Sweet Sweet Wine
On a lazy, sun-soaked afternoon, a green clearing striped with grapevines erupted with the boom and echo of a cannon blast. Good thing I was already ducked, checking out a grape cluster pressing against a mesh net. My host, Tom Sharko, owner of Alba Vineyard & Winery in Milford, had been explaining that the nets were to keep away the birds. Sharko must have seen me jump at the blast. "That helps with the birds too," he said.
It was a simulated blast. Followed by a recording of squawking birds in distress. Like people, birds love what Alba can do with the grapes in its vineyard. Pinot Noir – the black grapes behind the nets – is a favorite of both.
Alba has been open since 1983. The name means "dawn" in Italian and "white" in Latin, an appropriate name considering that the vineyard's first owner was a family of blond-haired Italians. Sharko bought Alba in 1997. Today, some 12 of Alba's 52 acres are planted with Pinot Noir. The grape prefers the West Coast, but it thrives in the limestone-heavy soil at Alba, and old Pinot Noir vintages in Alba's stone-walled tasting room are festooned with medals from wine competitions. So are bottles made from several other varietals – Alba has room for diversity. The vineyard plants in six-foot-wide rows, giving each acre 2,400 vines. This "narrow-row, high-density" spacing makes Alba, vine for vine, one of the largest vineyards in New Jersey.
In 2013, Alba was named the New Jersey Winery of the Year at the State Wine Competition, by the largest margin ever and for the fourth time in the past seven years. And yet, though Alba undoubtedly makes some of the tastiest Pinot Noir and Riesling in the state, its dessert wines often seem to steal the show. John Altmaier, Alba's winemaker, says, "We want to be known for a lot of great wines, but everywhere we travel, people hear Alba and say 'Hey, don't you make that raspberry wine?'"
Like those drinkers, you won't soon forget the gemlike vermillionpink of Alba's raspberry wine. All the way, from sight to sip, the soul of the berry shines through. The taste – refreshingly fruity with a flare of sugar on the end and an acid twang to match – tastes more like raspberry than a raspberry. It's one of Alba's three dessert wines. Alba also does an old-time port and a bright blueberry wine. Each would make a sweet match to any holiday dessert. New Jersey has long had a reputation for sweet wines, and Alba's are a lush, shining, electriccolored example of why.
Red-purple and orange-tinged, the blueberry wine glitters in the glass. "We try to make our fruit wines taste like eating fresh fruit," Altmaier says, as he deftly pours glass number two and sets the bottle on the tasting room's counter. French oak barrels support that counter. Perhaps these were used to age a Chardonnay, a Pinot Noir and then a port, a span that would cover the five-year life that oak barrels are given at Alba. Stone from the barn's original 1805 construction forms the walls. If it weren't for the displays, plaques, banners and bottles wearing medals like amulets, this would feel like a castle. A woman comes in to ask about weddings on the vineyard. A neighboring farmer comes in to get a case of Gewürztraminer and starts up a conversation about where local wheat goes (to Pennsylvania to become pretzels). A writer tries the blueberry wine.
The raspberry tastes like raspberries. The blueberry tastes like blueberries but also like cherries. Altmaier chilled the wine, making it a touch syrupy but still as smooth and sultry as eating fruit outdoors under the late-summer sun. The blueberry has structure and tannins almost like a grape wine does. It definitely has mild heat and nonblueberry notes playing behind the fruit, a departure from the pure berry spirit of the raspberry.
"New Jersey is the blueberry capital of the world," Altmaier says. "That's why we started doing this wine." Back in the early 20th century, all blueberries were wild. Setting out to change that, Elizabeth White and Frederick Coville started cross-breeding plants in the hopes of developing a blueberry that could be domesticated. The highbush blueberry, first grown in Whitesbog, New Jersey, hit the market in 1916. Alba uses the highbush to make its blueberry wine.
The raspberry wine is also steeped in history. This you may deduce from the old, medal-bedecked bottles skirting the walls. "It goes back to Alba's original owners," says Altmaier. "When a winemaker like me comes in, it's like a new chef at a restaurant. You add your little touch, but you don't mess with a recipe that people love." The recipe calls for a 20-day, whole-berry fermentation. "Raspberries are unique in that they don't lose any of their initial character," Altmaier says.
Many fruits contain fermentable sugars. Crush these fruits, add yeast and these sugars will turn to alcohol. That's how fruit wines are made, and that's how traditional grape wines are made.
Port wines are a little different. "For our port, we try to ripen the grapes a little further than usual to get more sugar," Altmaier explains. "Then you start fermentation. As soon as the sugar drops to the level you want, you pump in brandy. That stops the fermentation because it raises the alcohol content too high for the yeast."
Alba does its port in the traditional style. It starts with Chambourcin grapes, a French-American hybrid that can grow well in mediocre soil. When Sharko replanted Alba's vines, he put Chambourcin at the foot of his sloping property, where the soil gets rocky. (An apparently wise decision as Chambourcin has become one of the vineyard's most popular and nationally lauded wines.) Grapes that become port are picked, vinified, brandied and left in French oak barrels to slumber for 30 months. Long aging gives Alba's port a syrupy thickness that, together with its whiskey-like warmth, makes the wine the perfect antidote to a snowy day. The 2009 Vintage Port has sugar and swagger. Smoke, vanilla and nutty flavors unfold in a sip of the rosered wine. It was made to be drunk with chocolate.
So were Alba's raspberry and blueberry. Altmaier says the blueberry shines next to a fruit cobbler, and the raspberry, mixed with Champagne, makes a knockout cocktail. True, these dessert wines have the range to satisfy in a number of roles. But their best may be as a bright reminder of summer even as the snowflakes fall.
269 Rte. 627, Village of Finesville, Milford
THE RAZZLE DAZZLE
Here's a simple cocktail inspired by Alba's raspberry dessert wine. I experimented for a while with this wine, but I like the pure flavor of the raspberry so much, it seemed a shame to mask it with too many flavors. The Champagne serves to cut the sweetness of the wine, and the oils from the lemon twist gently enhance and open up the berry flavors.
– Andrea Morin, general manager, LITM
Pour one ounce of Alba raspberry wine into a Champagne flute. Fill the rest of the flute with Champagne or Prosecco. Garnish with a lemon twist.
LITM 140 Newark Ave., Jersey City; 917.536.5557 litm.com