On a summer afternoon, the view from the patio of the Charlotte Village Winery is magnificent -- hazy blue mountains and dramatically lit clouds loom above an expanse of short, gnarled trunks covered in dark-green leaves. It could be a scene from the French wine-growing region of Alsace, except that the "vines" are incongruously tall and bushy. That's because they're actually highbush blueberries. William and Colleen Pelkey, who own and run a 25-year-old U-Pick operation off Greenbush Road just west of Route 7, grow 10 acres of blueberries and not a single grape. But that hasn't stopped them from winning honors in the American Wine Society's 2001 Commercial Wine Competition, including a gold medal for their Midnight Blue Dry wine and a silver for their Country Blue Semi-Dry.
Blueberry wine? Wine snobs aren't the only ones likely to be skeptical about the plum-colored vintage. Wines made from fruit other than grapes have a reputation for being sickly sweet as well as earthy and homespun -- suitable for a picnic on the green in peasant skirts, perhaps, but not for a well-appointed table and formal wear.
Yet there are definite advantages to drinking wine made from the homely northern blueberry: It's the fruit highest in antioxidants, which may help stave off cancer and heart disease by metabolizing free radicals in the bloodstream. While the benefits of moderate red wine consumption have been touted for years, a 2003 study by the Tufts University Human Nutrition Center found that blueberry wine is higher than any grape wine in "ORAC" -- or oxygen radical absorbance capacity.
As for the problem of excessive sweetness, it may be an issue to take up with the winemaker, not the fruit. Most fruit wines actually need some added sugar to be palatable, because the fermentation process converts natural sugars to alcohol. But in the right hands, fruit wine doesn't end up tasting like a wine cooler.
The Pelkeys have been making wine since 1999 and selling it since 2001. It started when a hobbyist friend asked for some blueberries in order to try a wine recipe. Soon the Pelkeys and their grown son Will were experimenting with winemaking, too -- including with other fruits. "It was kind of like a fever," Colleen recalls. As their efforts became more professional, they hired an out-of-state wine consultant to evaluate the results.
In the early days, the Pelkeys held tastings on the porch of their house. In 2003, they began building the present winery, a handsome, red-roofed, pine-sided structure that opened to the public just last month. On the upper floor is the spacious, dark-raftered tasting room and retail shop, where visitors can sample the vintages and pick up a Charlotte Village Winery T-shirt. Through a large, plate-glass window, they can overlook the first-floor workshop and get a glimpse of some winemaking paraphernalia: a barrel of raspberries with a weighted cover undergoing its first few days of fermentation; tall, stainless-steel tanks in which imported grapes are busy fermenting; 14 oak barrels in which blueberry wine is aging and soaking up flavor, which can take up to a year.
The process of making blueberry wine begins in August, after the last pickers have gone through the fields. The berries are harvested by machine and brought to a sorting shed, then dumped into a barrel, still in their skins, and mixed with sugar water and yeast. The sugar is needed because blueberries are lower in natural sugars than grapes, and it must be carefully calibrated to ensure the target alcohol content. After an initial five days of fermentation, the wine is "racked," or filtered, then transferred to stainless steel tanks.
During the fermentation process, the winemakers assiduously measure temperatures and sugar levels. Individual taste influences the process: for instance, a lower temperature yields a wine with a stronger, fruitier "nose," while a higher temperature produces one with a deeper color, William says. After two or three weeks, the brew reaches a measure called "zero Brix," meaning that its sugars have been entirely converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide.
Next comes the sojourn in oak barrels -- longer for dry wines, shorter for sweeter ones. The last step, bottling the wine, takes place on a three-generation assembly line. William and Colleen Pelkey prep the bottles and pass them to their two teenaged grandchildren, who cork them using a three-legged metal apparatus. Their uncle Will packs the corked bottles in cases. "We can do a case a minute," says Colleen. "You know how teenagers are -- they're in competition with each other."
What would Miles, the Merlot-hating oenophile from the movie Sideways, make of blueberry wine? Hard to say. But to an easier-to-please palate it tastes pretty good. Those who have tried in vain to detect the "blueberry accents" critics find in some grape wines will be pleased to discover that this wine really does taste like blueberries. At the same time, you won't mistake it for a cheap fruit cordial. The Midnight Blue Dry really is dry, neither sugary nor overly acidic. The Semi-Dry has a brisk, bracing taste. And even the Moonlight Blue, a dessert wine, retains a hint of the tonic tartness of fresh blueberries. "Sprinkle it on cheesecake or angel food cake and then have a glass on the side," Colleen suggests.
Given Vermont's savage temperatures, growing wine grapes -- which bask at an average 65 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit on the West Coast -- isn't a great proposition. But that doesn't stop the Pelkeys from trying their hands at classic grape wines. A few years ago, they began importing heat-pressed grapes from the Lodi region of California. They receive the fruit in the form of a heavy juice and put it through the fermentation process. A light Gamay Beaujolais and a crisp Pinot Grigio are on sale at the winery; a Merlot and a Cabernet are aging in oak and will be ready next year.
The Pelkeys also make raspberry wine from Putney fruit and strawberry wine using berries from the Mazza Farm in Colchester. They sell a selection of their wines through Burlington-area retail outlets such as Cheese Traders and City Market; they hope to sell from their upcoming website by winter, when winery drop-ins will be scarce. At the winery, prices are modest, ranging from $9 for the Moonlight Blue to $14 for the oaked Midnight Blue Dry. Unlike grape wines, blueberry wine doesn't "mature" with age, Colleen says, and buyers should drink it within two or three years.
Both in their sixties, the Pelkeys are knowledgeable about their craft, but unpretentious. Ordering wine in restaurants, Colleen says, they generally refuse a test glass and ask the server to "bring it on."
"I tell everybody, 'You're the judge,'" says Colleen, who presides over the daily tastings at the winery. "If you don't like it, it doesn't mean you're wrong." Still, informed approval is welcome. She recalls an encounter, when the family was still selling wine on the porch, with a visitor who was a formidably qualified taster of the Miles variety. After hearing his expert critique of a friend's grape wine, Colleen asked the connoisseur to try her blueberry version.
"He said, 'No,' just like that," she remembers. "I said, 'You really know your wines. We're just starting out, and I'd like you to give us good advice.' Well, he took a sip of the wine, looked at me, and said, 'Somebody knows how to make a good blueberry wine.'" Though the oenophile didn't buy any wine that day, Colleen says, "It made me feel really good, because he wasn't ready to give phony compliments."
That's something the Charlotte Village Winery doesn't seem to need.