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New Jersey Wine



Discovering the Outer Coastal Plain Wine Region of New Jersey

Pinot Noir grapes in a Tomasello vineyard
Not long ago before summer got into full swing, I ran across a tweet from the New York Times about how some great wines were being made in my home state of New Jersey from Bordeaux varietals.  The wines are supposedly so good that they were faring well in blind tasting competitions with classified growths from Bordeaux and Napa Valley stalwarts made from Bordeaux grape varietals.  On a few occasions wine professionals from various backgrounds participated in blind tastings of these wines with their more heralded brethren and ranked higher than many of them consistently.  After I read the article I had to see for myself what the buzz was all about.  That day finally came last month as we visited Tomasello Winery and Amalthea Cellars in the Outer Coastal Plain AVA in the southern part of New Jersey, which is about 30 miles east of Philadelphia.  The following are our experiences and tasting notes from the trip. 
So, how were the wines?  The best ones were better than anything I have had from Long Island and the Hudson Valley, sorry New York.  Tomasello’s Palmaris wines were particularly excellent and were everyone’s favorites of the day.  A few of the Amalthea Europa wines were very well made, but their Cabernet Franc Reserve was the group’s favorite wine from Amalthea.  The Amalthea Cabernet Franc Reserve was one of the best 100% varietal Cabernet Franc wines I have ever had from the US, not just the east coast, or New Jersey for that matter.  Overall, the Cabernet Franc wines from both wineries impressed us the most and lead us to think that the future of NJ red wines might lie in the Cabernet Franc grape.

Tomasello Winery
Atco, NJ
Our morning appointment at Tomasello started a little before 11am and only took about an hour and 30 minutes to drive to from our home in Hoboken.  We walked into the tasting room and you could smell wine and fermentation in the air, a smell I am quite find of.  Head to Napa Valley during crush and you can smell it just rolling down your window in your car driving through the valley.  On the wall, my eyes drew immediately to the old pictures from the early years of the Tomasello Winery showing the founding grandfather and father of the current proprietors Jack and Charlie Tomasello in the vineyard or in other acts of vineyard or winery maintenance.

Vintage photos of the Tomasello lineage
Jack Tomasello met us shortly after we arrived and gave us a background on the winery and the wines that they make.  Tomasello is known for its wide range of fruit and sweet desert styled wines, the production at their winery is literally almost all sweet wines.  The small portion of dry table wines they produce varies across most of the commonly found vinifera grapes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Syrah, and Pinot Noir.  A few other grapes new to me are also grown by Tomasello; especially a charming new grape for me called Chambourcin that made a very promising wine reminiscent of a Cotes du Rhone meets a Carmenere.   
Great cab!  2010 Palmaris Outer Coastal Plain Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve
There was no wasting time in getting to the good stuff.  Jack poured us the 2010 Palmaris Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve in Riedel glasses.  Jack then proceeded to discuss the evolution of this wine and how the 2007 and 2010 vintages turned out such great fruit that they were able to make the Palmaris wines in those vintages.  New Jersey of course is not Napa and not Bordeaux, but when the weather is just right the Palmaris wines reach heights that New Jersey wines have rarely achieved.  The bottle was already open for an hour or so and as I raised the glass to my nose it was apparent immediately from the nose that this is a special wine indeed.  The nose did not lie as the palate impressed with its complexity, depth and most important of all balance. 
2010 Palmaris Outer Coastal Plain Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve
The color was a deep red with vibrant red edges.   The nose rose from the glass with a mix of red currants, cherry, roasted coffee and spice notes.  The palate was complex and fairly tight with good acidity with medium to full grain tannins that framed the long and full finish.  The flavors of cherry, currants, coffee bean and spice sailed on persistently through the finish.
Next we tried the 2010 Palmaris Cabernet Franc Reserve which was equally as impressive.  The Cabernet Sauvignon is a masculine wine, strong, complex, tightly wound but the Cabernet Franc was more feminine in that it was plush, velvety, fruit forward and silky, giving the taster more sensual textures and up front fruit.  Drinking really well now, the Cabernet Franc was open for an hour as well and accessible immediately.  Loads of fruit rose from the glass and fanned out on the palate.  The finish was expansive and filled with fruit and ripe tannin.    
The color gradation of the 2010 Palmaris Cabernet Sauvigon Reserve 
2010 Palmaris Outer Coastal Plain Cabernet Franc Reserve
A dark red core with ruby edges.   The nose was dominated by lush fruit and spice notes.  Cherry, currants, plum, and blackberry mingled with some cracked pepper and black tea notes.  The palate is lush, dominated by a clear purity of fruit.   There is a core of tannin, but the fruit at this time is definitely leaving a bigger impression.  Decent acids and medium grain tannin add a little structure and freshness to a long, fruit filled finish.
The Bordeaux varietals Tomasello vineyard
Jack then said we should go and see the vineyards.  We saddled up and headed about 2 miles west of the winery to a long, rolling vineyard site green with vibrant and healthy vines.  These were the main Bordeaux varietal vineyards.  We saw Petit Verdot up close, showing healthy bunches that will hopefully ripen perfectly given a good growing season.  Jack mentioned that the flowering and fruit set in spring is not usually a problem for his vines.  It’s the 2 months starting mid way through September and ending in mid November that matter the most.  If there is a hurricane or a lot of rain, the odds of a Palmaris vintage are very low.  This window of time must be consistent in temperatures and low in moisture as this will make the difference between a good, average or poor vintage.  As one would suspect, 2012 was a washout with Sandy and one other large tropical storm that all but ruined the vintage. 2013 so far has been pretty good, so if there are no large storms or major temperature drops 2013 might just be a good vintage. 

Jack Tomasello schooling us on viticulture.
Another threat to the vines is the local neighbors, deer, birds and other animals of course will pillage a vineyard if they are not warded off.  In all of the Tomasello vineyards they installed a sound system that emits the craziest assortment of noises to ward off mostly birds and deer.  The sounds sound like a coo-coo bird being strangled, ricocheting wild west gun shots, buzz saws, and, well you get the picture, or the sound in this case.
Barrel sampling, the device in Jack’s left hand is a thief.

We got back in the cars and headed over to the barrel aging facility for the premium wine which was located at another vineyard site, more on these vines in a moment.  The barrel room was of course temperature controlled and therefore very cool.  We saw stacks of American and French oak barrels that were housing the 2011 and 2012 wines.  We tasted through a variety of unfinished wines from both vintages of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.  The Petit Verdot was especially nice, reminding me of the few wineries in California that do a mono-varietal bottling of this grape that is usually a small blending component to add color and perfume.    I hope Jack might experiment with this concept and do a single varietal bottling of that exact barrel, I know I would buy it.  It was dark, brooding, meaty and smoky, with black fruits and mint, subtle earthy notes and a finesse for a grape that is a typically a tannic super power.


Awesome Petit Verdot wine is in this barrel!
Next we headed out to the last two vineyards, one which seems to be Jack’s laboratory as he has all different varietals growing for production and many for tests to see how they grapes adapt to a home in New Jersey.  There were a lot of white grapes and many rows of the Chambourcin grape and Villard Noir, supposedly a copy cat of Pinot Noir, though I did not try any wine made from Villard Noir.  We got a close up of the harvesting truck; it looked like a huge tank that could go up on stilts to adjust to the height of the vines.  It’s cheaper than using human pickers, but at a top speed of something like 12 miles an hour, it’s hard to say if it is actually faster.  I prefer to know the wines I purchase are hand harvested but if not, as in the case of the Tomasello wines, it seems like that is not too much of an issue here. 

Jack in front of his favorite harvest toy.
 
The last vineyard was mainly the Syrah, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc grapes.  We tasted some Pinot Noir grapes that were not there yet phenolically but looked healthy enough to maybe make a great wine given some luck from Mother Nature.  
NJ terroir, gravelly soil with sand.

We headed back to the tasting room and finished off the tour with a tasting of an assortment of wines that were the regular Tomasello label.  There was a Cabernet Franc that was delicious and had nice raspberry notes and the telltale bell pepper and black tea notes.  Medium bodied, the Cabernet Franc would be a nice accompaniment to many different foods.  The Syrah was much different than any I have had before, pen ink, licorice, cracked pepper; this was a savory and earthy Syrah.  The Pinot Noir I had low expectations, but it fared well.  The color was a little odd, a translucent red bordering on rusty colored.  The palate was nice, easy drinking and delicate, the Tomasello guys did a good job in respecting the typicity of the Pinot Noir grape in this wine.  The last wine was a favorite of mine made from the Chambourcin grape because of my unfamiliarity and the uniqueness of the wine really stood out.  This was bistro wine defined, a mid-week or by the glass workhorse, this reminded me of so many great bottles of wine I have tried that were a steal at $15, but had that rare individuality that separated it from the pack of other $15 bottles of wine.

We had a great morning at Tomasello being surprised by the beauty and uniqueness of their wines.  To boot we got a lesson in grape farming and viticulture from Jack that I will soon not forget.  If you find yourself itching for a day trip, it’s worth your time to call ahead and let them know you would like to come by for a tour of the winery and taste their wines.  At a minimum you may learn something new or discover a new wine you never knew existed, especially in the state of New Jersey.  


A bientot!

-Tom



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