Exploring the Depths of the 2023 NJ Harvest: A Conversation with John Cifelli

Grapes at Vineyard

The 2023 harvest season in New Jersey has left its mark, carving a unique narrative into the annals of winemaking history. I had the pleasure of sitting down with John Cifelli, the visionary general manager of Unionville Vineyards. We delved into the distinctive characteristics that defined this year’s harvest.Unionville Vineyards, Jersey Bites, Marissa Muoio

The Frost’s Cruel Embrace

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Cifelli began our conversation by recounting the unexpected challenges posed by a late frost in May, a phenomenon he described as “devastating.” The frost, occurring on May 18, was not only the latest but also the broadest and most destructive in Unionville’s history.

With temperatures plummeting from the forecasted 37°F to an alarming 28°F, approximately 30 tons of grapes — nearly half of the entire production — succumbed within a mere four hours. Cifelli painted a vivid picture of the aftermath, where lush vineyards were ruined within 48 hours. Despite the financial and emotional toll, the team at Unionville regrouped, displaying resilience in the face of adversity.

Rainfall Roulette

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The second theme that colored the 2023 season was an abundance of rainfall, making it the wettest July, August, and September in the past five years. Managing the deluge presented a constant challenge, with Cifelli likening the decision-making process to a relentless coin toss.

The struggle lay in choosing the opportune moment to harvest, constantly weighing the risk of rain against the benefits of further ripening. Even so, Unionville’s adept production team navigated the complexities, employing strategies like small, staggered picks to hedge their bets. This meticulous approach resulted in two distinct iterations of Chardonnay from the same vineyard, illustrating the dynamic nature of the 2023 season.

Reflecting on the collaborative efforts during the harvest, Cifelli acknowledged the uniqueness of the season. With a relatively new and inexperienced team, decision-making was primarily driven by his expertise and the guidance. Despite the challenges, Cifelli emphasized the alignment of the team’s commitment to letting the vineyard dictate winemaking decisions, ensuring that each block’s potential was maximized.

New and Resurging Directions

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Looking ahead, Cifelli expressed excitement about the revival of Unionville Vineyards’ Rhône program. After a period of inconsistency, particularly due to external factors like hurricanes and frosts, the vineyard is experiencing a resurgence in Syrah (Shiraz) production. And new plantings of Roussanne, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc contribute to Unionville’s goal of becoming the East Coast’s emerging Rhône-style wine producer.

Varietals That Define New Jersey

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What grape varietals thrive in New Jersey? Cifelli highlighted Cabernet Franc as a standout red grape. He noted its adaptability across different regions in the state, with varying expressions influenced by local conditions. Cifelli asserted that Cabernet Franc consistently delivers compelling wines, making it a reliable choice for winemakers in the region.

For white varietals, Chardonnay stood out due to its flexibility and ability to adapt to different winemaking styles. Cifelli suggested that Chardonnay serves as a blank canvas, allowing winemakers to create diverse and interesting wines. He also highlighted the variable nature of New Jersey’s topography, soils, and microclimates, making it possible to showcase the diversity of wines within the state.

Unionville Vineyards, Jersey Bites, Marissa Muoio

Cifelli provided an intimate look into the challenges and triumphs of the 2023 harvest at Unionville Vineyards. As we reflect on the insights revealed during my conversation with Cifelli, it’s clear that Unionville Vineyards’ journey through the 2023 harvest season was a testament to resilience, adaptability, and a commitment to producing exceptional wines that reflect the unique terroir of New Jersey, and the ever-evolving landscape of East Coast viticulture.