Along the country roads of Connecticut, drivers are likely to encounter a marker that, surprisingly, has become a fixture of the state’s agricultural scenery: The Connecticut Wine Trails sign.

CT Wine Trail (Source: ctwine.com/wineries)

Just a generation ago, Connecticut’s grape growers could only produce wine for their own consumption. But with the passage of the state’s Farm Winery Act in 1978, wineries were allowed to establish vineyards, sell wine to the public, and conduct onsite tastings. Today Connecticut boasts 56 vineyards. Not only do these vineyards and wineries serve up a surprising number of high-quality local varietals, they have become popular destinations for weddings, concerts and even yoga classes, and add $154 million to the state’s economy every year.

Connecticut’s Three Viticultural Regions – (Source ttb.gov/wine/ava-map-explorer)

As the distinctive qualities of Connecticut’s wines have evolved, their recognition has also increased. In 1984, the federal government recognized the state’s first official American Viticultual Area (AVA), the Western Highland Region, which includes all of Litchfield County, part of Fairfield, New Haven and Hartford Counties. This was followed in 1988 with creation of the Southern New England AVA region covering thirteen counties and three New England States; Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.  Official appellation as an AVA provides benefits for wineries and consumers alike. Why? By recognizing a region’s distinctive climate, soil, and topographical features– all of which factor into the “character” and taste profiles of the region’s wines, winemakers can highlight the geographic pedigree of their products. Consumers, too, often seek out wines from specific AVAs because they prefer the unique qualities of that region’s wines. To be labeled as a wine from an AVA, at least 85% of the grapes in the wine must have been grown in the AVA, and the wine fully finished in the state where the AVA is located.  

In November 2019, the Eastern Highlands Region, which includes vineyards and wineries in parts of Hartford, New Haven, Tolland, Windham, New London, and Middlesex Counties, became the state’s third official AVA. This was the result of the extensive and painstaking efforts of Steven Vollweiler, owner of Sharpe Hill Vineyard in Pomfret, CT, who conducted the in-depth research on climate, soil, geography, and growing conditions required for the application.  The Eastern Highlands are distinctive in having a mineral-rich soil left by glaciers that moved through the area 10,000 years ago. It’s temperatures are not as mild as the Southern New England AVA nor as cold as the Western Highlands AVA. This distinctive profile has helped Sharpe Hill earn national and international recognition for its wines.   

(Courtesy Sharpe Hill Vineyard)

For all these reasons, my husband and I ventured with great interest to Sharpe Hill Vineyard, to taste wine grown in this new AVA. Located just 30 mins from our home, in the historic area of Pomfret, Sharpe Hill’s beautiful, vine-covered hillsides and colonial setting in The Last Green Valley seemed almost a world away. Both the oldest operating and the largest winery in the Eastern Highland AVA, Sharpe Hill was established in 1996 and produces about 15,000 cases each year.

Arriving at the restored colonial buildings that house the vineyards operations, we were enchanted by the beautiful farm setting and wonderful views of the vineyard, now near harvest. In that it was the first beautiful day after centuries of rain, we quickly  decided to forego fact-finding for wine tasting (with a cheese and fruit box). We started with their most popular wine, Ballet of Angels and ended with their signature port wine. Every sample provided ample evidence for why Sharpe Hill wines have won so many medals. What a thrill to discover such a gem so close to home. We can’t wait to return with friends for wine and cheese.

Husband Conducting Research

This is not the first winery we have visited in the Eastern Highlands Region AVA, and it definitely won’t be the last Our PLAN is to visit wineries from all three AVA’s to get a sample of the distinct characteristics each impart to their wines. It certainly is a nice way to travel through this beautiful state and I hope you have a chance to do so, too. To find a vineyard near you, go to www.ctwine.com.

Join me in raising a glass to toast to Connecticut’s newest American Viticultural Area, the Eastern Highland Region. Cheers!

Marie Woodward