Wine in Rhode Island? Yes, and it should not be all that surprising. King Charles II included wine production among the land uses approved in the royal charter establishing Rhode Island as an English colony in the late 17th century. Grapes and winemaking resulted. But a sovereign right does not necessarily ensure the production of palatable wine.
However, Rhode Island can indeed produce some nice wines. After all, Newport is only 50 miles (as the crow flies) from Long Island’s North Shore Wine country. Both are on islands with maritime climates that moderate weather extremes and lengthen growing seasons. Both have similar soils created by the same geologic forces. One could expect that it would be suitable for the same type of Bordeaux varietals that grow in New England.
Well, not quite. While Rhode Island does grow and use Bordeaux varietals, its climate is more similar to the Northern German Rhine and Mosel regions. Its reds, therefore, tend to be lighter-bodied and somewhat watery. It is better suited to white varietals such as Moscato, Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Gewürztraminer.
Visiting Newport Area Rhode Island Wineries
Rhode Island may not have a lot of wineries, but we did manage to visit and spend time with the winemakers at two of the state’s three primary commercial wineries.
Newport Vineyards is a relatively large (for the East Coast) winery. It produces about 32,000 cases per year, overwhelming from its 70 planted acres of grapes across three vineyards. While its first vintage was in 1995, the grapes had been growing in its first vineyards that were purchased when it bought Hopland Winery. The wine has some availability in a handful of New England retail stores and restaurants. But they are sold primarily through the winery’s own huge retail complex. The complex also contains their Taproot Brewing Company, a casual restaurant offering farm-to-table foods, event space and a gift/retail wine store. They also presses apples from local orchards to produce two ciders, neither of which we tasted.
Newport Vineyard Wines
We tasted two whites, two reds and one dessert wine that our guide recommended as being most representative of the region and the winery. Of the whites, we found the 2021 Gewürztraminer to be the most interesting. It has a pleasant floral nose and a taste of honey and spice. The 2021 Sauvignon Blanc was a bit too tart for our palates–presumably from the acid attributable to short growing seasons. While the reds did not have the concentration that we prefer, we thought the fruit-forward Cabernet Franc was somewhat interesting. But we were less than impressed by the Rochambeau blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. Our favorite, hands-down was the 2021 Vidal Ice Wine. It was picked after a December freeze but finished in a freezer. Its peach and apricot tastes were pronounced, although it was less honey-like than we had expected. Still it a very pleasant sweet wine.
This small, 2,500 annual case winery grows all of its own grapes (and sells others to neighboring wineries) from 27 planted acres across several of its own small vineyards. Inside the tasting room are blackboards showing annual harvest stats.
We tasted all six of the winery’s current release wines plus another that has just been bottled, but not yet released. We found the 2020 lightly-oaked, minimal ML (malolactic fermentation) Chardonnay a bit tart for our tastes. But we were quite impressed by the stainless steel-fermented 2021 Albarino (with a nice touch of lemon). Also pleasant was the apple and peach Vidal Blanc. We enjoyed the somewhat tart cherries of the 2019 Cabernet Franc (which includes 17% Merlot). However, the light-bodied acidity of the 2018 Meritage (a blend of 83% Cabernet Franc and 17% Merlot)was not to our tastes. We also enjoyed a pre-release taste of the 2021 Pinot Gris and are looking forward to a return to taste a planned unoaked Chardonnay.