story and photos by Marichel Vaught
When one thinks of vineyards and wineries, it is often within a setting akin to California’s Sonoma and Napa valleys or the rolling Italian village landscapes. An image of Vermont’s green mountains would more likely evoke maple tapping, rather than harvesting grapes for wine.
Sure Northern California produces some of the best merlots and pinots on the market, but what about marquettes, le crescents and frontenacs? Not familiar with these varietals? They are among the limited number of grapes that can tolerate Vermont’s gelid winters. Fresh Tracks Farm Vineyard & Winery on Route 12 in Berlin has three vineyards, soon to be four, growing such grapes on 14 acres of their property.
Fresh Tracks owner and winemaker, Christina Castegren, bought the land in Berlin in 2002 with the goal of crafting wine from grapes grown on-site. This was to be the first winery and vineyard to open in the capital region.Armed with a background in plant and soil science earned at the University of Vermont, she set to work planting 17 varieties of grapes. Over the following five years, through an immense amount of trial and error, she learned what successfully grew and produced well. Ultimately, it was the ‘cold-hardy’ varieties, hybrids created by the University of Minnesota, that matched best with the local environment as they can withstand extremely cold temperatures, ripen in a shorter season and are resistant to disease. Keep in mind that grape vines remain above ground all year long. At Fresh Tracks, the vines are kept untouched during the coldest months, pruned as the temperatures become warmer and harvested early fall. The grapes they grow are St. Croix, Frontenac Gris, Adalmiina and the earlier mentioned Marquette, La Crescent and Frontenac. Some or all of these grapes are also grown at the 30-plus vineyards now found throughout Vermont. But there can be a noticeable difference in flavor, vineyard to vineyard. For instance, Marquette grapes grown in the Lake Champlain region could produce a wine that’s more spicy and less fruity or vice versa than wines made from the same variety of grapes grown in southern Vermont due to the lake effect or lack of snow cover for the vine.
Castegren isn’t forcing merlot grapes or any other more familiar varieties because they are not conducive to this climate. Her success in achieving flavorful wines is simply “use what you can grow.” The distinct difference between the grapes grown here and those grown in a warmer climate is that here, the level of acidity is higher. Acidity affects the wine’s tart, sour and crisp notes, and is crucial to manage and balance in order to produce good wine. Fresh Tracks does this extremely well. I am not a wine connoisseur by any means. But I know I love wine, especially bold reds. I’m not particularly a fan of white wines or rosés, but when it comes to these lighter-colored wines made in Vermont, I am. The Vermont Rosé, made with St. Croix grapes, is crisp yet bold and earthy rather than sweet and perfumey, which is how most rosés affect my palate.
Not surprisingly, since this is Vermont, Fresh Tracks also taps maple from their own trees. However, this maple isn’t necessarily for your morning pancakes. Fresh Tracks produces a maple wine that is sweet yet complex and considered a dessert wine. Other suggested uses are as a topping for ice cream and as a flavor enhancer when caramelizing onions.
A bit more than 40 barrels produce an average of 2,500 cases a year. These are distributed throughout Vermont and the bottles can be purchased at their Berlin location. They don’t push fermentation or the aging process to meet a set quota. They only bottle and release the wines once it reaches the quality for which they strive, so their production numbers may vary from year to year.
Fresh Tracks is fully operated on-site and is completely hands-on — a tiny tasting lab is set up amongst the barrels that hold the fermenting grapes and the full-time staff of six are all prepared to jump into different roles without question in order to ensure a successful harvest. Assistant winemaker, Hannah Swanson may be found pruning the vines if she’s not checking the barrels or hosting tastings for visitors. Fresh Tracks defines themselves as “a labor of love that stems from a love of labor.” This could not be any truer. The passion for what they do and the pride they have for what they craft is undeniable while listening to Castegren talk about Fresh Tracks’ beginnings and plans for the future, and seeing Swanson’s excitement in detailing the wine-creation process. The operation is so personal and meaningful to them that Swanson said she literally touches every bottle that is ready to go out to the public. Fresh Tracks is a family, where each member is enthusiastic about growing food. Within the acreage is a private farm with a vegetable garden, berry bushes and egg-laying chickens that each staff member tends to and is able to harvest from for personal use.
In 2009, Fresh Tracks opened their tasting room to allow visitors to sample wines and purchase products. It has the capacity to hold small celebrations where Fresh Tracks hosts special events from time to time. Starting May 6, the Friday Night Fires music series will start up again during the evenings on the grounds of the winery during which guests can enjoy wine and a picnic while listening to local musicians amidst a serene setting. Watch out for the return of their Yoga and Wine Nights, which is exactly that — join in on a yoga class and reward yourself afterwards with a glass of wine. Castegren said that another popular event involves painting while sipping wine and that should be starting soon also.
Non-alcoholic products are also available in their shop — Castegren hand-makes maple candy and their grapes are used to make jams and vinegars as well.
You can visit Fresh Tracks Farm Vineyard & Winery Fridays–Sundays, 1–5 p.m. For more information about the winery and to see a list of their wines go to freshtracksfarm.com.