Slow and Steady, New York's Finest Producers Aren't Skipping a Beat
I spent a brief, but thorough Saturday tasting at some of New York’s finest producers in search of outstanding Cabernet Franc, while keeping my eyes peeled and ears open for the pleasant surprises along the way. This was somewhat of a spontaneous fall trip, which happens to be the region’s busiest time of year in terms of tourism (the pumpkin patches were inundated w/ schools of children in preparation for Halloween) and raw labor (harvest). After hearing the unfortunate news that Vintage New York’s Soho location had shut down due to rising rent costs (a familiar Manhattan tale, yet a painfully ironic one that demonstrates the lack of profitability in promoting what comes from your own backyard) I’ve come to grips w/ the reality that New York wine’s salvation may be an extra 80 miles away, yet is always worth the drive.
Every year I go back to visit the North Fork I am more & more impressed w/ the progress and focus that the best of the best have achieved. The experience in the vineyards and cellars have continued to pay dividends for Paumanok, Shinn, Lenz, Pellegrini, Schneider, Macari and company who seem to churn out better and better wines w/ every subsequent vintage. While high prices, limited acreage and global competition continue to hamstring the region’s development, adventurous old world palates are sure to find a home in the loam covered soils just east of Riverhead…that is if they brave the trek across the L.I.E., what we locals refer to as ‘the world’s largest parking lot.’
A few impressions from my tastings:
- Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc are rapidly becoming the region’s signature grapes. The cool, maritime influenced climate benefits earlier ripening varietals such as Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, with diurnal temperature swings allowing for full flavor development to happen at a leisurely pace,while maintaining their hallmark acidites. In my opinion, both of these grapes shine brightest in New York State when compared to their domestic competitors. The bulk of California Sauvignon Blanc lacks structural definition and is marred w/ an identity crisis, perpetuated by producers who aggressively bathe it oak barrels a la Chardonnay, resulting in dull, verve-less wines. Cabernet Franc, the much maligned parent grape of its heartier offspring, Cabernet Sauvignon, seldom achieves the finesse or complexity of a Right Bank Bordeaux or Loire-based version anywhere else in the world, but the North Fork seems to have conjured a synthesis between the two forementioned staples. While variety has been Cabernet Franc’s ‘spice of life’ in Long Island, the best examples marry the poise and elegance of a St. Emilion w/ the perfume and complexity of a Chinon.
- Cabernet Franc is hardly a sexy pick from a marketing perspective, but savvy producers have realized it thrives in the climate of the North Fork. Though Cabernet Sauvignon is likely to draw more interest from most American consumers, it simply is too thick skinned to achieve adequate ripeness in Long Island and rarely makes compelling wines from even the most quality conscious producers in the region. Winemaker Eric Fry of Lenz uses Merlot to ‘beef up’ his Cabernet Sauvignon, which begs the question, why make a so-so Cabernet Sauvignon when you can make outstanding Cabernet Franc?
- Just about every producer’s Sauvignon Blanc merits a good to very good score, w/ Jamesport Vineyards, Macari and Shinn producing versions that come close to outstanding quality. Shinn has tinkered w/ adding Semillon to their Sauvignon based blends and the early results look very promising (as does the future of Shinn, a winery who’s vineyard was planted in the 21st century and is already cranking out stellar wines).
- On the Cabernet Franc front, Jamesport Vineyards, Paumanok, Shinn and Schneider are at the head of their class, with Shinn’s version offering the most vivid, ethereal profile of them all. Schneider’s wines are crafted in a more robust, almost hearty vein that are showcased in different cuvees including: the ‘Breton’ homage to the Loire producer, Le Bouchet and Roanoke Point (which includes a small percentage of Petit Verdot and Malbec). Each bottling has a raw, almost chewy disposition, yet retains a sense of grace. I can’t extol the beauties of Paumanok’s line-up enough, and while Jamesport’s Cabernet Franc is a very fine example, the pricing will likely discourage most interested buyers away from picking up a bottle.
- What a difference a year makes. The drop-off in quality from ’02 to ’03 is as frank a contrast as any (southern Rhone fans would delight in drinking their ‘02s vs. some of the shrill, almost caustic Merlot that was produced in ’03 vintage from the North Fork), yet ’04 and ’05 (in spite of the harvest rains) picked up where the beginning of the century left off, and ’07 seems to be as good as advertised. Again, there's no rest for the weary as ’08 has dealt a hand that even the Massouds at Paumanok had difficulty with, thanks to a spring frost that cut their Chardonnay crop to such a thin level that they had to source fruit from several other sources. But have no fear Paumanok fans, early samplings of their embryonic Chenin Blanc and Riesling from ’08 showed brilliantly. While it’s almost impossible to tell what types of wines those ’08 whites will be, tasting a wine at such an early stage is a fascinating experience. The pink grapefruit and green tea flavors of the Chenin Blanc were as naked and brilliant as the pure, dried apricot perfume that stemmed from the Riesling samples. If any of you ever get the opportunity to taste a recently pressed wine that has yet to begin its fermentation, I encourage you take full advantage of it. The black tea scented rosé was an absolute trip and completely baffled any preconceived notion I’d had as to what un-fermented juice smells like!
Anything’s possible, and that includes making very good Syrah in the North Fork. Schneider’s Hermitage clone-based Syrah made me a believer, as its earthy, white pepper inflicted perfume revealed a dark fruit laced, chalky spine on the palate, bringing images of a youthful Cornas to mind. While I’m very reluctant to jump on the Fork- Syrah bandwagon, I have to say that Schneider’s ’05 Syrah is worth not only a taste, but a purchase (it is fairly priced in the low 20’s). In addition to that improbable expression of Syrah, Channing Daughter’s range of Italian inspired whites continues to impress, w/ their vivid range of honeysuckle and tropical fruits flavors that round into fine form, thanks to their palate cleansing acidities and judicious oak barrel aging. Other artisan producers can be found at ‘The Tasting Room’ on 2885 Peconic Lane, which is open until 6 pm and represents winemakers that don’t have their own tasting facilities. I highly encourage visitors to try BOUKÉ’S flirty white blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer as well as Comtesse Therese’s Hungarian Oak Chardonnay and Onabay’s ballsy, wild fermented line-up.
- While they are still hard to find, sparkling wines from New York continue to go from strength to strength, w/ Eric Fry’s Cuvee ’01 hitting the highest note yet. The sparkler comes from a blend of 70% Pinot Noir, w/ the remainder Chardonnay and offers up a nose of puff pastry, grilled hazelnuts and lime candy notes that funnel through the palate in a fine, frothy mousse that finishes on a delicious note. What the Finger Lakes’ Lamoreaux Landing and Roman Roth at Wolffer, in the South Fork, have accomplished w/ bubbles has cemented that New York area wineries can, and do make excellent sparkling wines. The only question is whether or not more wineries will continue to jumping on board the suds ship to broaden the category, and I’m certainly hoping that they do.