Maiden harvest

Posted Oct. 03, 2008, at 6:13 p.m.

It took Todd and Treena Nadeau seven years to get to this point.

Seven years of searching for the right property, felling and digging out the roots of countless evergreens, leveling the earth and planting the vines.

Seven years of building their home and a tasting, testing and fermenting barn.

But on this night — a simply superb early fall evening, with the low sun throwing ribbons of light through the vineyard — they will reap the bounty. The Nadeaus will harvest their first commercial crop of grapes at their Dragonfly Farm and Vineyard.

By day, the Nadeaus are full-time technicians with the Air National Guard in Bangor, using their military travels to hone their wine palate and preferences.

By night, they are vintners.

First to arrive for the harvest are Todd’s parents, Rita and John Nadeau, who moved from Jackman to be a part of the winery process. Three friends arrive, bringing sandwiches, chips and enthusiasm, and the real work begins.

The clusters of grapes are carefully snipped from the vines, drowsy bees making it a bit challenging to reach into the canopy.

Buckets of grapes are brought to Todd, who weighs each one and then dumps them into a separator. A bottle of blueberry wine is opened and workers get little drinks as a reward.

The grinder smashes the grapes and strips them from the stems. Next the mash is poured into a bladder press. The “first run,” pure grape juice, pours on its own from the press, filling the air with its distinctive clean, grape aroma.

When the bladder is activated, more juice is pressed from the mash.

Treena had her yeast mixture ready and growing and had tested the sugar content of each row of grapes.

“This is the best year,” Todd said. “Twice what we grew last year.” A dry September also increased the grapes’ sugar content.

—ä—

The couple bottled the last two years’ worth of grapes for personal use. This year, after a seven-month wait, they have the federal and state permits necessary for commercial sales.

Although the couple already sells Blueberry Bliss, Raspberry Riot, and Four Friends, a blackberry wine — wines they created earlier this summer — this is their first commercial harvest of grapes.

“Last year we produced 70 gallons [of white wine], and that was a test,” said Todd. “We had to keep that for personal use. This year, we will make 300 gallons. We’ve already bottled 160 gallons of blueberry.”

Even though the grape wine being created this fall — named Clarity — won’t be ready until next spring, it is an exciting time.

“I look at the pictures of what this vineyard looked like before we started and I can’t believe it,” Treena said. “Every single pole in that vineyard, we cut that tree and we pulled the bark.”

Despite the years of work that brought them to this harvest, the Nadeaus said it has been fun and rewarding. “Our goal is about 100 cases a year,” Todd said. “We want to keep it small enough to keep it fun.”

And that is the essence of Maine agriculture, an industry built on small family farms that have found a specialty, a niche in which to be profitable.

Maine’s wine industry is young. Not too long ago, a suggestion of establishing a winery in Maine would have been greeted with laughter. But with new, more cold-resistant varieties of grapevines being developed, the industry is getting a foothold in the Northeast.

There are about 13 wineries from Portland to Washburn, and most of the wine produced is made from fruit other than grapes, including apples, cranberries and blueberries. Some grape wines also are produced, using fruit imported from New York, California and the Pacific Northwest. But only a handful of Maine wineries produce wine from locally grown French hybrid grapes, such as the Nadeaus’.

“Maine is a very cold climate” for viticulture, Todd said, and that is why many Maine grape growers site their vineyards near the coast, for moderating effects from the sea.

The Nadeaus picked “les matines,” or land that catches the early morning sun. They are careful with drainage and made the surprising discovery that the soil tested perfectly for a vineyard.

Most of their grapes are a variety of Riesling, a white, sweet grape. “Riesling is the platform for all the others,” Todd said. Because the Nadeaus use specialty varieties developed in upstate New York, their vines are vigorous, withstand harsh winters and produce enough sugar in the grapes to reach 12.5 percent alcohol.

In recent years, U.S. and Eastern European researchers have crossed hardy with more delicate winemaking varieties. Many state agricultural agencies see winemaking as so valuable that they are pushing grape research.

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As the last of the harvest is crushed, the mash is added to the yeast in stainless-steel vats and the lid is sealed. “That’s the secret,” Todd said. “You need to just leave it alone.” About mid-March or early April, the mash will have fermented and bloomed into a clear, white wine.

This winter, the couple hope to make a batch of ice wine, wine made with the sparse juice of grapes that have been at 17 degrees Fahrenheit or below for at least three days. “You press them frozen and there is very little juice. It’s a premium product,” Todd explained.

“Really, all we want to do is have fun and have a good wine,” Todd said. “It’s not a real complex plan.”

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