Every now and again, a wine comes out of left field and just bowls me over. This happened last week when I opened a bottle of Paumanok Vineyards’ Minimalist Chenin Blanc. To say the wine impressed me understates the case: I thought it was gorgeous. The dry and sweet white wines of the middle Loire are pretty much the gold standard for Chenin. This Long Island wine tasted fuller and richer than most dry Vouvray, less austere and almost as structured as Savennieres – which, god knows, is about as good as Old World Chenin gets. An eye-opener, an attention-getter of a wine. So I decided to look further into it.
Paumanok Vineyards got started in 1983, which makes it an old-timer among Long Island wineries. There were only a few of them then, pioneers excited by the possibilities of the North Fork’s long growing season and well-drained soils, as well as a loose similarity to the climate and terroir of France’s prized Médoc. The basic agriculture that had sustained the region – acres and acres of potatoes, cabbages, and corn – was fading, and land was available. If wine-growing did nothing else for the region, it scored a major triumph in saving the North Fork from developers and their battalions of boxes.
The Massoud family, owners of Paumanok, has roots in Lebanon and Germany, but from the start they planted French varieties: Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon blanc, even Petit verdot. Kareem Massoud, son of the founder and now winemaker, says that there is nothing distinctive about the terroir of the Chenin vineyards, but that all the Loire varieties – especially Sauvignon blanc and Cabernet franc – seem to do well on Long Island. Chenin blanc, he says, they found growing on a plot they acquired in the late Eighties – and they almost ripped it out, until they realized how well it was doing.
I lived on Long Island way back when, and find it hard to imagine how Chenin blanc had ever found its way there among the potatoes and pumpkins, but a wonderfully serendipitous find it was. Paumanok’s Chenin blanc every year ranks among the best in the US – and yet it remains the only one made on Long Island. Hello? How can that happen? Do all the other producers hate Vouvray?
Paumanok’s Minimalist Chenin blanc stands a whole level higher, in my estimation, than the very fine “ordinary” Chenin, which wins the prizes. The back label of my 2014 bottle tells its story concisely:
This wine was produced using minimalist winemaking techniques. The fruit comes from our vineyard planted in 1982. Select clusters of unblemished Chenin Blanc that had attained total ripeness were carefully hand harvested and whole cluster pressed. The juice was transferred into stainless steel barrels where alcoholic fermentation spontaneously occurred. Only 84 cases were bottled.
As Kareem pointed out to me, this is a purely variety- and terroir-powered wine: Nothing intervenes to modify the expression of the grape and the soil. That purity comes through on the palate with lovely intensity.
Diane and I drank this Minimalist Chenin with some Scotch smoked salmon, followed by simply sauteed filets of John Dory, and it made a wonderful match with both. Its fruit was rich and dry, but hard to pin down: The closest I can come to an accurate descriptor would be half-ripe white figs with an amazing underlayer of minerality and structured by vivid acidity. I would guess that, like many Loire Chenins, this wine could age very well – but I can honestly say that I would be hard put not to drink it all before it had any chance to mature. For me, this is a masterly American wine. I wish there were more of it, and I hope there will be, eventually.