Human beings didn’t invent wines, author Philip Seldon once wrote, we discovered them.
Seldon no doubt would be pleased with a new discovery in western Kent County: the Harvest Ridge Winery, which opened to the public Friday.
While Harvest Ridge may have just officially started popping corks for local wine aficionados, it’s actually taken more than three years to reach that milestone, said Charles R. “Chip” Nunan III, who co-owns the business with his father, Chuck.
A Delaware native, Nunan initially had no thought of going into the winemaking business. He’d first worked in his father’s property cleaning business in Pennsylvania, then came to Dover 10 years ago to take over the local franchise. His life started to change in 2010, when his parents, on a trip to South Carolina, chanced upon a winery “out in the middle of absolutely nowhere,” he said.
A home vintner who had been making batches of basement wine for decades, the elder Nunan decided to put the family’s 175-acre spread near Marydel to use for something other than growing corn.
“My dad figured that if that guy in South Carolina could have a winery out there, then we could do it in Marydel,” Nunan said. “We had all this beautiful land, and we wanted to make our own wine with our own grapes.”
From the beginning, Harvest Ridge has been a family enterprise, Nunan said.
“My dad calls this his ‘300-year project,’ because it’s something for generation upon generation,” he said.
The first crop was planted in 2011 and there now are approximately 15 acres under cultivation with another 35 planned for the near future.
It will take some time: the first few years or so in the life of a grape vine are spent growing and being “trained” so that the best fruit-producing stems lie below a canopy of leaves that helps protect the bunches as they grow.
Although their output does decrease with age, a properly maintained vine can produce good quality grapes for decades.
While details in the production of each vintage of wine differ depending on the variety of grape, after harvesting the collected fruit is crushed and fermented before bottling. At Harvest Ridge, that work is done on site in a large, thoroughly modern production building, full of gleaming stainless steel tanks and piping.
Grapes grown at Harvest Ridge include the Viognier, Merlot, Chardonnay, Malbec, Landot noir, Vidal blanc, and others.
The latter two have been extensively grown in the northern United States and Canada, which somehow seems appropriate since Harvest Ridge’s vintner hails from Ontario.
Page 2 of 2 - A graduate of the University of Toronto, Milan Mladjan has a degree in winemaking he has put to good use for the past seven years.
Winemakers are slowly discovering that Delaware, with its good soil and temperate climate, is a great place to grow grapes, he said.
“Delaware hasn’t had a history of winemaking, but it is an emerging industry, along with New Jersey, Virginia and Maryland,” Mladjan said.
“We’re right in the middle of all of them,” he added.
“We’ve got some great growing soils here,” Nunan said in agreement. “It’s very sandy, which means it drains well and the grapes like that. They don’t like having what we call ‘wet feet.’”
Having dry weather around harvest time actually improves the flavor of wines, Nunan said. The vines tend to take in too much moisture if the soil is wet just before harvesting, diluting the final product.
“You’ll get a much stronger flavor when it’s drier,” Nunan said.
The first harvest, which was processed and bottled in Virginia because Harvest Ridge’s processing plant still was under construction, was better than hoped for, Nunan said. They brought in four tons of grapes, twice the expected amount.
With completion of the processing plant in 2013, all of Harvest Ridge’s future efforts, from planting vines to ringing up sales, will be done on site. That includes varieties of wines made from other fruits, including apples purchased from Fifer Orchards in Camden.
The future, Mladjan said, “looks great.”
“The potential we have here is great,” he said. “Kent County’s main industry is tourism, and we’re another reason to come over, to stop here, or even to extend a stay here.”