Culture

Valenzano Winery and the Surprising Appeal of the Garden State

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Looking to get into wine? Look no further than Valenzano Winery. One of the Outer Coastal Plain’s finest, this New Jersey winery offers nearly 20 wines and champagnes to tickle your tastebuds. Located on Route 206 in Shamong, Valenzano has cultivated a reputation as one of the most well known and well loved South Jersey wineries.

The other week my husband and I dropped by for a tasting on a sunny summer afternoon. Having previously been to their wine tasting room, we planned to arrive shortly after they opened and were pleased to beat the usually busy crowd. Andrea greeted us from behind the bar; $5 to taste, a fee refunded with a bottle purchase. We began with the dry whites, a pleasant Chardonnay and palatable Vidal Blanc.  Drinking the two together reinforced my preference for the Euro-American hybrid, Vidal and its clean, fresh mineral finish versus the buttery oakiness of Chardonnay. Among the dry reds, Valenzano’s Merlot Reserve was a standout in the crowd offering a rich detail, as if the fruit pursued that second date in oak knowing this was a sure thing.

Valenzano’s gift, however, is their careful manipulation of labrusca grape varieties including Niagara, Concord, and Ives. Often looked down upon by “serious wine drinkers” for their fruity flavor and foxy nature, these powerhouse grapes forge the backbone of the east coast wine scene. And call them the gateway wines if you will, they’re also the yellow brick road to the Oz of the wine world. While some drinkers remain satisfied with their sweet fruitiness, others pursue the more complex character of these grapes until they find themselves drinking the driest of vinifera wines with serious appreciation.

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Valenzano’s Pinelands Blush is concord fermented off the skins, making for a light and refreshing semi-sweet wine perfect before, during and after a casual meal. Among my personal favorites is the Shamong Red Reserve. Its deep red color hints at the wine’s rich flavor and complex body; this Concord/Ives blend is a magnificent go-to wine, semi-sweet on the palate with a crisp layered finish leaving you refreshed and wanting more.

Leaving no stone unturned, Valenzano also offers a selection of gorgeous fruit wines including Apple Cider, Blueberry and Red and White Cranberry. (After all, this is the Garden State.) Their Red, White & Blueberry Sangria (a combination of Blueberry and Red and White Cranberry wines) packs a punch of flavor in every sip and is perfect for back porch parties on a summer afternoon; $1 from every bottle sold goes to Operation Troop Aid.

We left with the Shamong White, a wine made from Niagara grapes. A sweet wine, yes, but not a sugary one, this wine carries an effervescence reminiscent of a walk in the woods on a warm summer day. The White Cabernet also joined our cellar collection, handily organized in part by a stack of hip Storvinos. This refreshing blush made from cold pressed Cabernet Franc (yes…European grapes!) offered a sweeter edge to a normally dry wine. Advertised as an alternative to a White Zin, I found this to be rather better, offering an originality that surpasses the typical dry pink stuff.

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After our tasting, we received a sneak peek into their tank and bottling room. (Tours are available on weekends by reservation. Call ahead!) Spying labels for Santa’s Little Helper (a winter sangria) on the bottling works, we caught a rumor that some new blends are in the works for the months ahead.

Valenzano has become a favorite stop along the Holiday Wine Trail; my husband and I are excited to see if any of these new wines will be available for sampling as we enjoy the live music and food in their decorated ballroom on Thanksgiving weekend. By then, I’ll be sure to stock up on their signature Jersey Devil Honey Wine, a mead with classical origins that, when blended in a cup of tea, makes for the perfect hot toddy.