I was fortunate to spend a chunk of the pandemic out in the country quiet of Rhode Island, more specifically in the bucolic Little Compton / Tiverton area. To the extent that the region is known, it is known for having been inhabited for a very long time, by U.S. standards; the church cemetery anchoring Little Compton’s modest town center is said to be the final resting place of the first caucasian woman born in the New World. Another claim to fame are the handsome gray stone walls dividing the lush green landscape, comprised (in a sturdily practical New England way) of the rocks pulled from the hay fields.
It is a place of maritime influence, often cold and wet, with a glorious and all-too-short summer—in short, a rather unforgiving terroir. And yet wine has been grown there for a long time, too. Preeminent is the beautiful Sakonnet Vineyard, founded in 1975 and now called Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard, after Carolyn Rafaelian, a native of the state who bought the place in 2012. Its moniker remains “New England’s Oldest Winery.” The facility, though open only for drive-through pickup while I was out there, enjoys a scenic location that’s a fun place for tastings.
Wanting to drink local, while not actually pestering the locals, I acquired a few bottles of Sakonnet’s flagship wine, the nonvintage Rhode Island Red blend. The handsome Rhode Island Red chicken is the proud state bird (and, in a unrelated note, contributes to the title of a PG-13 toe-tapper from Ike and Tina Turner.) I found the wine itself similarly bold—too dense for every night, but a jammy blackberry bomb with enough edge to be perfect with ribs or (in my case) a beef stew.
The first evening I opened a bottle, I found myself surprised by a Proustian moment; the Chancellor, Cabernet Franc, and Lemberger blend reminded me of… something from years before, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Something that put a smile on my face.
The wine offers predominant notes of tart cherry jam—or maybe good cocktail cherries—and spicy notes deriving from the Cabernet Franc. A deep burnt red in the glass, the body is notably light, with a long rustic finish of stewed fruit. It drinks unlike nearly anything you’d find in the standard sections of a wine store. And yet I recognized it, from somewhere.
This puzzling sensation lead to a rather pleasant research rabbit hole. Cab Franc is of course not especially uncommon. I was vaguely familiar with Chancellor, having had some over the years from various U.S. wineries, mainly from the Finger Lakes of New York. A French hybrid common in cooler regions of the States (and no longer grown in France, so far as I know), the grape, according to AppelationAmerica.com, produces “unassuming” wines. It’s made in almost three dozen North American AVAs.
Lemberger was another matter. I thought I had no familiarity with the grape until a bit of googling revealed that the late-ripening varietal is more widely known as Blaufränkisch. Common in Germany and much of Eastern Europe, this was the main source of my Rhode Island Red’s tannic grip, and contributed some blunt-force spice.
The grape was also the source of the nostalgic twinge the wine induced in me.
Some decades ago, living hand-to-mouth as an English teacher in what was then Czechoslovakia, a buddy and I took the early train over the border to Hungary, to visit the town of Győr. In our rucksacks was all we needed: some rough bread and cheese, a loose, bright red sausage redolent of paprika, a knife, and, probably acquired near the train station, a bottle of Egri Bikavér. Bull’s Blood, as it is known here, is made from what Hungarians call Kékfrankos—literally, “blue Frankish.” That was the unusual, unctuous note that plucked an emotional string. The flavor that sparked unexpected cheer.
What had it cost us? Maybe three bucks? And had we ever been happier with a bottle?