Well this was my tenth visit or so out to the northern fork of Long Island and it appears that a progress report is in order. A conversation with Paumanok’s Charles Massoud provided some wonderful perspective on the status of the region and enlightened me to a few key details that should round out my summary w/ just the quantitative edge it needed.
While I am still fantasizing about the possibilities of the 2007 vintage for Chateauneuf du Pape, this year seems to also have bestowed Long Island w/ similar gifts in the form of consistent sunshine, a rain-free harvest and loads of potential alcohol. Mother Nature’s fickle weather patterns in the North Fork seem to rival Burgundy in terms of irregularity and potential disappointment. The past several vintages in the 21st century have traveled a bit of a rocky road, through the overcast, cool 2003 growing season, to the harvest rains of nearly mythic proportions in 2005, it took a magical vintage like 2007 for growers to utter the term ‘ideal.’ For those of you that believe luxury cuvees are made every year, Eric Fry of Lenz (also a consultant to some 20 odd wineries on the east coast) neglected to bottle an old vine label from 2002-2006, and Paumanok’s ‘Grand Vintages’ are just that, and certainly few and far between.
In addition to the unpredictable continental climate, Long Island has to contend w/ soils that are so acidic (w/ a pH in the vicinity of 4, whereas a healthy vineyard craves a pH between 6 and 7) that the growers need to annually add lime to the loam in order to free up nutrients for the vines to feed on. The soils are not only acidic, they are nearly cost prohibitive, checking in around 100,000 bucks an acre, making the cost of fruit astronomically high for an ‘emerging wine region.’ A close proximity to the Hamptons and New York City prohibits any further developing of the region, which totals 3,000 or so acres in size (w/ roughly 30% of those acres belonging to the local giant, Pindar). Charlie Massoud believes the potential for growth in New York lies firmly in the Finger Lakes, a much more remote area that has already struck gold w/ solid Rieslings from top producers such as Hermann J. Wiemer, Standing Stone and Konstantin Frank.
In spite of uncooperative weather, ludicrously high land tariffs and a soil type that vines have no earthly business being in, a group of ten or so producers are persevering admirably with early ripening varieties such as Cabernet Franc and Merlot. The best reds show a sense of nobility and class that one often finds in good Bordeaux, w/ elegant profiles and tangy acidities. It’s difficult for Cabernet Sauvignon to achieve full ripeness in the North Fork, though Jamesport based vineyards have had a bit more success as they are located in the warmer western zone of the appellation (which are further away from the coastal breezes seen in the more eastern zones of Mattituck and Cutchogue). Eric Fry ironically uses Merlot to ‘beef up’ his Cabernet, making me question why growers are still hell bent on producing passable Cabs when their Merlots can truly excel.
When it comes to Pinot Noir, even the most stubborn of vintners have learned their lessons, reserving it strictly for sparkling wines (save for an insipid caveat or two of still Pinot), which are gaining steam in terms of quality and consistency. The natural acidity present in Long Island Pinot Noir seems destined for great sparkling wine; and as producers like Wolffer, Old Field (also made by Eric Fry) and Lenz continue to hone their craft w/ Methode Champenoise, the potential for profound sparklers in New York will be realized.
As for the other bubbly grape, Chardonnay, it continues to chug along the stylistic continuum, with the finest examples coming from Macari, Wolffer, Lenz and Paumanok. Lenz dabbles in each of the varied grapes expressions; a crisp stainless steel version with its malolactic fermentation blocked, a ‘west coast’ hommage, full of sweet toast and creamy undertones and a Burgundian interpretation, fermented in neutral oak barrels and displaying the finest level of finesse. In spite of the stylistic differences, they all show high toned stone fruits that pump along brightly acidic structures. Paumanok and Wolffer have particularly impressed me in terms of how they mature, as examples from the late 90’s and 2000 are beginning to evolve, showcasing the nutty poetry one hopes to find in aged Chardonnay as it unravels in harmony.
When it comes to Sauvingon Blanc, I actually believe the North Fork has a leg up on California, as most display the telltale citrus blossom, grapefruit candy and freshly cut grass bouquets in a more fresh, pure and exciting style than the ponderous, flaccid fare that most Californian producers crank out each year. The cooler climate is certainly in Long Island’s favor, but more importantly, they don’t fumble around w/ the use of new oak like the Golden State still seems to do, harnessing a better focus of the grape’s intensity and aromatics. Macari’s 2007 Sauvignon Blanc is the best I’ve tasted yet, outstanding in concentration and electric in its persistence, it reminded me of the North Fork’s version of New Zealand’s famed Cloudy Bay. Not to be outdone by the dry whites, late harvest Sauvignon Blanc has also impressed me from the Island, w/ Paumanok and Macari’s decadent nectars leading the way.
There are still quite a bit of experimental varietal bottlings being produced in the North Fork, w/ entirely varied results. Paumanok’s Chenin Blanc (the only such version available from the appellation) is fresh and lithe, w/ no shortage of waxy kiwi fruit dancing through the palate in an unadorned, yet solid style. Paumanok has also had success w/ Riesling, easily making the best local dry version that could certainly rival the top names up north in the Finger Lakes, while Bedell’s late harvest Riesling takes the cake in the dessert category. Channing Daughters, located in the South Fork, is known for their esoteric expressions of Italian varietals and have achieved a bit of early cult fame for them. There is a mélange of Malbec, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Gewurztraminer bottlings throughout the region, with decidedly less success, but this is to be expected and these hiccups are all part of the learning curve for most any emerging wine regions of the world.
Having said all that, there are still far too many producers that only profit from clever sales, marketing and event planning, instead of the quality of their wines. Raphael has been my personal whipping boy and is by far the worst offender; dazzling you with a glorious tasting facility that resembles a modern Italian villa (for which they charge a hefty 15,000 dollar wedding event fee and scored a starring role on the Apprentice) and the proprietors apparently hope the superficial seduction will blind your palate to the flavors of their caustic wines. If wine was about window shopping, the overpriced, wretched fare at Raphael would be all the allure you’d need. The red wines personify most of the issues that plague the region as they are marred by hollow midpalates, green tannins and shrill structures that offer little pleasure or textural polish. Raphael’s whites are benign enough, save for the cost, and exhibit bland, diluted flavors that can optimistically be described as neutral. There are countless other over-cropped grape factories that pump out high volume, low character wines that apparently are run by those w/ an eye on their wallets instead of their wines. Prices for North Fork wines in general are steep, and that particular issue has been by far the loudest outcry from the regions critics. While the objections on price tend to be a bit more muted from those that have actually tasted the wines (especially from the finest producers in blind match-ups versus top names from Bordeaux), it will likely be an issue that the region will continue to face even as the press becomes more and more favorable.
Vintage New York, the metropolitan epicenter for tasting, learning about and purchasing the state’s best wines, has fueled the ‘Californian arms race’ a bit too much for their own good. While I consider Vintage to be a brilliant concept and a fundamental player in the region’s success, I have taken issue w/ their callous swipes at Californian wine in an attempt to differentiate them as a product. Yes, Californian wines tend to be heady and broad shouldered and Long Island reds do offer a bit of a palate reprieve when it comes to freshness and subtlety, but the more you bash your perceived competitor to your consumers, the more they’ll remember California as a source of your own insecurity. I continue to support and encourage Vintage for all they’ve done for New York wines and New York agriculture, but I discourage the overt attacks they’ve continued to mount against the United States largest and most respected wine producing region.
Time, as well as rising land costs, will continue to sort out the contenders from the pretenders and the top producers will only get better as they gain experience and maturity in their vineyards. As more and more of the Bordeaux faithful continues to abandon ship for ‘less-green’ pastures (in terms of soaring futures prices and the weakness of the dollar vs. the euro), I’d like to encourage those consumers, in particular, to venture out to the Right Bank of the North Fork to check in on what’s been stirring 80 miles east of New York City. Keep your mind open and your palate sharp for something a bit different. There are more than a handful of elegant, age-worthy and complex gems out in the North Fork waiting to be savored, and if you look a bit closer, you’ll find a great deal or two. There’s plenty of room in the expanding wine world for another player, and lord knows it’s a refreshing one from the abundance of commercial crap from Australia that gets pounded by the gallons in the U.S.
I look forward to continuing to watch New York play a role in the ever changing wine world over the next decade. While things in Long Island remain in somewhat of an infant stage, time will tell which members of the dozen or so emerging producers will continue to lead, follow or get out of the way.
Top producers of Merlot and Cabernet Franc based blends:
Pellegrini (which have aged quite well, they still have a few library releases for sale from the early to mid 90’s)
Paumanok (the 2000 Grand Vintage Merlot is stellar and one of my highest rated reds from the Island)
Lenz (while the old vines is a bit pricey, their 2001 Merlot represents value for the quality)
Wolffer (located on the South Fork, Roman Roth also makes some of the finest sparkling wines from the Island)
Macari (whose reds continue to improve in terms of texture and polish)
Osprey’s Dominion (still under the radar, unpretentious and consistently solid)
The Old Field
Top producers of white wine:
Macari (from top to bottom, their Chardonnays continue to ramp up in quality, their Sauvignon Blanc is outstanding and their Block E dessert wine is another consistent winner)
Paumanok (it gets old to continue to type their name, but their entire portfolio is excellent, including their age-worthy Chardonnay, late harvest Sauvignon Bland, dry Riesling and Chenin Blanc)
Wolffer (has also demonstrated that their Chardonnays can cruise in the cellar)
Lenz (runner up to Paumanok in terms of having a high quality, expansive portfolio)
Channing Daughters (a South Fork based producer that is perhaps the island’s most innovative producer of white wine)