The New Harvest

At the frontier of fruit wines, Maine winemakers are innovating with local ingredients.

Photo courtesy eighteen twenty

For more than a decade, Maine has cultivated a reputation as a standout destination for beer and breweries. While Maine’s climate dictates that wine is traditionally considered a libation sourced “from away” with grocery stores filled exclusively with old-world or West Coast bottles, a new crop of adventurous artisans are thinking outside the box to create new and innovative wines made with ingredients that thrive in Maine’s landscape.

After decades in Napa Valley, veteran winemaker Michael Terrien returned to his home state, explaining that he was craving “the physical process of getting my hands dirty making wine.”  Far from the grape-heavy vines of California, Terrien began to ruminate on the Maine blueberry: “It’s an extraordinary, indigenous fruit that’s grown here since the end of the Ice Age,” he said. The winemaking term “terroir” describes the particular characteristics of a grape that are shaped by physical environment and climate. Terrien couldn’t imagine a more evocative relationship than between Maine’s rugged landscape and its signature fruit. After some fermentation and experimentation in his uncle’s barn in Jefferson, Terrien, alongside his childhood best friend, novelist Eric Martin, launched Bluet, a sparkling wild blueberry wine.

Push away all thoughts of blueberry pie and saccharine fruit wines. Terrien described the Bluet flavor profile as “herbaceous yet floral,” more akin to cider than a traditional wine. He invited drinkers to savor the piquant, fermented feel that captures the salty, granite-strewn terroir of Maine blueberry fields.

Terrien credited Bluet’s success to a wider trend for low-alcohol beverages, as well as a more general youth-driven movement that rejects the status quo of the fine wine market, opening the door to Bluet and others of its ilk: adventurous, natural, and a little funky. “There’s a desire to reframe what defines quality and value,” he said. The cans can be found in a few hundred locations across Maine, from Rising Tide Coop to Hannaford Supermarket, and even on the menu at Duckfat and Luke’s Lobster in Portland.

Photo courtesy eighteen twenty

What began as an experiment has shaped into a “mission-driven” brand that aims to support local blueberry farmers with a robust, year-round wine market. To achieve this, Terrien stated that he welcomes competitors. “We really need more winemakers to expand the market, to create a proof of concept,” he said.

That call was answered in 2019 by a trio of local gourmands turned winemakers. RAS Wines is the brainchild of founders and friends Dan Roche, Joe Appel, and Emily Smith (RAS is an acronym of their last names). All former employees of Rosemont Markets, the venture is the natural conclusion of a shared passion for the connection between food and farming. The trio spent so much time immersed in the worlds (and shelves) of wines and farm-to-table food, that after a while, the idea of a farm-to-table wine became too tempting to ignore.

“Our first vintage was produced in 2020,” said Appel. “The process is actually shockingly similar to that of grape wine.” Since then, RAS has sourced wild Maine blueberries from a handful of local farms across the state. The 2023 harvest was sourced exclusively in partnership with the Passamaquoddy Tribe with berries harvested from tribal land. The fruit was then processed using the traditional “ foot-stomping”  technique, with the naturally occurring yeast on the blueberry skin acting as the wild fermentation agent. According to Appel, the brand’s best-known bottle is Arkadia, “a bone-dry, crisp and vibrant” sparkling wine with “savory, slightly spicy, and peppery” notes. Thanks to the naturally high acidity of blueberries, RAS wines tend to be lower in ABV, something Appel had championed for a long time as a former wine columnist for the Portland Press Herald, emphasizing that lower alcohol leads to a more versatile wine. “Our wines have natural pairings with salty and acidic foods, like pizza and charcuterie,” he said. “They also go surprisingly well with barbecue, and shine with umami-rich flavors like tamari.”

Photo courtesy RAS

Arkadia and other blends, including A7 Americano, an aromatized wine, are widely available in small grocers and co-ops across Maine. You can buy bottles online or find RAS as far afield as Texas and Georgia, using the store locator on the brand website.

On Anderson Street in Portland, the bright teal-blue tasting room of eighteen twenty wines is as distinctive as the wine on offer. The brainchild of husband-wife team Amanda O’Brien and Alex Denniston, the boutique winery hand-produces a range of wines made primarily from rhubarb grown by local farmers. Like blueberries, rhubarb is highly acidic and naturally low in sugar, creating a tart wine that is a world away from the syrupy fruit wines of old. According to O’Brien their wines “are often mistaken for a traditional French rosé, pinot grigio, or sauvignon blanc.”

At the tasting room, you can sample any of the eighteen twenty’s various blends and bottles, including Victoria and Fete, two blush-colored bottles made from Maine rhubarb that showcase the delicious, dry “zing” of the fruit. Other bottles feature blends of locally grown ingredients, including blueberries, strawberries, and Maine wildflower honey. The taproom allows newcomers to sample each pour and learn the nuances of fermented fruit wines.

If something piques your fancy, bottles are available at the tasting room, at more than 50 Maine stores, and via the eighteen twenty wine club that ships bottles directly to your door during select months.

While the wine aisles of our stores may remain loyal to grape-grown wines, a small but growing faction of fruit winemakers has proven that there’s room for Maine farmers and consumers to benefit from unique and innovative new wines.

Story by Saisie Moore. Saisie is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Maine.

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