Often a challenging and even intimidating part of dining out is reading a restaurant’s wine list. Selecting the right wine to accompany a great meal should be, and for the most part is, one of life’s pleasures. We are fortunate to have some excellent wine experts at our local restaurants and in the beverage industry in the state.
A tricky area even for the most skilled wine and food pairing expert is local wine. Rhode Island is home to Newport Vineyards, Greenvale Vineyards, Diamond Hill Vineyards, Shelalara Vineyards and Winery, Langworthy Farm Winery and Leyden Farm Winery – yes, owned by Big John Leyden, the Christmas Tree grower. And the industry locally owes much to Sakonnet Vineyards, which was at the forefront of the Rhode Island wine trail back in the 1970’s. As was widely reported this summer, the iconic winery was sold to Alex and Ani, who have plans to incorporate the Little Compton-produced wines into its Teas and Javas coffee-house concept.
The local wine industry has had challenges of its own to overcome, starting with the perception that wine from Rhode Island is subpar. While the growing season is considerably shorter in New England than it is in the Napa Valley or Tuscany, science and skill have been on the local winemaker’s side. Rhode Island happens to be located in the same latitude as the winemaking regions of Italy and France. Our climate is very similar, if hampered somewhat by that shorter growing season. This limits the ability of a winemaker on Aquidneck Island for example, to grow such grapes as Cabernet Sauvignon.
Local winemakers have learned to adapt, so instead of Cabernet Sauvignon, the Rhode Island winemaker will grow and produce Cabernet Franc, a delicious red wine that is often used as a blending grape in some world-renowned red wines from Red Bordeaux to California Cabernet. As Maeve Pesquera, wine director of Flemings Prime Steakhouse, said, “Knowing what each varietal does best – and what it can bring to the blend – takes experience.”
It also takes some genetic tinkering with the grape. Scientists specializing in oenology at Cornell University have developed hardier hybrid grapes such as Traminette, a white-wine grape similar to one of its parents, Gewürztraminer. St. Croix is a red grape developed at the University of Minnesota that produces medium to full-bodied, dry, deep red wines. Winemakers in the region have had success with these grapes and others that stand up to our cold snaps and yield flavorful, balanced, food-friendly wines.