Westport Rivers Vineyard & Winery in Westport, MA
95% of Westport Rivers internationally award-winning wines are estate-grown from their own grapes. The Farm House Tasting Room and gift shop are open to the public year round. The Vineyard and Winery also hosts many special events and educational activities. Check out their website for more details, and learn about the other wineries of the Coastal Wine Trail at http://coastalwinetrail.com.
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Westport, MA - If you’ve ever dreamed about owning a vineyard, this autumn day would fulfill your fantasy. Under a razor-blue sky, fields of vines glow that special warm shade of green that comes right before the first frost. On the bunches of grapes waiting to go into the crusher, big fat wasps are crawling and buzzing sluggishly. They’re so full of sugar they can barely fly but they still want more. So into the crusher they go, providing a soupçon of protein in some future glass of Westport Rivers Blanc de Blancs. You pick one of the grapes and pop it on your tongue. It’s easy to imagine that taste translated into wine, which is just what Rob and Bill Russell are doing here at the family winery and vineyard.
Rob is the grower and Bill the winemaker. Their synergy has put their business on top of the list of most-admired sparkling wine sources in the East, if not the country. From Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and other grapes they produce a range of sparkling wines that can hold their own with the most prestigious brands on the planet.
But what I want to know is, how did the Russell family decide to focus on sparkling wines? According to the Wine Institute, the sparkling wine/Champagne category represents just 4.4 percent of all wine sales in the country. Massachusetts ranks eighth among all states in consumption of sparkling wines. Was there any marketing thinking behind the Russells’ decision?
When I ask Rob about this, we’re standing outside the barn where the wine is made. Rob’s a young guy with longish hair and a thoughtful manner. He tends to think about every question before he answers. This time, however, he almost laughs out loud. “It was more of a contingency decision,” he says. “This is a fantastic climate for sparkling wines. Not so great for still wines, especially reds. So I wanted us to have a wine to make even if the grapes I grew weren’t terrific.
“In fact, cool climates like ours create the most dramatic sparkling white and rosé wines in the world. The classic cool-climate style is a crisp, refreshing balance between fruit and acidity.
“We don’t stylize our wines with gobs of oak or sweetness. We aim to allow the terroir of the vintage to shine through; we want the wine to taste like the grapes from which it was created. So we ferment most of our wines in stainless steel, which keeps the focus on the grapes and the vintage.”
“Our goal here isn’t to have secrets but to be a facilitator. To act as if this region is ideal for everything is selling ourselves short. What we can do here is brand southeast New England as ‘America’s sparkling wine region.’ That benefits everyone around here—at least everyone who’s making sparkling wine.
“I always wanted to grow vinifera grapes. Our family had a vineyard in New York State near where Dr. Konstantin Frank first succeeded with vinifera vines.” Vinifera are the grapes that are native to Europe and produce the best and most familiar varietals: Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. They are less resistant to weather extremes than native varieties and, especially in northern latitudes, can present challenges to the winemaker. Rob wanted to rise to the challenge but on his own terms.
“When we moved here, in 1982, this area had 35 dairy farms—the greatest number in one town in Massachusetts. It was down to 11 in 2001, and now there are five,” says Rob. One of the Russells’ goals is to preserve this landscape for agriculture. And when you look out across the rows of flourishing vines, you have to hope they succeed.
1989 was their first vintage—a Pinot Noir quickly nicknamed “Pinot Nowhere” by the family. However, 1990 brought the first sparkling wine, the Cuvee RJR. That was the “Aha!” moment according to Rob and Bill. Rob knew he could grow grapes that would make very good wine, and Bill knew that he could make a wine from those grapes that could compete at any level.
By the mid-‘90s, Wine Enthusiast magazine had named Westport Rivers as one of the top five sparkling wine producers in the U.S. Awards and medals quickly followed, and the wines built a reputation.
Rob and Bill seem to shy away from making broad sweeping statements about their wines or the way they grow and make them. Bill puts it this way: “This is all about how the wines grown here taste. Winemaking is driven by what goes on in the vineyard. You’ve seen Rob? He’s bigger than me. So I make wine from the grapes he grows.”
In addition to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Rob also grows Pinot Meunier, one of the classic components of Champagne, and a grape from which it is almost impossible to make decent still wine. Also, says Rob, “it looks like it has something wrong with it.” It rots easily, too. The Champagne region of France, like southeast New England, lies north of the ideal winemaking climate band, so Rob is working with the grapes that have already proven themselves there.
All Bill’s sparkling wines are produced using the traditional Method Champenoise. Still wine is the base. To this he adds a blend of base wine, yeast nutrient and a sugar source. The mixture is sealed, fermented a second time and aged in the bottle, where the carbon dioxide released in the fermenting process produces the bubbles.
Rob is also growing Gruner Veltliner, the Austrian grape that yields such delightful wines in the vineyards along the Danube, west of Vienna. Muscat, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer (“I haven’t proved I know how to grow it yet”) and a grape from Georgia (recent trouble spot Georgia, not the Peach State) called Rkatsiteli.
The results have been notable. The best way to understand the range and quality of the Russells’ wines is to visit the vineyard and taste them. There is plenty to whet your palate.
SPARKLING WINE TASTING
Unless you are driven by a desire for fancy French labels, these wines of comparable quality and much lower price points will make you fall in love with Westport Rivers.
2003 Brut Cuvée RJR
70% Estate Grown Pinot Noir, 30% Estate Grown Chardonnay
—the wine that put Westport Rivers on the international wine map
1996 Extra Dry limited release
100% Chardonnay; 10 years aging on yeast
2000 Blanc de Noirs
87% Estate Pinot Noir, 13% Estate Pinot Meunier
Salmon colored, lush
1999 Blanc de Blancs
100% Estate Chardonnay
“The perfect wine for oysters.”
2001 Imperial Sec
88% Estate Grown Riesling, 12% Estate grown Rkatsiteli
Crisp fruit with a hint of sweetness
1992 Cuvée Maximilian
78% Estate Grown Pinot Noir, 22% Estate Grown Chardonnay.
14 years of bottle aging; very limited —only 491 bottles produced
Photos by Carol Topalian