Cape May, New Jersey, is famous among fishermen, birdwatchers, beachgoers, and Victorian architecture enthusiasts. Its chief agricultural product used to be lima beans. Now, improbably, the area has become wine country.
It’s amazing the places you can make decent wine nowadays. I knew that every single one of the contiguous 48 states now had working wineries, and that New Jersey accommodates several quite respectable ones. But Cape May? Down there at the state’s nethermost toe of land, between the roaring Atlantic on one side and the broad stretches of Delaware Bay on the other, with no elevation higher than – I swear – 15 feet above sea level? Cape May?
Well, yes, Cape May too.
We were there for birding, trying to catch the spring migration, in which we did not wholly succeed. We knew we could eat some good, fresh seafood: Cape May Salts are among the finest oysters on this planet, and the local scallops are almost as good. As for wine, we hoped for the best. We had brought a few simple bottles with us for when we were eating in, but when it came to restaurant dining, we knew we would be at the mercy of some pretty pedestrian wine lists: great opportunities wasted, but that’s life.
Then serendipity came calling. After a frustrating morning of stalking the wily warbler in weather about 15 degrees chillier than it ought to have been, we returned to our rental apartment for lunch and consideration of where to spend the hours until the birds would become active again in late afternoon. Diane the Ever-Resourceful said, “Let’s go visit the Cape May Winery.”
Need I say that Tom the Wino (wine professional, that is) greeted this idea with some skepticism? We’d known of the winery’s existence for some time, but – given the location – I expected something like Blueberry Champagne to be its specialty. This did not exactly fill me with enthusiasm. Nevertheless, considering the weather, the absence of much else to do, and the prospect of being thought a curmudgeon, I gracefully acceded to the bride of my bosom’s desire, and we went.
Well, I was ‘way wrong, especially about the Blueberry Champagne.
It turns out that Cape May Winery is the region’s oldest – there are several others now – and New Jersey’s fourth largest, and it produces an impressive array of wines, from a large number of varieties. Maybe too many, but that’s to be expected, since the owners are still in the process of finding out what grows best on their 150 acres of vineyards. No blueberry or cranberry concoctions, but they do make several wines from purchased (out of state?) grapes, and one blend with a non-vinifera variety: Their Cape May Red uses 40% Chambourcin, a hybrid variety fairly widely grown in New Jersey and the Hudson River region of New York. The winery uses two labels: Isaac Smith, for wines that contain purchased grapes; and Cape May, for wines made entirely from its own harvests. Those include, unsurprisingly, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet sauvignon, and the less predictable Cabernet franc.
Several of these provided very enjoyable drinking.
The Cape May Red (40% Chambourcin, 20% Syrah, 15% Cabernet, 15% Merlot, 10% Cabernet franc) made a nice everyday red wine, mouthfilling and berry-ish ($16 a bottle at the winery).
The Cape May Merlot (also $19) was pleasing, with soft Merlot fruit and a touch of toasted oak to accent it.
The Isaac Smith Syrah ($20) struck me as atypical for Syrah, very soft and not peppery.
Cape May’s banner wine is the Isaac Smith Red Reserve (40% Merlot, 30% Cabernet, 22% Syrah, 8% Cabernet franc; $24). The winery describes it as Bordeaux style, but that dose of Syrah makes it most definitely a New World blend, as well as an interesting and enjoyable wine.
For me, however, the stand-out wine was the Cape May Cabernet Franc ($18). This showed an intriguing leather, black pepper, and dried-flower nose and soft, black, berry/plum fruit on the palate, with tobacco and pepper in the finish. As you may gather, it was a good bit more complex than I had been expecting, and it showed me a really enjoyable Loire-ish character. Back home, we drank a bottle of it with chicken and morels in cream sauce, and it performed handsomely with that classic spring dinner.
I’m not saying these wines gave a stop-the-presses, world-class wine experience – but the whole gamut did offer some very drinkable, very pleasant, more-than-competently made wines. And they did make me once again question my smug assumptions about just how much I knew about where decent wine can be made. Seemingly, a determined winemaker can turn out good, drinkable wine just about anywhere the climate will allow.
The whole experience made me think: How different is Cape May, a triangle of land surrounded by Delaware Bay and the sea, from the North Shore of Long Island, a triangle of land surrounded by Peconic Bay and Long Island Sound? Or, to take the analogy to its logical conclusion, how different is it physically from the Medoc, home of what are regarded as some of the world’s greatest wines, a triangle of land surrounded by the sea and the Gironde? No one has ever noticed any dramatic hillside exposures in the Medoc, whose highest elevation isn’t much more than Cape May’s. So the physical circumstances, at least in their roughest form, aren’t that dissimilar. And Cape May, because of the sheer size of bodies of water around it, is blessed with a great wine-growing climate – long, cool springs, warm summers, and long, warm autumns, all ventilated by almost constant shore breezes. In theory, that’s perfect for bringing even difficult varieties to textbook ripeness.
Its soils, of course, are different from other regions, and in the past Cape May’s major crops seem to have been berries and lima beans – but Long Island had potatoes before it had grapes, and no one thinks the worse of it for that. It will be interesting to see, as time goes by, what grape varieties show best down there at the bottom of New Jersey. Right now, I’d put my money on Cabernet franc – and I sure hope a winery comes up with a bright, acidic, vibrant white to partner with those fantastic Cape May Salts.