Wineries of the Southern Skylands

If you want excellent wine, go to the Southern Skylands. The fertile hills of western New Jersey have been a core wine producing area for more than three decades. This region is the birthplace of the Garden State Wine Growers Association (formerly known as the Hunterdon Wine Growers Association), and its vineyards have won top awards in national and international competitions. Besides top vintages, the Southern Skylands offers spectacular vistas along the Delaware River, trendy historic villages like Frenchtown, and miles of pastoral countryside.

I recently interviewed Stacy Brody of Unionville Vineyards, Laurin Dorman of Old York Cellars, and Peter Leitner of Mount Salem Vineyards. Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes was first planted with grapes in 1988, and opened as a winery five years later. They’ve long been known for their chardonnays.  A Unionville chardonnay was the highest-scoring wine from New Jersey at the Judgment of Princeton, a wine tasting where $20 Garden State wines outperformed $600 French wines. At the 2010 International Wine and Spirit Competition, Unionville was the only wine from the United States to win a Gold (Best in Class) medal for a chardonnay.

Unionville Fermentation Room
Unionville Fermentation Room

Stacy Brody became operations coordinator at Unionville last year, and works closely with winemaker Cameron Stark. A recent graduate of Rutgers (Cook College), she had previously interned at Unionville for three years, and was also the founder of the Rutgers Botanical Society. Stacy noted that Unionville is one of the only wineries in New Jersey to have single-vineyard wines. Unionville has five separate vineyards traversing three counties (Hunterdon, Mercer, and Warren), each with own variations in soil and microclimate. While there are differences of opinions in the wine community about the influence of terroir on a wine’s taste, there is no doubt that Unionville makes top-notch wines.

Mount Salem Vineyards is very different than most other Garden State wineries. It’s a boutique winery that specializes in the use of Austrian and Northern Italian grapes. Peter Leitner, a former financier, planted grapes on slopes of Mount Salem in Pittstown ten years ago. He noted that the farm has ideal soil and elevation for the grapes he is growing, but mentioned the challenges of consistently growing good grapes, and convincing people that New Jersey can produce high end wines. Like many European winemakers, Leitner believes that high quality wines come from high quality fruit, and that it is important for the vintner not to excessively interfere with the natural winemaking process.

Mount Salem Vineyards Tasting RoomIn 2010, Mount Salem opened to the public, and it has stayed true to its mission of staying small and local. Bluntly speaking, this is not a winery for everyone. They don’t attend festivals, have little advertisement, and they don’t make sweet wines. However, if you like artisanal vintages, or you want to try wines made from less common grapes like Grüner Veltliner or St. Laurent, add Mount Salem to your itinerary. Leitner goal for the next few years is to reduce the number of grapes varieties that he grows, and rather than focusing on mass appeal, he wants to be able to offer a handful of world-class wines.

In 1978, Michael Fisher, a pioneer in Garden State wine industry, planted French-American hybrid grapes in the Sourland Mountains near Ringoes. Fisher helped persuade the state legislature to pass the New Jersey Farm Winery Act, and from 1982 until his death in 2005, Fisher operated Amwell Valley Vineyard. Five years ago, the winery reopened as Old York Cellars with David Wolin as the proprietor, Scott Gares as the winemaker, and Laurin Dorman as the general manager. The winery has a small art gallery that features the work of local artists, and has a separate brand of New Jersey themed vintages named What Exit Wines, part of whose proceeds are given to various charities.

Dorman was bitten by the wine bug while in college. She made her own wine, and had the opportunity to visit the Italian wine region of Umbria. Dorman worked as a sommelier and wine importer before landing at Old York Cellars. The winery offers customers a broad array of vintages, and focuses not just on wine tasting but on the winery experience. Whenever I visit Old York Cellars, I am reminded of how attractive it is. When you see the chalet-like tasting room and the spectacular beauty of the Amwell Valley, you may believe that you’re in the wine valleys of France or Northern California. Dorman emphasized that in recent years New Jersey winemaking has grown from being a hobby to a full-fledged industry.

At Unionville, I strongly recommend their famed Pheasant Hill Chardonnay, which started with explosive fruit flavors, and ended with a silk-smooth finish.  Pair this wine with a delectable piece of Atlantic salmon.  At Mount Salem, try their Barbera.  Bursting with flavor but not excessively tannic, this wine could be served with a well-seasoned filet mignon or could be drunk on its own.  Go for Stagecoach Red at Old York Cellars.  This blend of 50% Malbec, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 25% Merlot, reminded me of a good Bordeaux, and would go very well with leg of lamb.

Contact Information:

Unionville Vineyards
9 Rocktown Rd.

Mount Salem Vineyards
54 Mount Salem Rd.

Old York Cellars
80 Old York Rd.

Visit the Garden State Wine Growers website for a full list of Southern Skyland wineries. 

Charlie TomsCharlie Toms is a lifelong New Jerseyan who loves traveling around the Garden State, and visiting places off the beaten path. He’s been enjoying New Jersey wine at least since age 21, and has visited all 48 of the state’s wineries. Charlie grew up in Colonia, vacationed every summer in Wildwood, and now lives in Ramsey. A project manager by day, he formerly served as the New Jersey correspondent for the American Winery Guide, writing 24 feature articles on the state’s wineries. Charlie recently published Road to the Vineyard: Cruising Through New Jersey Wine Country, a 146-page winery guide based on the award-winning documentary Spain – On the Road Again, which provides detailed information on all of New Jersey’s wineries, and offers the reader eight unforgettable road trips.