Noir. Obviously I’m not the only one impressed. Their bronze medal at the 2013 Finger Lakes International is testament to the winemaker’s craftsmanship. Cheers!

On our way to Turdo Vineyards, our final stop for the day, we passed Historic Cold Spring Village, a pretty restored village that their website describes as bringing to life the day-to-day activities of villagers living in South Jersey during 1789-1840, known as the “age of homespun.” There is plenty here for all ages making it a day-trip of its own.

Turdo Vineyards and Winery was our final winery stop for the day. They’ve been winning medals since their first vintage in 2002. All of their Turis label wines are made with grapes grown on their five acres and they now offer three whites and eight reds. Turdo is one of only two wineries in U.S. growing the Nero d’Avola grape, indigenous to Sicily, which is also where owner and winemaker Sal Turdo is from. For all you wine trivia lovers, the first and only other American producer of Nero d’Avola is Chiarito Vineyards in Ukiah, California (Mendocino County). Also special at Turdo is their Nebbiolo. These vines were first planted 15 years ago. The 2009 Nebbiolo was aged in French oak for 3.5 years to soften the tannins in the grapes. Although our tasting server said that they generally recommend bottle aging for a few more years, the 2009 we tasted had nice aroma of dried rose petals and was already a pleasure to taste. So if you’re lucky enough to get a bottle of it before it sells out, you can enjoy it now or let it age.

Two other special mentions from our tasting at Turdo are the blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, and Sangiovese called “Persara,” named for Sal’s wife, Sara, who was anchoring the wine tasting room that day. She provided history on the development of Turdo Vineyards. Incidentally, the Persara wine is a delicious tribute to her. It’s a smooth and spicy blend with nice vanilla flavor on the finish. It’s nice for sipping but could also easily handle some spicy food accompaniment. We enjoyed all of their wines, but the other “must-taste” is their 2010 Pinot Noir. Aged 24 months in French Oak, this Pinot is very elegant and balanced. You might think you’ve been transplanted to a Pinot vineyard in Oregon or Burgundy!

It’s also worth noting is that Sal and Sara’s son, Luca, has started his own line of wines made with grapes grown nearby in Cape May County. He currently offers an Albarino and a Riesling. We thought the Albarino was outstanding with great fruity nose and clean finish. The skins are kept with the juice for an extra day to provide the ‘kick’ of fruit flavor you’ll taste in this Albarino. This wine would be great with just about any seafood — like they do in Spain.

Turdo has a beautiful patio adjacent to the vineyard where you can inhale the salt air and the vineyard view while sipping and savoring a glass or a bottle of your favorite Turdo wine. Next time we’ll make time to do just that!

Note: Cape May Wine Trail has a sixth winery, Willow Creek, that we were very sorry not to get to on this trip but plan to make it a priority next time we’re in the area. Their wine lineup looks wonderful!

Cheers!

Other recommendations:

Uncle Bill’s Pancake House — Beware the tab total for two orders of blueberry pancakes with one egg plus two coffees came to almost $30. More than we usually want to spend for a simple breakfast.

Lucky Bones Backwater Grille This was suggested to us for lunch one day but we never got there on this visit. Casual Dining. Their menu looks great.

Moran’s Dockside at 17th & Bay in Avalon; best hoagies we’ve had in long time – with water view to enjoy from the deck.

Pirate Island Golf — Young kids love this place for the pirate theme!

Springer’s –Single dip $4.00 in 2013. Generous servings, good homemade ice cream. The line forms two-blocks long on busy summer nights. In late May, we encountered a half-block line. Some of our favorite flavors: Springer chip, black raspberry, peanut butter Oreo.

Tonio’s Pizza — Good pizzas. Delivery to your vacation address is available. New pizza ovens in 2013 turn out a delicious crisp crust. Fresh seafood is available next door in their seafood shop.

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