Archive for the ‘Long Island’ Category

Paumanok Vineyards’ Chenin Blanc

April 12, 2016

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.

paumonok sign

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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.

Kareem Massoud

Kareem Massoud

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?

minimalist cheninPaumanok’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.

Italian-American Relations

February 21, 2012

For a dinner at home, we recently had the pleasure of entertaining Valter Fissore, the winemaker at Elvio Cogno, and his public relations rep, our good friend Marta Sobrino from the Wellcom agency in Alba. At Marta’s request – this was only her second time in NY and the States – Diane prepared una cena vera Americana, a real American meal. We kept it as local and seasonal as possible (you can read the whole account of it on Diane’s blog) and I sought out good American wines to match the foods – but not too many, because I expected (rightly) that Valter would have some of his own beautiful bottles for us to taste.

We began over hors d’oeuvre with Gruet New Mexico sparkling wine. The Gruet family are the real thing, champagne makers from France, and they have very successfully transplanted their expertise. They can’t, by law, call any of their wines Champagne, but they make all of them by the traditional Champagne method, and the results are as authentic-tasting as any sparkling wine from anywhere. We drank their Blanc des Noirs, which I like because of its fine body and excellent, bone-dry fruit. Not to mention its versatility: it partnered very well with very diverse tidbits. Not entirely by the way, it is also very reasonably priced, which makes it very well worth seeking out.

The next wine, served with the fish course, was Castello di Borghese Chardonnay 2009. This wine originates on the North Fork of Long Island: The vineyards are those of the original Hargrave estate, the first of Long Island’s serious wine producers. This Chardonnay had never been in wood; that was one of my requirements, and you cannot imagine how difficult it is in New York City to find an unoaked domestic Chardonnay. I didn’t have time run out to the North Fork and visit the wineries to look for one – though given the time it took me to find one in town, perhaps I should have. In any case, I came up with this Borghese wine, American-made and Italian-named, and hoped this was a portent that it would be the perfect wine for my occasion.

Well, not really, though it certainly was interesting. It struck everybody with its huge, forward fruit, all of it tropical: pineapple and lichee flooding out of the glass in the nose and on the palate. No evident wood, and decent acidity – Long Island does that – made it more companionable with the fish than I at first feared it would be. Valter seemed fascinated by it, though I wasn’t sure whether that was from pleasure at something so different from the white wine he normally gets or from the strangeness of it. It’s not really my kind of Chardonnay – I like more restraint and more structure – but I can readily see that many people would find it very attractive. And it was certainly genuinely American.

When we moved on to meat, we switched to red. I tried a Ridge Zinfandel I’d never come across before – Buchignani Ranch 2007. Normally I’m very fond of Ridge Zinfandels. I like to drink them when they’re ten years old or so, by which point all the California and Primitivo-kin exuberance of the wine has calmed down and come into balance. They usually remind me, at that stage, of classic clarets – very harmonious and deep, even serene. Well, this one wasn’t serene. It was all forward fruit and tannins, a big push in the face of not-yet-integrated flavors. Like the Chardonnay, it wasn’t exactly what I’d been looking for, but it was unquestionably American – and I think a bit of a shock to Italian palates.

Which were quickly soothed – as was my own – by the wines Valter had brought. From meat through cheeses (yes, they were American too, and excellent), we drank Cogno Barolo Ravera 2008 and Marcarini Barolo Brunate 1986. These were two lovely, very different wines.

The ’08 Ravera, as Valter pointed out and everyone’s tasting confirmed, showed the affinity of Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir. It had definite Pinot Noir flavors and some of the middle-weight suppleness of that variety. It was surprisingly easy to drink for a young Barolo, with clean outlines and beautifully soft, welcoming tannins. For all its readiness to drink, however, it still shows every sign of ageability: it will be a keeper, I think. This is a great wine for anyone coming to Barolo for the first time, particularly for someone making the transition from French to Italian wines.

About the ’86 Brunate, it’s hard to say anything beyond Wow! This was an absolutely classic mature Barolo, elegant, long, totally composed. It had dark, mushroomy/earthy aromas, dark flavors – leather/tobacco/dry black fruits – on the palate, all offering themselves willingly but not brashly: accessible yet restrained, full-flavored yet light on the palate – a short course in what Barolo is all about. This was a wine made by Valter’s father-in-law Elvio Cogno, when he was winemaker at Marcarini before he left to produce his own wines, and it was both an honor and a pleasure to drink it.

After all that intense palatal play, the evening ended diminuendo – coffee, grappa, and good night. Which it was.

Starting from Paumanok

September 4, 2010

When you reach the end of the Long Island Expressway, a journey more often measured in time and endurance than in miles, you’ve reached the point where the tail of what Walt Whitman accurately described as “fish-shape Paumanok” begins. South and east of Riverhead sprawl the Hamptons, the domain of ocean beaches and oceans of suntan lotion. North and east of Riverhead you enter the heartland of Long Island wine. Yes, there are a handful of vineyards on the South Fork – but the North Fork shelters some three to four dozen of them, dotted among the golf courses and surviving farms from Aquebogue almost out to the Marion Causeway.

Winery map from Long Island Wines website

It isn’t Napa, and there’s no Wine Train – actually, there’s no train of any kind – but it is still, as the Michelin Guide would say, worth the journey.

We like to make a day of it – a little birding; stops at farm stands for local corn and tomatoes and especially, late in the season, Green Mountain potatoes; lunch somewhere (maybe Claudio’s in Greenport for the terrific fresh clams); and many stops at wineries to taste and buy. It’s best before Memorial Day or after Labor Day, when the roads hold only locals and you can putter along at a tourist’s or birdwatcher’s pace, but even the summer traffic on the local roads can be bearable if you avoid weekends.

I have to admit that even long acquaintance with the North Fork hasn’t gotten me to all of the wineries – a situation long overdue for correction, but which force of habit and inborn sloth keep postponing. Long Island growers long ago impressed me with their ability to coax first-class vinifera grapes out of Long Island’s flat fields.

Thriving vines at Paumanok Vineyards

But about the same time, I formed the conviction (maybe now outdated, and another reason for me to get serious about the North Fork) that they hadn’t yet had that charismatic winemaker who would set the mark for their wines at a commensurately high level. I always find a lot to like in Long Island wines, but I haven’t yet found anything that stops me dead in my tracks and makes me think I’m tasting a world-class wine. Hope springs eternal: I believe the region is capable of that, and I’m taking a resolution here and now to pay more attention, more often.

Meanwhile, a ghastly New York City July pushed me to pure escapism: we – Diane, myself, and two equally heat-beaten friends – hopped into our wonderfully air-conditioned car (always cooler than our apartment, and Con Ed can’t charge us for it), slogged through the Midtown Tunnel, and then violated a few speed limits to reach the comfortable breezy, tree-lined North Fork Boulevards des Vins: Sound Avenue and Main Road, aka Route 25. We spent a comfortable day dropping into whichever wineries looked less crowded (admittedly not the soundest method of exploring a wine region), searching in a very limited range for inexpensive, preferably totally unoaked white wines to sustain us through the seemingly unending heat wave.

Tasting room at Osprey's Dominion

You can judge something of the diversity of Long Island winemaking just by the names of some of the wineries: at one end of the spectrum, Osprey’s Dominion, Duck Walk North, and One Woman Vineyards; at the other, Comtesse Thérèse and Castello di Borghese Vineyard and Winery. People grow everything out here: among the red varieties, mostly Merlot (the most successful red wine for my palate), Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir, though I know there is a little Gamay and Refosco and Sangiovese and Syrah planted as well; among the whites (for me the most interesting of Long Island’s range of wines) Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Tocai Friulano, Riesling, Sauvignon, and Viognier, and probably some other varieties that I haven’t encountered yet. (I pass over in silence the various fruit wines on offer. Yes, I’m a snob.)

Part of the North Fork’s problem, I think, is exactly that “people grow everything out here.” Its terroirs and microclimates aren’t very varied: Essentially, there’s one of each. Overall, the soils and growing conditions at least loosely resemble those of Bordeaux – which is good, I guess – but that doesn’t mean that any grape variety that will grow here will necessarily give you a great wine. Individual growers and the region as a whole have got to find out what varieties really reward attention, and that is a process that takes a lot of time and patience and experimentation.

Abundant choices at Martha Clara Vineyards

For instance: I was impressed by Martha Clara Vineyard’s Viognier, a pleasing, minerally wine from a Rhone Valley variety that seems to like Long Island’s hot summers, and I was very impressed by Paumanok Vineyard’s Chenin Blanc, a really lovely dry wine that recalled Savennières without imitating it. And several wineries – e.g., Lieb, Osprey’s Dominion – were offering charming, simple, refreshing unoaked Chardonnays at prices considerably below those of their to-me-almost-undrinkable oaked Chardonnays. Particularly in the context of all that wonderfully fresh, wonderfully flavorful Long Island fish and shellfish, a coating of new oak vanilla is totally out of place on a dinner wine.

Lusty Long Island livestock? Or typical traffic on the LIE?

It’s a bit of a downer, after a fun day in the greenery, to slog back along the LIE to steamy New York City, but a trunkful of assorted goodies more than justifies the effort. Now, if only the Long Island Railroad would install a high-speed, luxury train to the North Fork…. Oh yes, and while we’re at it, world peace would be nice too.