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 the topic is really quite interesting once you start to compare the rules of American wine producing regions and the rules of some of the more tightly controlled areas of other countries, mainly because AVA designations do not regulate grape varieties grown, yields, or vinification methods like many foreign appellations do, including those listed above. In the interest of not cross-referencing the entire planet however, let’s just focus on the Outer Coastal Plain AVA, (OCP) found in south and southeast New Jersey, a state which might not be the first to come to mind when considering American wine.
Introducing New Jersey… Where does One Begin?
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 juxtapositioning 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, all the while overlooking our own city’s problems. But New Jersey also has a softer side. A greener side, if you will. New Jersey is the Garden State; home to beaches, boardwalks, and shores, rolling mountains, horse farms, and tons 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. The 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 here, 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 the hybrid grapes are what makes the actual wine so interesting. Created to withstand temperature extremes and other undesirable factors such as mold and disease, while maintaining desirable properties, several hybrids give the OCP distinction:
Chambourcin -a red French/American crossing whose parentage is uncertain, but it’s thought to be related to the Seibel family, a white hybrid that handles heat well. Interesting fact: most grapes have clear juice, even the red ones. But chambourcin’s juice has a reddish tinge. The grape 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 - a white French-American/German hybrid whose parentage traces back to Gerwurztraminer, with whom it shares spicy aromatic notes. The grape was brought into existence to stand up to high humidity and more extreme cold conditions.
Vidal Blanc - a white grape that is a cross between ugni blanc (sometimes known as trebbiano) and a lesser known hybrid. Vidal’s vines can withstand the 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 OCP wines’ triumvirate 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 these 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.” That verbiage is taken directly from their website.
Refer back to the mostly relaxed AVA regulations mentioned at the top, one of whose only 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, 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.
Pride in one’s product means investment and dedication and Winelala is here for it!
Practical Next Steps
Reading about the Outer Coastal Plain is fine and good, but to really experience what the area has to offer, exercise one of the most fun rules in all of wine, and try its products. Let go of any 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 a chambourcin at your next dinner or BYO (we have recommendations!) . 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 it’s 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. Drink it all in.
UPCOMING: We got to visit White Horse Winery and hang with the owner and winemaker to get the story behind the wine. Our writeup will be available after the Fourth!