Maine has a long history of making adult beverages. We make great beer in this state, some excellent whiskey, very fine vodka and other spirits. But the one thing Maine has not exactly been famous for is winemaking.
People have made oceans of fruit wines here, of course. Your average east-coast wine aficionado, when asked to name a Maine wine, will undoubtedly mention Bartlett Maine Estate Winery. You may even have bought one of their great fruit wines, such as Bartlett NV French Oak Dry Pear Wine, Bartlett 2000 Wild Blueberry Oak Dry Wine or Bartlett NV Blackberry Sweet Wine.
Pears, blueberries, blackberries—they grow pretty well here. So it’s not strange to think that our forebears would have gathered them in, pressed the juices out of them, thrown a little yeast into the vat and come out with something nice to savor at the end of the day. It’s a great tradition, and if you haven’t tried fruit wines, you really should do so.
But in recent years, some Mainers have proposed an entirely new source for winemaking: What if we could make wine from grapes?
A novel idea to be sure, one that’s actually worked pretty well for people in days gone by. But it’s really never caught on in Maine. For one thing, grapevines generally require warm, dry summers and mild winters, and that just doesn’t describe us. Really deep, cold winters kill grapevines, and high humidity promotes vine disease, so we can forget it. Might as well try to grow palm trees in Mars Hill.
But over the last five or six decades, people in northern states have developed hybrid grape strains that do fairly well in these climes.
“A lot of this breeding is done through university systems,” says Elmer Savage of Savage Oakes Vineyard and Winery in Union. “New York has done a lot of great breeding, they’ve developed some varieties that are cold-hardy, if not extreme-cold hardy. Breeders at the University of Minnesota and other midwest breeders have developed varieties that are hardy to 40 or 50 degrees below zero.”
Savage and his wife Holly have been working with these strains since they started growing grapes in 2002, with impressive results. They’ve managed to grow hybrid strains such as Léon Millot, Cayuga and Marechal Foch, and they’ve produced some mighty tasty wines with them.
The best of the new cold-hardy strains might be Marquette, a relatively recent variety, which offers more body than the other northern strains and is a great part of the magic of Savage Oakes’ award-winning Barn Red, a dry red graced with lovely cherry and oak notes.
“It’s a little different on the palate than warmer-climate grapes,” says Savage, “but the varieties have gotten better and better over the years.”
And it’s been these new varieties that have made it possible for midwestern states and Canada to grow a large and fairly robust wine industry. A trip through Michigan or Ontario will tell you that the wine business is booming up there, because hundreds of thousands of acres are now under cultivation, and you can travel a long way without losing sight of a grapevine. It’s a big business, and it’s been a godsend for northern farmers.
“There’s a lot of grapes grown in Wisconsin,” says Savage. “People don’t realize that, but there’s a lot of grapes there. Ohio’s got a lot of grapes. And it’s funny, because that’s where there were a lot of grapes before prohibition. Ohio had a decent wine industry, but it went away during prohibition. It’s taken all these years to redevelop it. Now, once again, there’s a lot of grapes being grown throughout the midwest, and a lot of fruit being made into wine.
“We, in Maine, are not there yet,” he says. “I wish we could get a few people growing grapes. My opinion is, it’s very tough to develop an industry that’s based on fruit wines. I think they’re a good addition to everybody’s portfolio, but I think what would really drive the industry in Maine would be having a few more people growing grapes.
“A lot of Maine farmers have put their soul into making fruit wines,” says Elmer. “They make good wines out of fruit. But most of the public, when they think of wine, they think of grape wine. When you say, ‘Hey, would you like a glass of wine?,’ their mind doesn’t head for raspberries or blueberries. A lot of people, have pushed blueberries a lot to try to make wine from them. But it’s never been a mainstay of the wine industry. If it were, we’d be golden around here … So I think whether they like it or not, I think the wine industry’s still based on the grape.”
He may just have something there.
If you would like to learn more about Maine’s emerging wine scene, visit the Maine Winery Guild at mainewineryguild.com.
Will Cutlip lives well and drinks deeply in Brunswick.