New Jersey might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of Italian wines. But nestled within the Garden State’s diverse terroir, a few winemaking visionaries are crafting exceptional Italian varietals. These wines are a testament to the resilience of viticulture in this region and the passion of winemakers who carry forward their Italian heritage.
I had the opportunity to connect with two of these winemakers. We discussed why their unique respective terroirs in the Cape May Penninsula American Viticultural Area (AVA) and Central Delaware Valley AVA allows Italian varietals to thrive in the state.
Turdo Vineyards and Winery
One such winemaker is Luca Turdo, one of the forces behind Turdo Vineyards and Winery, in Cape May. His journey into winemaking began many years ago, when he assisted his father and grandfather in making wine in their garage. This early introduction to winemaking instilled in him a deep appreciation of wine as an integral part of life.
“In Italy, wine is part of the meal,” Luca says. “It’s just as important as the bread or plate of cheeses.” Growing up with this mindset, Luca’s winemaking philosophy leans toward the Old World style—wines that are “food friendly” and meant to be enjoyed with a meal. Even today, Luca rarely drinks a glass of wine by itself. There’s always something to savor alongside it.
Luca’s personal connection to Italian wine culture and heritage, rooted in his Sicilian background, has a strong influence on his winemaking philosophy. He vividly recalls the “Sicilian Shirley Temples” his nonno would prepare for him and his cousins. (Think 7Up with ice, with a dash of red wine floating on top.) It was a charming, normal part of his childhood, an experience that highlights the integral role of wine in the Sicilian way of life.
Hopewell Valley Vineyards
Also making strides in the realm of Italian varietals is Violetta Neri and husband, Sergio Neri, of Hopewell Valley Vineyards (shown at top). Though not of Italian descent herself, Violetta shares a deep appreciation for Italian culture and viticulture. The two were inspired to plant Italian varietals in Violetta’s vineyard. The Neris knew the varietals would thrive in the Garden State’s terroir.
Sergio comes from a family of winemakers. His father, an engineer, also owned a vineyard in Tuscany’s famous Brunello di Montalcino region. He eventually sold the vineyard, in the late 1980s. He was a businessman in Milan, and it was a tremendous amount of travel to overcome. Sergio’s brother also owns a vineyard in Tuscany, which is solely focused on the production of sangiovese.
Italian varietals like barbera and sangiovese have found a home at Hopewell Valley Vineyards, demonstrating the adaptability of these grapes to New Jersey’s climate. Violetta’s commitment to sustainability and her hands-on approach to winemaking have contributed to the success of Italian varietals at her vineyard.
In the Right Place at the Right Time
What inspired these two winemakers to focus on Italian varietals in New Jersey? Luca says, “Obviously, our background.” Both of his parents hail from Sicily, and the family often indulged in Italian wines, such as Chianti, nebbiolo, barbera, and pinot grigio.
When they established Turdo Vineyards in Cape May, they family knew they wanted to plant the noble grapes of Italy, including nero d’avola, an indigenous Sicilian varietal. The vines thrived in Cape May’s unique conditions — sandy soil for drainage, proximity to the water for a longer growing season, and hot days followed by cool nights that enhance phenolic structure in the grapes. In recent years, they also started growing grillo, a Sicilian white varietal.
Luca emphasizes that the success of Italian varietals in New Jersey depends on the region. “The further south you go, the better for growing Italian varietals,” he notes. Specific varietals like Sangiovese, Barbera, and Dolcetto can be found in certain vineyards. But the choice of clones and vineyard location plays a significant role. The longer growing season in Cape May, with a delayed hard frost, allows grapes to mature fully and attain physiological maturity. This is a crucial factor for the wines’ aroma, flavor profile, and mouthfeel.
Violetta and Sergio are focused on which grape varietals will grow best in their terroir, the Central Delaware Valley AVA. She feels it would be a stretch of one to two hundred years before they could bring more Italian varietals to where they would want them to be due to the climate in Central Jersey. Right now, Violetta and Sergio are focused on producing the best quality old-world wines possible. Perhaps Nebbiolo is not too far off in the future?
New Jersey and Winemaking: Perfect Together
While New Jersey may not usually be synonymous with Italian wine, the Garden State’s diverse terroir and dedicated winemakers like Luca Turdo and Violetta and Sergio Neri prove that Italian varietals can flourish here. These winemakers’ journeys and the unique conditions of the Garden State are paving the way for a growing appreciation of Italian wines in New Jersey, one bottle at a time.