Can a Veggie Wine Taste Just Like Regular Wine?

By adding a bit of natural flavoring to its rhubarb wine, Portland’s Eighteen Twenty Wines says it can approximate familiar wine styles.

fête rhubarb wine from Eighteen Twenty Wines
Courtesy of Eighteen Twenty Wines
By Katy Kelleher
From our October 2022 issue

Maine has a handful of traditional wineries scattered around the state, but the cool New England climate isn’t particularly conducive to growing grapes. The rich soil and long, muddy springs do, however, yield some other marvelous crops, including the curious, tart cross between a fruit and a vegetable that is rhubarb. “Anyone who grows rhubarb grows too much rhubarb,” says Amanda O’Brien, owner of Portland’s Eighteen Twenty Wines. “It loves Maine winters.” But there’s only so much demand for rhubarb pies, crumbles, and crisps, so what to do with such a prolific crop? For the past seven years, O’Brien and her husband, Alex Denniston, have been squeezing the juice out of the hardy red-and-green stalks, then fermenting and bottling it. Don’t knock rhubarb wine until you’ve tried it, O’Brien says. “It tastes almost exactly like grape wine.”

The couple has found that, by adding a bit of additional natural flavoring, they can approximate familiar wine styles. Some wildflower honey helps create a Chardonnay-like golden wine, for instance, while the tannins from wild blueberries lend themselves to a Pinot Noir­–esque red. Eighteen Twenty’s flagship wine, though, is pure rhubarb. Named Victoria, for the rhubarb variety that’s been popular throughout the state since the 1800s, it has a soft-pink hue and a tart-sweet flavor profile that give the impression of a classic rosé.

In casually conducted blind taste tests, O’Brien says, some people don’t even register that they’re sipping a novel vino, although she and Denniston aren’t out to fool anyone — there’s no mistaking the big, leafy rhubarb on the bottle label — but rather to make a local wine that can stand on its own legs. “I don’t want it to be something you buy with a bag of moose poop to bring home as a souvenir,” O’Brien says. “I want you to reach for it because you’re going to a party or because you’re cooking some great fish for dinner.” And while they’ve dialed in their current lineup, they aren’t done exploring the oenological possibilities of rhubarb. In particular, they’re interested to find out what, if any, impact specific local growing conditions — terroir, to the connoisseurs out there — might have on rhubarb wine. Someday, O’Brien wants to be able to taste an Aroostook blend against a highland blend or a coastal blend. “We’re not quite there,” she says. “Yet.”

Rhubarb wines are available by the glass or the bottle at Eighteen Twenty’s tasting room. 219 Anderson St., Portland. 207-517-0820.