The peninsula of Cape May, much like its flourishing local wine industry, is shaped by its environment: the Atlantic Ocean to its east, Delaware Bay to its west, and a maritime climate that’s envied by winemakers worldwide for those cooling afternoon sea breezes on hot and humid summer days.

“Different chemical processes happen at different temperatures,” said Gary C. Pavlis, longtime viticulture specialist at Rutgers University. “So when you have an array of temperatures like that you get more complex flavors.”

The wine grapevine has become one of the fastest-growing agricultural assets in the Garden State. And some of the state’s strongest growers toil in the south, long defined by its sand rather than its sandy loam soil.

There are seven wineries that fall within the general geography of Philly’s preferred beach-adjacent towns between Atlantic City and Cape May. They also all fit inside the nine-mile-wide Cape May peninsula, which in 2018 was federally designated as an official winemaking territory, allowing its wineries to mark its bottles with geographic labels.

The Cape May Peninsula AVA (American Viticultural Area), as it is designated, covers more than 126,000 acres spread over Cape May and Cumberland Counties. It’s the fourth designation awarded in New Jersey, and among 261 nationwide.

The designation is notable as the Peninsula AVA also sits inside the much larger and overarching Outer Coastal Plain AVA, like a Russian nesting doll of winemaking bureaucracy.

Winemakers successfully argued that its area’s well-defined attribute — its ideal grape-growing climate allows for a longer growing season — was distinct enough to warrant a separate label.

And it’s under those conditions that local winemakers raise all six Bordeaux grapes, notably Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. They’ve also developed non-Bordeaux grapes, such as Chardonnay, Viognier, Albariño, and Pinot Grigio.

“There’s no ceiling as to what grape varieties we can grow there,” Pavlis said.

But if Cape May can lay claim to one signature grape, much like Napa Valley lays claim to Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s the Albariño.

“I worked with a winery from Spain years ago,” said Pavlis, who ran the New Jersey Wine Competition for nearly 30 years, “and they had done research that showed the next-best place for Albariño was Cape May.”

The white grape, specific to coastal regions of Spain and northwestern Portugal, responds to the Peninsula’s salty air and fluctuating temperatures, triggering chemical reactions and adding more complex flavor profiles.

“If you get a cheaper California wine, it’s all fruit. That’s not complexity,” Pavlis said. “And complexity,” which can include spicy, earthy, and briny flavors, “is everything.”

At least two — maybe three — more wineries are on track to open soon on the peninsula, including one near Beasley Point that just needs a name, Pavlis said.

In the meantime, here’s our top five peninsula wineries.

Cape May Winery & Vineyard

It’s appropriate that Cape May’s first winery carries its name.

In 1989, Bill Hayes and his family planted their first grapevines, and incidentally started a movement. In 2003, Toby Craig and his daughter Betsy Sole bought the business and built its signature building.

Today, the Craig family harvests 26 acres spread over four vineyards, and grow 11 grape varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Riesling, and Chardonnay.

At the tasting room, the back patio, which is set before grape rows, is a calming retreat. And it can accommodate groups of eight (up to six inside).

An in-house tapas kitchen offers a fun daily menu (get the hot Nashville chicken slider for $7), but there’s no table service. Live music is on Friday nights.

Traditional tastings are only on Saturdays, and they require an online reservation. The popular alternative are the offered-everyday $15 self-guided flights. They include three, two-ounce flights with your choice of either reds or whites. Try the Merlot: The dry red, aged in French oak for two years, pairs hints of vanilla with a smooth finish.

📍711 Town Bank Rd., Cape May, 📞 609-884-1169, ✉️ manager@capemaywinery.com, 🌐 capemaywinery.com, 📷 @capemaywinery, 🕑 Sun.-Thurs. noon-5 p.m., Friday noon-5 p.m. and 5 p.m.-8 p.m. extended hours for ages 21 and over, Saturday noon-6 p.m.

Hawk Haven Vineyard & Winery

Winemaker Todd Wuerker, who opened Hawk Haven with his wife, Kenna, on family farmland in the late-2000s, takes great pride in his still wines — among them 100% Cabernet Franc and 100% Albariño varietal-labeled wines.

A few years ago, though, he aimed to develop a line of sparking wines for the summer season. So he introduced French grapes into his Rio Grande vineyard, and he strove to bring the Champagne-style winemaking to Cape May.

The result is a Brut, in both blend and style: a traditional blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir varieties, and a traditional style of fewer than 12 grams per liter of sugar. The winery’s signature sparkling offering expresses its Chardonnay character, with an aroma of strawberries, brioche, apples, and honey, and a delicate bubble.

The winery also offers a Pét-nat (short for pétillant naturel, an ancient and rustic style of wine that translates to “naturally sparkling”), and a sparkling Rosé in a can, which is new this summer.

On Sundays, the winery pairs its sparkling wines with a brunch-style menu served from Hit the Road Jack’s food truck, the mobile division of Jack’s Shack Stone Harbor. On Saturdays, the winery hosts live music and Jack’s truck serves its usual offerings of tacos, sliders, tots, and more.

Self-guided flights come in three, two-ounce glasses. And bottles range from $15 to $20.

Tented seating and picnic tables are available, but seating is limited. Groups larger than five people should visit Hawk Haven’s website or call ahead.

📍 600 S. Railroad Ave., Rio Grande, 📞 609-846-7347, ✉️ hello@hawkhavenvineyard.com, 🌐 hawkhavenvineyard.com, 📷 @hawkhavenwinery, 🕑 Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Fri. and Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Jessie Creek Winery

Jessie Creek’s vineyard sits on only five acres, and provides a mix of estate wines and blends, including the Stratus, which consists of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot grapes.

The winery’s intimate tasting room includes tables surrounded by mismatched chairs. Owner Bruce Morrison, a Pennsylvania physician who opened the winery in 2010, is known to pull up a chair to a festive table and talk wine and Shore and life. And Morrison showcases local artists in the winery’s community room, covering the walls each month with a different painter’s artwork (all for sale).

The outdoor seating area feels like a neighbor’s backyard, complete with live music and “Matt’s Family | Taste The Love Food Truck” on the weekends, which has a rotating menu that includes pulled-pork nachos, crab cakes, cheesesteaks, and more. It’s a smaller venue, but they’ve welcomed parties up to 20-plus people, inside or out.

And then there’s The Inn, a renovated 1840s farmhouse at the front of the winery that was converted into a cool five-room Airbnb.

Instead of flights, Jesse Creek offers spirals. It’s $25 for five wines, and you choose from four curated options, or select your own. You can upgrade to include a featured pairing for an extra $10.

📍 1 Rt. 47 North, Cape May Court House, 📞 609-536-2023, ✉️ info@jessiecreekwinery.com, 🌐 jessiecreekwinery.com, 📷 @jessiecreekwinerynj, 🕑 Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-5 p.m., and Fri.-Sun. 11 a.m.-6 p.m.

Natali Vineyards

Alfred Natali, who worked on Wall Street as a network engineer, bought a 22-acre horse farm in the early 2000s and opened a winery. Last summer, Natali sold the Vineyard.

But Natali’s vision for a diversified wine line remains intact, as the vineyard boasts one of the highest grape counts on the peninsula. Mixing American hybrids and natives, the winemakers count 15 unique grape varieties, including Tempranillo from Spain and Nebbiolo from northern Italy. The winery produces nearly 30 wines, and even fruit wines.

The tasting room has a kitchen with a tapas menu, but as long as you’re not sitting inside, you can BYOF (bring your own food) and enjoy the spacious outdoor seating area.

For those who prefer to sit inside, the tasting room was recently given a face-lift. Flights of two-ounce pours of four wines are available for $20. And food trucks will be on-site this summer for “Wine it Down Wednesday.”

📍 221 N. Delsea Drive, Cape May Court House, 📞 609-465-0075, ✉️ natalivineyards@gmail.com, 🌐 natalivineyards.com, 📷 @natalivineyard, 🕑 Mon.-Thurs noon-5 p.m., Fri., Sat., Sun.-11 a.m.-6 p.m.

Willow Creek Winery & Farm

Willow Creek offers the most beautiful setting on this roster, and it’s not even close. Nestled in West Cape May, away from the hordes of beach spreaders and brunch-hunters, the winery manages to carve out its own private sanctuary.

The post-and-beam tasting room — picturesque, hand-carved, and draped in a brick-lined front patio — sits at the back of the vineyard. The result is a surprising sense of intimacy in one of the most popular tourist towns in the state.

A standout was the 2019 Chambourcin, an oak-aged French-American red hybrid grape variety, that finishes with hints of chocolate. The winery offers full-service dining and can accommodate larger groups. A table flight consists of three, three-ounce glasses, and can range from $18 to $27.

📍 168 Stevens St., West Cape May, 📞 609-770-8782, ✉️ info@WillowCreekWineryCapeMay.com, 🌐 WillowCreekWineryCapeMay.com, 📷 @WillowCreekWinerynj, 🕑 Sun.-Thur. noon-6 p.m., Friday and Saturday noon-9 p.m.

How we choose our best lists
What makes something the best? Our recommendations are based on our reporters' deep regional knowledge and advice from local experts. We also strive to represent the geographic and cultural diversity of the city and region. Spot an error or omission? Email us at phillytips@inquirer.com