Discovering Fruit Wines and Melomels Made in the Merrimack Valley
Compared to their grape-based brethren, fruit wine is a bit of an oddity in the wine world, and its presence in popular culture can often be comedic in nature. In an episode of “Schitt’s Creek,” for example, Moira — a formerly celebrated soap star played hilariously by Catherine O’Hara — tries to make ends meet by landing a spokesperson gig hawking Herb Ertlinger’s Fruit Wines. Ertlinger is a local vintner who “brings the muskmelon goodness to his oak Chardonnay and the dazzling peach crabapple to his Riesling Rioja.”
Despite such playful use in TV land, the fruit wine category (and, more broadly, the fruit alcohol category) is no laughing matter. Locally, there are several wonderful vineyards and distilleries with quality concoctions if you’re looking to get your fruit fix. (Unfortunately, muskmelon hasn’t made its way to the Merrimack Valley … yet).
Fruit wine is admittedly “quirky,” says Trudi Perry, head winemaker at Alfalfa Farm Winery, an 11-acre spread in Topsfield. “We also make the regulars, like the pinot grigios and the merlots and the cabs, because that’s what people drink,” she says. “And, if you don’t have it [on the menu], [customers] look at you like you have two heads.” She laughs. “People are afraid not knowing what to ask for, and they think it’s safe to order what everybody else does. There’s a lot of posing in wine tasting.”
If they muster the courage to step outside the box, patrons are instantly rewarded with Perry’s fruit-based wines, carefully cultivated from her time living abroad in the U.K. “We made homemade wine in England because we lived in the southwest of England, which is a very temperate place,” Perry explains. “They’ve got everything over there. Blackberries, loganberries, black currants, all kinds.” Here in the Merrimack Valley, along with their traditional estate offerings, Perry produces wine that incorporates blueberries, cranberries, pomegranates and strawberries, following a similar fermentation process to grape wine. “You still have to acid balance, and you still have to have a certain amount of sugar in it,” notes Perry. “And it still ferments — a little more quickly — and what we tend to do is ferment them all the way down to dry and back-sweeten them with cane sugar, so we can have either a very dry blueberry, which is very popular, or the one that we have which is sort of a semi-sweet.”
While their blueberry wine (which received double gold recognition in a past competition) often steals the show, “… [our customers] like the strawberry because it’s made from local berries,” Perry says. “That’s a true hometown wine.” Often sourced from Marini Farms in Ipswich, picking these strawberries is a true labor of love. “Creating strawberry wine is a very labor-intensive process,” says Perry. “We go to one of the local farms to scrounge several hundred pounds of strawberries to make our wine.”
Thankfully, there are plenty of hands to help with the picking. Alfalfa Farm Winery is entirely run by volunteers with regular nine-to-five jobs. Perry, for example, works for an insurance company by day. “We’ve got hundreds [of volunteers] on our mailing list. I normally get about 12-15 people at a time to help, whether it’s bottling or labeling or corking or vineyard work, so about a dozen turn up. And we’ve had some of the same folks that have been coming for eight, ten years. They’re good people. It’s like having a bunch of people on my best friend list. It’s awesome.”
Down the road a way is Willow Spring Vineyards, a small, family-owned and operated farm in Haverhill. The vineyard’s centerpiece is a rustic, 18th-century barn which houses a large tasting room. One of the most popular selections is the rhubarb wine, a dry white that’s been a menu staple since 2010. For the sticklers out there, while rhubarb is biologically a vegetable, it is legally considered a fruit (declared as such in 1947 because it’s often prepared with fruits for dessert, and it helped businesses importing the rhubarb stocks from paying more taxes).
Willow Springs harvests the rhubarb directly from their farm, where they have over 1,000 plants. Brandi Parker, head vintner at Willow Spring, says of the plant, “It is fairly easy to grow and gets used for both the wine and jams we sell.” The fruit wine’s origin began in a colder, modest place. “Back around 2010, we were playing around with a small batch — about 100 pounds — of frozen rhubarb,” Parker says. “We used a home-winemakers recipe book and the recipe called for 90 pounds of sugar to the 100 pounds of rhubarb. It ended up being a lovely dry, white wine. We had customers taste it and they loved it. At the tasting bar, we would have the customers try to guess what it was made with and only two people guessed correctly. Since then, we’ve kept producing rhubarb wine due to popular demand. It’s become our flagship white.”
Dan Clapp is the head mazer (mead maker) at 1634 Meadery in Ipswich who, inspired by a trip to Denmark, left his career as an engineer to open his own tasting room in 2015. Much like the aforementioned vintners, Clapp has witnessed a fervent following for his fruit-based creations (or melomels, as they’re known). “We have used local pears, peaches, raspberries, strawberries, apples, cranberries and more. As our fan base grows, we hope we can keep up with demand. Some fruit mead sells out just weeks after release. Our connection and personal relationships with the farmers like Mike Marini of Marini Farms or Glen Cooke of Cider Hill Farms helps. We have great relationships to keep the fruit coming.”
Unfortunately, like many establishments across the country, business has been less than fruitful for all during the pandemic crisis. “We have lost business with several of our big private events that had to cancel,” Perry concedes. “And they were a very good source of revenue for us. So we’re really feeling the pinch on our private events.” Clapp had to furlough employees when he temporarily shut down the tasting room, and Willow Spring is providing wine deliveries to stay afloat. Despite these challenges, Parker remains optimistic about the future. “Many of our events have been rescheduled, which we are looking forward to. I think most everyone is anxious to get back to work.”
For the latest information on curbside pickups, product availability and event schedules, please visit the respective websites.
Alfalfa Farm Winery
Willow Spring Vineyards