Know your farmer, know your food; Sweet Pea Cheese
If your build it the will come; King Arthur Flour


image from Celebrations, when we think of a mile stone in our lives or a day marking a grand achievement, we naturally think of toasting to it with a little bubbly. Champagne, Blanc de Blancs, Sparkling Wines, these titles are all synonymous with celebration. Thus when I was asked to write a piece on Champagne in New England I did not know where to turn, the topic had a wide array of possibilities. It was only after discussing the topic with many of  our local experts, that all roads led to Westport Rivers, a Massachusetts winery making great strides into the Celebration of life here in New England.

*Now before we get too ahead of ourselves, let us take a minute to establish what exactly defines the effervescent wines, most generally referred to as Champagne. A very broad definition of all of the above is those wines which pop when opened, giving off copious amounts of carbon dioxide bubbles. More technical definitions are based on levels of carbon dioxide and are usually what determines the taxes levied on the drink, a good reason behind why it can be so pricey. From country to country people toast image from with a similar drink under varying names, in Germany it is referred to as Sekt, the Italians call it Spumante, the Spanish and Portuguese label theirs Espumoso, Russians drink Shampanski and if they are not consuming Champagne in France, it is Mousseux.  Why the name Champagne? In the region of France known as Champagne (Yes!, it is actually a region, like New England), the drink was discovered in the wine cellar of a Benedictine Abbey in the town of Hautvillers, some time between 1668 and 1715. One year the wine was bottled early due to exceptionally cold weather, it had not finished fermenting. By spring, when the weather became milder, the wine began to ferment again in the bottle. It is reported that the surprised monk in charge of the cellar, upon opening one of these bottles of wine shouted "Come quickly, I'm drinking stars."  He went by the name of Dom Perignon. Today it is the product of this region that sets the standards to which all other sparkling wines aspire. Only sparking wines made from grapes of the region and in the region can be truly called Champagne. However, wines produced from the same method elsewhere have garnered much attention and merit by world wine authorities, and thus we come to Westport, Massachusetts.

About 40 years ago Bob and Carol Russell met, eventually finding they had a common love for one another  and the land. Their lives brought them from New Jersey farmlands outside of New York City to the Southeastern shores of Massachusetts, where they have spent the past 35 years. As time passed they watched the lush agricultural land they had grown up in become a concrete jungle. By 1982 they realized his career as a metallurgist and her duties as a homemaker were not satisfying the ambitions they had for themselves, the family they had created and the land. Their idea was to start something together, which could be worked on as a family and sustain the declining agricultural environment. After being given a home wine making kit 10 years earlier, Bob Russell had turned that hobby into a passion and grapes had become the front runner on their possible list of crops to grow. The venture was not entered into lightly. While many agricultural crops can be replanted year after year leaving room for error. Crops like hops used for beer or grape vines for wine require a 30 year planting obligation, as they will root up to 50 feet below the earth's surface. Despite what skeptics proclaimed, the Russell's realized there were many similarities between the climate of Southeastern Massachusetts and that of the wine growing regions of Champagne and Alsace, where some of the world's finest grapes are grown. Thus a century’s old farm overlooking the Westport River was purchased and vines were planted.image from

Today this venture stands as our region's largest vineyard and planting of viniferous vines. What is a viniferous vine you ask? In simplest terms, there are three types of Vines to plant. The first are native, they are very hardy vines, able to withstand the New England elements. An example of a native grape is the concord, not known to make the finest of wines. The second type of vine is viniferous, it is delicate and needs much attention to help withstand the elements here. The most well known grapes, such as chardonnay, merlot and cabernet all come from viniferous vines. The third type of vine is known as the French hybrid, which is a blend of the first 2 types of vines. Most local wineries plant French hybrids because they produce a grape which makes a nice wine while being hardy enough to stand up to our northeastern weather. The Russell’s chose the viniferous vine based on the quality of what they intended to produce. In 1984 the first vines were ordered and by 1989 the first harvest was in. They have been selling wines since 1991.

image from The types of grapes grown at Westport Rivers are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Minet and Johannesburg Riesling, all cool climate grapes. 55% of the wines produced are still, or traditional style wines and the remaining 45% of the wines produced are vintage sparkling wines. As in Champagne they use only grapes from their vineyard and those of the same year to produce these wines. The grapes are all hand picked and pressed lightly, then allowed to ferment in the bottle which they are sold. The different varieties available are Westport Brut, Cuvee RJR, a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Blanc de Blancs, 100% Chardonnay, Imperial Sec, 100% Johannesburg Riesling, and Blanc de Noir, from the Pinot Noir grape. These wines have been awarded gold medal from such distinguished organizations as the American Wine Society and Tasters Guild International. Of Westport River's sparkling wines, Madeline Kamman, founder of the School for American Chefs at Beringer Vineyards stated "They can't do this in California...many in France are not this good."  The Wine Enthusiast has touted them as "One of the 'Great US Sparkling wine producers." These compliments are not only due to the vision of Bob and Carol, but also to the efforts of their sons Robert and William, who manage the vines and make the wine respectively.

Now, for those of you who are still dubious about local bubbly, I was also unconvinced, until I tried it that is. While in Boston this past week I had to go to three stores which carry their wines before I found one that was not sold out of their sparkling wines and I took the last bottle, a 1994 Brut, from the one where I found it. In trying to track down their wine I was most impressed to find the wine merchants to be huge fans of these wines and what I feel is one of the biggest testimonies to the quality of it, they were all proud to be selling it. Remembering all those youthful experiences with the "champagnes" my friends and I could afford, I was still skeptical. However, with the first glass, I could understand what that Benedictine monk was feeling when he uncorked the first bottle of champagne. The bubbles are exquisite, neither obtrusive nor intrusive of the creamy taste of the wine. It is a light ethereal wine, not heavy or sweet, something to be enjoyed with good meals rather than kept hidden for wedding toasts or a retirement send off.

image from For those of you who are now intrigued with Westport Rivers, the good news is they have an annual Independence Day Gala on the grounds of their winery, when they uncork the new releases of their champagne style wines. This year it will be held on Saturday June 27th. All who attend wear white and will be listening to jazz under the evening skies while enjoying a feast prepared by Chef Wayne Gibson, starting with local Cutty Hunk oysters and local freshwater caviar. The bad news is attendance is limited and you have to start making plans for it now. As for the future of their sparkling wines their intention is to continue to be a force in the market, improving the quality of each of the wines they sell rather than pushing to increase the volumes of what they sell.  Where Bob and Carol Russell are expanding is in reclaiming the local land for farming. Recently they purchased another farm and are planting hops, barley and pumpkins. At this site plans are underway for a micro brewery which their youngest son will manage. As for their daughter, she only has the simple task of making sure all these properties are green and lush with flowers.

So, if you are planning an occasion or are in need of finding one, it is highly recommended that you search out Westport Rivers. For it is truly a celebration of our land and what we are capable of creating on it, that the Russell family has established in these wines.

First Published in Cooks Source
, 1998

Photo Credit: Westport Rivers and


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The comments to this entry are closed.