UNLESS you have trained eyes, you could drive the narrow roads winding through the heart of coastal Maine’s wild-blueberry country and never realise you were surrounded by acres of blueberry vines.
They slither along close to the ground, the narrow leaves as green as grass. A field of wild-blueberry vines resembles nothing so much as a vast lawn.
If you visit in late July as the berries near peak ripeness, you may spy glints of blue here and there. Look closely, and troves of berries begin to reveal themselves, nearer to lavender than blue, and tinier than the more familiar plump high-bush berry that makes up most of the country’s blueberry crop.
Wild blueberries are Maine’s bounty, the official state berry and a staple of roadside farm stands in the late summer. They are nutritious, tart and subtly complex. But there are problems: Because of competition, climate change and low commodity prices, farmers are not making enough money to sustain their businesses.
This situation has been more than disturbing to Michael Terrien, a California winemaker who lives in the city of Napa with his wife, Hannah Henry, and four children.
Mr Terrien’s connection to wild blueberries is deep. He grew up in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, just south-east of Portland, not far from blueberry territory, a narrow band that stretches north-east along the coast from southern Maine through far eastern Canada.
Mr Terrien, 51, has been making wine in Northern California for more than 20 years, with experience at Acacia and Hanzell. Now he makes lively chardonnays and pinot noirs under his own label, Terrien, as well as perfumed pinot noirs from the Santa Cruz Mountains under the US Grant label, and a variety of wines at Obsidian Ridge Vineyard in Lake County.
While that’s his job, his obsession is wild blueberries. More specifically, it’s transforming those wild blueberries into sparkling wine, a beverage that he hopes will be not only a delicious expression of his home state but also an aid to keeping farmers in business.
For the past five years, Mr Terrien and Ms Henry, along with Mr Terrien’s childhood friend Eric Martin, and Martin’s wife, Meredith McMonigle, have been making Bluet, a sparkling wine of wild blueberries with nothing added but yeast for fermentation.
They make two styles: One, in tiny amounts, is made using the same method as Champagne, producing first a still wine and then refermenting it in a bottle to produce bubbles. The other, made in larger quantities, is produced like most proseccos, carbonated in bulk in a pressurised tank.
Bluet’s most recent version of the prosecco-style wine, bottled with a screw cap, smelled like violets, roses and, yes, blueberries. It was exuberant yet dry and savoury, and, at 7 per cent alcohol, deliciously easy to drink.
The bottle-fermented wine, packaged like Champagne in a cork-topped bottle, is more contemplative. The 2017 was deeper, subtler, lightly savoury and quietly complex. It, too, was about 7 per cent alcohol, near the upper limit for blueberry wines. Beautiful beverages have been made from cranberries, loganberries, blackberries and even Douglas fir buds. Blueberries? Other efforts I’ve tasted have been cloying and syrupy, better for pancakes than for drinking.
It was one such experience that indirectly led to Bluet (pronounced the Maine way, BLUE-ett). Mr Terrien and Mr Martin were attending a bachelor party in Maine in the late 1990s and were served a blueberry wine.
“It was so sweet, we couldn’t drink it,” Mr Martin recalled. “Michael said there had to be a way to make better blueberry wine than this.” Although called wild blueberries, the fruit is cultivated. Farmers sell primarily to big processors who freeze the berries and sell them for industrial uses, like blueberry-muffin mix. Unlike the high-bush berries, wild blueberries have not been altered.Why sparkling wine? I tasted a still blueberry wine from the 2018 vintage destined to be refermented in bottles. It smelled of blueberries and was dry, but something was missing.
This deficiency might cause a producer to add sugar, as in sweet commercial fruit wines, or to doctor a mediocre chardonnay with oak flavours. But Mr Terrien was determined to make a wine that expressed the spirit of the fruit and the place.
“In order to make it good, it needed bubbles,” Mr Terrien said of the blueberry wine. “Just like Champagne, it needed the bubbles to make an otherwise lower alcohol, meagre wine complete.” In 2014, they made their first batch, 50 cases’ worth, in the same barn where Mr Terrien had been married. It sold out quickly, entirely in the Portland area.
Working without a template, they made mistakes. They added a distinct herbal flavour, which was not unpleasant but perhaps not optimal.
The learning curve has been quick, and each year, the wine has gotten better. “It’s this iconic fruit of Maine, and we know there’s a cipher, a geography, that’s written into it,” he said. “It’s got to be something that speaks of this place.”NYTIMES