Greenvale's Winemaker Richard Carmichael

By Maria Chiancola / Photography By Chip Riegel | September 01, 2013
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Grape vines at Greenvale Vineyards

Supporting local wineries does not mean sacrificing quality. In fact, one can experience the terroir of New England and celebrate local agriculture while enjoying a delicious and satisfying glass of wine that competes in the global market.

This becomes abundantly clear when you taste the 2007 Greenvale Vineyard Cabernet Franc.

Growing and producing wines that successfully capture the terroir of New England comes with its fair share of difficulties. Greenvale's winemaker Richard Charmichael says, "Each year brings new challenges."

Our summers, while glorious, are often too brief for growing and harvesting grapes for wine. That translates into under-ripened grapes from which a host of other problems can ensue, ranging from lack of sugar to far too much acid. Carmichael welcomes the challenges but is also keenly aware of the problems that arise from our climate.

"The big thing for us," he explains, "is our short growing season, compared to just about anywhere else. So there is definitely very strong vintage variation. There is no 'typical year'; sometimes a particular vintage will remind you of another but they are never exactly the same."

When asked why he would choose to make wine in Rhode Island, particularly after studying winemaking at University of California, Fresno (tops in the industry), he smiles with authentic affection and explains, simply, he always wanted to live in New England.

Carmichael joined Greenvale Vineyards in 1997. Located on the Sakonnet River in Portsmouth, it's one of many quality producers on the Coastal Wine Trail.

The vineyard produces roughly 3,500 cases of wine annually on 24 acres, which keeps Carmichael involved in all aspects of the winery work and busy all year long. He uses the facilities at Newport Vineyards to produce and bottle the wine.

So how does he contend with the challenges?

Carmichael says, "I focus on what works." In other words, he concentrates on the varietals that flourish in their environment, like Cabernet Franc, which performs well in this climate. On the technical choices and strategies to minimize variations and difficulties, he laughs, "I just do it . . . add yeast and stand back."

When pressed, he admits there is a bit of scientific work that can help – methods for stabilization, macerations and a technique called fining, among other things. He prefers to work with the wine as early as possible and believes that the juice responds to this kind of work better when it is early in the process. For Carmichael, it's just an awareness, what he calls "a sense of winemaking."

There are certain things beyond the control of the winemaker, Carmichael explains, like weather. For example, September is a critical month when sustained heat is needed to ripen the grapes and achieve the necessary alcohol levels.

So much of the process is conceded to unpredictable weather, yet Carmichael is at peace with this particular reality. When asked about his approach, he tilts his head in a gesture of calm acceptance and admits, "You get what you get."

What we get from Carmichael is quality wine. His is not a local novelty wine to take home to a friend but rather a delicious Cabernet Franc to pair with a mouthwatering meal. According to Nick Zieser, a highly respected Rhode Island distributor with an outstanding palate, "We seem to be on the cusp of acceptance by consumers (and the trade) for the quality work of the local growers and vintners. Owing in part to the quest to serve and support local farmers, growers and producers from chefs and gourmands alike, we are seeing more and more farm-to-table restaurants that are celebrating local wines. He continues, "On the heels of premium restaurants promoting local sourcing of their product, the local wine industry is poised for greater exposure at the restaurant and retail level – to take advantage of this movement."

Cabernet Franc is most often thought of as a blending grape, particularly in Bordeaux blends both from France and here in the United States. It is more delicate and subtle though no less powerful than Cabernet Sauvignon. It lends itself to cooler climates because it ripens earlier than that more popular grape.

On the palate, it is softer and lighter, and it has ripe currant aromas, subtle leafy and herbal notes, a taste of plump plum fruits, a touch of spice and soft supple tannins on the finish. It is a versatile grape, as wine critic Jancis Robinson explains: "It is subtly fragrant and gently flirtatious . . . and just so easy to drink." The list of food options is quite long but roasted lighter meats or grilled vegetables would do well, or a stinky washed-rind runny cheese and a crusty baguette would be a fine match.

At a visit to the rustic tasting room at the vineyard, I am struck by the quality of all of the Greenvale wines as we taste through them. Carmichael smiles broadly as he opens the 2007 Cabernet Franc.

"Try this," he says, as he pours it in my glass. I sip, and I understand the satisfaction in his smile. His hard work under increasingly challenging conditions has paid off; the wine is delicious. It is bright and fresh, with aromas of raspberries, blueberries and herbs. It has a smooth, supple feel in the mouth, and tastes of plump ripe fruit. It's delicate but full flavored and has balanced acidity and tannins.

This is not simply a go-local wine but rather a wine that can transport you to Aquidneck Island in the heat of summer where the aroma of beach roses mix with lavender and rosemary, blueberries in bloom, ripe raspberries and the ocean still lingering in your clothes while you shake the last grains of beach sand out of your towel.

Despite the challenges of our climate, Carmichael has succeeded in capturing the sense of Aquidneck Island soil, air and rolling green pastures overlooking salty ocean waters. His wine bespeaks Rhode Island.

Find it

582 Wapping Rd.
Portsmouth, RI
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