New Jersey's Outer Coastal Plain AVA
A Designated Region
An AVA, or American Viticultural Area, is a particular wine-growing region. It is similar to a European appellation, like AOC Bordeaux in France, Rioja DOCa in Spain, or Barolo DOCG in Italy, in that AVA borders are legally defined and protected.
There are 244 AVAs in the US, and comparing the generally-looser rules of American wine producing regions with the generally-tighter rules of some European regions is really quite interesting, mainly because AVA designations largely do not regulate grape varieties, yields, or vinification methods, while many of their foreign counterparts, including those listed above, do.
Some AVAs are well known (such as Napa Valley) and many are less so, like the Outer Coastal Plain AVA, found in southeast New Jersey, a state which might not be the first to come to mind when considering American wine. And that is exactly what makes this region so interesting.
Introducing New Jersey
It’s been said of other articles on New Jersey wine that listing New Jersey stereotypes is lazy writing, and this is something with which we grappled when planning this article. But not mentioning these stereotypes felt incomplete, especially when juxtaposing them against the rest of New Jersey’s reality. So with that acknowledged…
New Jersey is famous for being infamous. It is the home of the fictional (but-based-on-a-real) character Nucky Thompson and of nonfictional mob wars. Of traffic circles, not being allowed to pump your own gas, massive property taxes, and like everywhere else, an endless list of issues that make those of us who don’t live there somehow feel righteous about it.
But New Jersey also has a softer side. A greener side. New Jersey is the Garden State; home to beaches, boardwalks, and shores, rolling mountains, horse farms, and acres of bright produce, including blueberries, cranberries, peaches, tomatoes, and leafy greens.
It is this agricultural context that is often unfairly overlooked. New Jersey is the 7th largest wine producing region in the US, and the Outer Coastal Plain AVA (OCP) is its largest AVA, home to 32 of the state’s 51 wineries.
New Jersey’s other AVAs are the Delaware River AVA, Cape May AVA, and Warren AVA.
The Outer Coastal Plain AVA - Vines and Beaches
The OCP was delimited in 2007 and encompasses 2.25 million acres or about 911,000 hectares. Vitis vinifera (the European vine species responsible for most of the world’s wine grapes because it is just that superior) grapes grow here alongside hybrid grapes, which are crosses between American species such as vitis labrusca and vinifera.
The OCP’s flat, sandy growing area contains the state’s pine barrens and is influenced by offshore breezes from the nearby Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay and warmed by the Atlantic Gulf Stream.
These factors combined with hot summers for which this portion of the US is known, results in a long growing season that produces ripe, robust fruit. High temps, humidity, and springtime frosts can be a problem, but the state’s hearty hybrids and heat loving reds flourish in the well-drained loamy soil that retains just enough moisture.
Vineyards against shorelines make for a magical wonderland of a growing region, but it is the hybrid grapes that make the actual wine so interesting. Created to withstand temperature extremes and other undesirable factors such as mold and disease, while maintaining their desirable properties, several hybrids give the OCP distinction:
Chambourcin - Chambourcin is a red French/American crossing whose parentage is uncertain, but it’s thought to be related to the Seibel family, a white hybrid that grows well in heat. While most grapes have clear juice, even red ones, chambourcin’s juice has a reddish tinge. Chambourcin makes deep red, round, lower tannin wine, comparable to pinot noir because of its red floral and berry notes and high acid. Chambourcin also gives herbal and black tea vibes and is often aged in French oak, providing a wonderful softness and gentle baking spices.
Traminette - Traminette is a white French-American/German hybrid whose parentage traces back to gewürztraminer, with whom it shares spicy aromatic notes. The grape was brought into existence to stand up to high humidity and more extreme cold conditions (another characteristic of the area).
Vidal Blanc - Vidal blanc is a white grape that is a cross between ugni blanc (sometimes known as trebbiano) and a lesser-known hybrid. Vidal blanc’s vines can withstand cold winters, and the actual grapes manage well in heat and humidity. It is aromatic and versatile - wines range from citrusy and spritzy to tropical and more weighty. Vidal blanc even does well as a sweet ice wine.
(Of course, it should go without saying that that the third component to the triumvirate of the OCP’s interesting wines is the winemaker behind them, and that is something we will be highlighting in another article.)
The OCP grows over 50 different grape varieties. Cabernets sauvignon and franc, merlot, chardonnay, and chambourcin make up about 40% of the acreage, and the international varieties make excellent single varieties and blends as well. Speaking of blends…
Couer d’Est Represents
‘Coeur d'Est’ or ‘heart of the east’ is a blend created by the OCP Vineyard Association (OCPVA) to “reflect both the most successfully grown red varieties in the AVA and the high quality under which they are currently grown and vinified.”
Refer back to assertion of mostly relaxed AVA regulations mentioned in the beginning; one of the only steadfast rules is that, for an AVA listed on a label, a minimum of 85% of the grapes in said wine should be from said AVA. Many times though, regulating bodies within larger protected areas impose their own requirements for use of specific local label designations, and this is the case with Coeur d’Est.
For a OCPVA member winery to use the Coeur d'Est name, the wine must be comprised of 25-50% chambourcin, up to 50% merlot or cabernet franc, up to 25% cabernet sauvignon and/or syrah, and up to 15% petite verdot.
The guidelines allow for creativity and expression while still communicating a regional identity.
Practical Next Steps
To really experience what the OCP AVA has to offer, exercise one of the most fun rules in all of wine, and try its products.
Let go of preconceived notions (just because a state has traffic circles doesn’t mean it can’t make good wine!) and present a Couer d’Est or bottle of chambourcin at your next dinner or BYO.
Or, if you’re feeling lighter and brighter, a lemon-toned Vidal Blanc is a nice departure from Pinot Grigio. The state is known for Chardonnay, a grape that may not sound overly exciting, but tell guests they’re drinking a New Jersey Chardonnay and see how they react.
Explore the softer, greener side of New Jersey, the side where grapes grow in bright sunshine, ocean breezes, and sandy soil. It’s waiting for you; drink it all in.