Learning about Winemaking with Steve Sawyer of Preston Ridge Vineyard

Interview with Steve Sawyer, Winemaker at PRV:

Photograph of vineyard grounds with event tent. flowers and grapevines in bloom, and a winding rock road.Tell me more about the need for “hybrid grapevines.”
Hybrid vines were made necessary by phylloxera, a microscopic sap-sucking insect, which was transferred to Europe in the mid 19th century. Several hybrids were developed in Europe in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to have several natural defenses against phylloxera. The development of hybrid vines have now become much more prevalent as new vines are constantly being created to make more disease hardy vines, and for the northern climates, more cold tolerant vines. This has made wine grape growing in New England and the northern Midwest much more possible. Many of the Vitis Vinifera (European wine grape species) cannot be grown in CT and farther north, so wineries in northern Connecticut and New England utilize hybrids for winemaking. Of course the wine snobs say the hybrid wines are inferior, but the real test is in the taste buds of the wine drinker and many of the hybrid wine are very good and sell very well.

What grapes do you grow at Preston Ridge and why did you choose them? What factors helped determine this?
Even before we bought the property in Preston, we were investigating whether we could reasonably grow wine grapes, as well as the various options we had for which grapevines we could plant on this property in this climate. A lot of wine terms are French; the word for this is “terroir,” which is the combination of the landscape, the soils, the climate, etc. for a particular site.
The experts told us that we could grow Vinifera on the upper level of our site, but that we should grow Hybrids on the lower level. The lower level would have cold pockets in which would not dry out as fast, creating more fungal issues. The hybrids are more tolerant to the cold and can be disease tolerant as well.
From our research we created a short list of the grape varieties we thought would both work best on our site and make the best wines. This list did not include some of the varieties we would have liked to grow. We eliminated some of what might be called the world’s best varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio and on and on. So to answer your question, we could not grow some of the wines we wanted on our site, but we’ve made up for this somewhat by buying some of these varieties from Long Island, which has a more tolerant climate.
We grow 6 varieties: 3 Vinifera (Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Reisling) and 3 Hybrids (Baco Noir, Vidal Blanc and Traminette). The 3 Vinifera do well in the southern CT climate, and the 3 Hybrids also grow well here and are older, more established varieties. We didn’t want to gamble on some of the newer hybrids, which even though they had a good reputation, they haven’t been fully market tested.

Bunch of green grapes for white winemaking.How do you know when the grape is ready to be picked?
When grapes are maturing (the French call it “veraison”) the grapes turn from green to Red/purple/black for the red grapes, or from green to a golden color for most the whites. We then test a random sample of the maturing grapes for sugar content and for acidity. When they get to the desired level, we harvest.

Do you have different practices of winemaking for different wines?
The red wines are fermented on the skins to extract the red color. The white wines are pressed before fermentation, and only the juice is fermented. The white wine fermentation is also kept cooler to preserve the fruitiness. After fermentation, the wines may go through a number of processes to clarify, age, deacidify and preserve, but these are processes can be different depending on the attributes of the wine.

Do you use oak barrels? Tell me more about why you use them and for which grapes/wines.
Yes, we use oak barrels to age some of our wine. We age most of our reds in oak, and we age our Chardonnay in oak. The barrel aging will impart different flavor profiles to the wines and also will soften the wine profile.

What grapes are in your favorite blend, Steve?
I am not a good indicator of what most people prefer in wines. I tend to like the dryer, tart wines, which are not our best sellers. In fact, most of our tasters (family and some friends or employees) also like the dry wines. We have to consciously make our wines sweeter than we would make for ourselves. Of course we do make some very dry wines, like the traditional reds (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Mélange, a red blend) and some dry whites (Vidal Blanc and Chardonnay) and these are the wines I generally drink. It’s kind of funny, but now I regularly taste wines in the cellar and in our tasting room and I’ve found that I no longer drink that much wine at home.

What is your favorite thing about being a winemaker in Connecticut?
The one thing that gets me going is that people think good wines can’t be made in Connecticut or other cool regions. My goal is to show that good wines can indeed be made in places like CT. Cooler wine growing regions have an advantage in that the grapes usually have better acidity, which is the basis for most of the flavor in wine.
There are many good wineries here in CT and most of them make very good wines. We all just need to maintain our standards so that CT wines will continue to get high marks.

After my visit to PRV and chatting with Steve and Megaen, I learned so much and enjoyed every moment of the experience. I encourage you to head to Preston in eastern CT and stop in at Preston Ridge Vineyard as part of your next Wine Trail trip!


Michelle Griffis

Michelle “Shel” Griffis is an avid wine enthusiast from West Hartford, CT. By day, she works in healthcare communications. In her spare time, she enjoys visiting vineyards and learning about wine, solo or with friends; taking walks, spending time with the people she cares about, and watching HGTV for interior design inspiration.

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