Local Grapes, Local Wine

We’ve made some excellent wines with family in New Jersey at La Cantina Bongiovanni and we’re now going into our third year.

We’ve made Sangiovese and Montepluciano blends that have amazed our friends and family.

But all of the red wine grapes we’ve used so far have come from California.

One question kept popping up: what about growing grapes on our farm and/or trying to make some wine using local grapes?

In my research, I found that there are in fact cold-hardy varietals that can grow and thrive in the Champlain Valley region.

I also found several vineyards close to our farm that sell these cold-hardy french hybrid grapes.

I’ve often wondered about making wine closer to home and being that it was harvest season, it was a good opportunity to try.

Through my connections at the Cornell Research Farm, I was able to source about 100+ pounds of two varieties of local grapes picked at their peak for wine making.


Local Grapes, Local Wine

We received the grapes as planned in Keeseville, NY.

The Pashow’s have a lovely set-up over on Thompson Road where they grow about 700 vines on about 1.5 acres.

As a fan of dry wines, I chose to get Frontenac and La Crosse.

A lug of Frontenac grapes

Frontenac grapes for a dry red wine.

La Crosse grapes

La Crosse grapes for our first white wine.

We’ve destemmed and crushed many lugs of grapes by hand before.

Usually with a gang of 6-8 people, we can do about 36 cases in about 4-6 hours.

Being only two of us for this batch of 200+ lbs., we were very grateful when they brought out the Grifo to take care of the destemming and crushing for us.

Loading grapes into the Grifo

Pour the grapes in.

Grifo in action

Turn on the motor.

The Grifo has an auger inside that pulls the grapes from the stems and shoots them out one side.

The grapes then go through a crusher which breaks the skins and releases the juice.

Crushed grapes

Empty the crushed grapes and juice into our tub.

La Crosse grapes crushed

La Crosse grapes destemmed and crushed ready for the drive back to our farm.


La Rimessa

Making wine on the farm (fattoria in Italian) and more specifically, in our garage (la rimessa), I got to stir the wine and punch the cap each day.

The fruity and funky flavors that develop when wild yeasts do their thing on juicy grape skins really made the garage smell like a winery.

Being exposed to the daily process, I received a good imprint not only of red juice stains on my jeans, but on my olfactory senses as well.

Here’s an example:

Some of what I do for work is mowing fields and brush hogging.

When I was mowing a field recently  I could swear I was smelling the aroma of fermenting crushed grapes.

I’m not sure if it was a flower or weed head, but there was definitely a hint in the air (maybe pollen) that reminded me of a big vat of crushed red wine grapes.

Is that a terroir thing or something else?

Either way, I was pretty jazzed up by this revelation and knew I scored some good grapes.


Getting good grapes

Want to crush it yourself and get in on some good grapes?

This is not a definitive list, but here are some things to look for and ask your local vineyard when sourcing grapes:

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  • Do they look stunning and healthy?
  • What are their spray schedules?
  • Can you do a site visit beforehand?
  • Can they destem and crush for you?
  • Always taste the grapes
  • Ask about the brix count (sugar content)
  • For first-timers, find a good recipe

Wine Making Tips

Not every grape variety will perform the same way with fermentation schedules, malolactic cultures, temperature, etc…

So it’s a good idea to either find a recipe online or talk to someone who has made a wine you like from that grape to get their insight into what steps they take to bring out the best in that particular varietal.

While I am fermenting and culturing in glass carboys, I wanted to also impart some oak flavor to each batch of wine the way we do in the barrel at La Cantina

So we’ll see how these Wine Stix work out.

Wine Stix

They are supposed to add some tannins to the wine during malolactic fermentation and as it ages.

Malolactic fermentation is a process where you add a living culture to the wine just after fermentation is complete.

Many red wine grapes are high in acidity.

What the malolactic culture does is mellow all of that out so it’s not so harsh up front.

It converts malic acid which is tart, into lactic acid which is softer.

It also increases the “mouthfeel” and adds a buttery flavor to some white wines.

In addition to taking the brix counts, I’m also taking notes on each wine’s progress.

As of 10/1, both wines are still bubbling away happily through sanitized air locks.

I can see that the sediment (called the gross lees) is starting to form on the bottom of each vessel.

This is what the wine will get racked off of in order to make it clearer and cleaner as it ages.


What do I hope to achieve?

I hope to make some wonderfully tasty wine that exposes and celebrates the terroir of the region.

This is by no means a wine competition against my cousins in New Jersey, but rather a simple first step to see what is possible here in my own little North Country Cantina.

If the wine comes out well, I’m sure they will want to get in on it.

I’ll let you know how it develops (and tastes) as the wine ferments and ages.

The whole process will take a year or longer depending on many factors, including the impatience of the vintner.

Remember to support your local vineyard!

Until next time… in the journey!


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