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New AVA Established in Connecticut

Eastern Connecticut Highlands AVA is Connecticut's third approved wine region
by Linda Jones McKee
November 07, 2019
Sharpe Hill Vineyards is the largest winery in  the Eastern Connecticut Highlands AVA

Connecticut is a small state that is not often thought of as an agricultural region. However, since the passage of the state’s Farm Winery Act in 1978, the local wine and grape industry has been growing. Today there are 56 wineries spread across Connecticut and two existing American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), the Western Connecticut Highlands AVA and Southeastern New England AVA, have already been approved. As of November 12, another Connecticut AVA – the Eastern Connecticut Highlands AVA – will be official, and the 12 wineries within the new AVA will be permitted to produce estate bottled wines and to market their distinct region.

Despite its relatively small size, Connecticut has distinctly different climatological and geological areas. The Connecticut River Valley bisects the state from north to south, and that valley and the coastal region near the Long Island Sound are warmer than the rest of the state. In the southeast, the Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean moderate the temperatures to provide warmer winters and cooler summers. As a result, that area has a longer growing season than the rolling hills to the east and west of the river valley.

The new AVA covering the eastern highlands area includes approximately 1,246 square miles in all or portions of Hartford, New Haven, Tolland, Windham, New London, and Middlesex Counties. The area is primarily hilly, with elevations ranging from 200 to 1,000 feet. The eastern and western edges of the AVA have sharp ridgelines and higher elevations than the central portion of the AVA which has rounded hills. The soil is composed of mostly metamorphic rocks from the Paleozoic era that are difficult to erode; the Connecticut River Valley to the west is comprised of younger, more easily eroded sandstone, shale and basalt lava flows. To the east and south of the new AVA the subsoils are older Pre-Cambrian rock.

Steven Vollweiler, owner of Sharpe Hill Vineyard in Pomfret, CT, petitioned the TTB for the establishment of the new AVA. According to Vollweiler, the eastern highlands are not as mild as the coast to the south, and not as cold as the western highlands on the other side of the river valley. While growers do plant some vinifera in their vineyards, such as Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Dornfelder, and Gamay, they also grow an equal amount of hybrids and cold climate grapes to hedge their bets. Vollweiler reported to Wine Business Monthly that St. Croix, a cold climate red variety that was crossed by Elmer Swenson, had a bumper crop this harvest but that Riesling did not do well, probably because of the wet weather that continued across the state from mid-summer 2018 through July 2019. “Cabernet Franc also did poorly this year,” he said, “but that was only the second time that happened in the 25 years that we have been growing it. Usually it is a very reliable producer.”

Sharpe Hill Vineyard is both the oldest and the largest winery in the AVA. Established in 1996, the winery produces about 15,000 cases each year (according to Wines Vines Analytics), although production was closer to 10,000 cases this year because of the prolonged wet weather and sub-zero temperatures in January. While many wineries East of the Rockies sell most of their wine directly to the consumer, Sharpe Hill sells about 15% DtC and 85% wholesale. Their wines are distributed throughout New England and in several other states.

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