Long Island White Wines: Sauvignon Blanc, Blends excel

I recently attended a tasting of Long Island Wines in New York City, a welcome opportunity to catch up on developments in what used to be my local part of the wine world. Boasting of similarities to the Bordeaux climate, and despite the fact that most of their vineyards were planted on ex-potato fields, the Long Island wine-makers, back in the pioneering days of, ooh, the mid-1980s, originally favored copious amounts of the seemingly omnipotent Merlot and Chardonnay. Personally, I have always felt, and strongly so, that Cabernet Franc is the most appropriate and promising of red vinifera grapes for America’s east coast – and to be fair, even at the height of the Merlot craze, almost all the wineries would have quietly agreed. It follows suit then, given this apparent affinity towards Bordeaux and Loire style reds, that Sauvignon Blanc should also fare well in Long Island’s maritime soil, and indeed, when the first bottling from Macari Vineyards came out in early 2001, it received a glowing tribute from the New York Times as being “world-class, a knockout, the equal of splendid Sauvignon Blancs from the Loire, New Zealand and California… the best Sauvignon Blanc produced outside of the Loire.” That review single-handedly inspired many wine-makers up and down Strong Island to plant Sauvignon Blanc for themselves, and now that we’re a few years down the line from that tectonic shift in priorities, I made a point at this tasting to seek out various examples.

The wineries of Long Island are mostly concentrated on the North Fork. And in case you’re wondering, yes, Brooklyn and Queens are both, geographically at least, part of Long Island. You can download a pdf of this map here.

I started with the proven masters. I’d visited Macari back in late 2001, on a tour of North Fork wineries, and came away extremely impressed, in all senses, by their attitude. The winery was focused on specific grapes and one hefty Bordeaux red blend (Bergen Road) rather than the “let’s grow everything and see what proves profitable” outlook favored by so many of its neighbors and yet, despite the recent hype from the Times, was perhaps the most friendly of all wineries we visited that weekend. The same qualities remained on evidence at this Manhattan-staged tasting. The Macari Sauvignon Blanc 2008, just bottled from what was widely described as a “challenging vintage” is green-tinged in color, with a pronounced gooseberry grapefruit nose and equally acidic flavor on the palate, complete with some of the flint and chalk that you get from Sancerre, and lots of lime on the back end. Though perhaps a touch sharper than your finest Loire whites, this is still one hell of a ringer and a truly gorgeous wine. (It’s priced accordingly, at $23.) The Jamesport Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2007 was a relatively close contender, likewise green in both color and taste, with a brambly, citrusy texture in addition to the familiar gooseberry flavors. Jamesport also offered up a Sauvignon Blanc 2007 Reserve, from “hand-selected small lots.” (As it turns out, Macari has a Reserve of its own, which I did not see at the tasting.) This wine offered up vanilla on the nose but was not overly tinged with it on the palate, where a luscious creamy texture took hold instead. These were two fine white wines – but priced accordingly: the Jamesport Reserve will set you back $30 retail, more than most of the Sancerres and Pouilly Fumes that come to New York from 3,000 miles across the seas.

Macari’s Sauvignon Blanc goes by the name of Katherine’s Field; you can find a review of the 2005 vintage at iJamming! here

I was also taken by the Sauvignon Blanc 2007 from Palmer; this too had very potent acidity and those prickly Loire-like tendencies. (2007 was an exceptional year on Long Island, much warmer than most.) And I admired the fact that Duck Walk, from the winery-sparse South Fork of Long Island, announced its desire to extract more “tropical flavors” from its Sauvignon Blanc 2007, i.e., aiming for a New Zealand style wine. To an admirable extent, they succeeded; I caught pineapple and melon wrapped in cream, with an appropriately grassy texture though somewhat low acidity.

I was much less taken by relative newcomers Waters Crest’s Sauvignon Blanc 2008, which had the gooseberry aromas but was low in acidity and a little hollow. And although Osprey’s Dominion has been around since 1983, I couldn’t find myself excited abut either its regular 2007 Sauvignon Blanc, which I noted as being “good and fresh but a little undistinguished,” or its Fumé Blanc 2006, the once trendy name of which really ought to have been retired by now. Many other producers on Long Island are also now producing Sauvignon Blanc, with Shinn Estates making a Bordeaux like Sauvignon-Semillon blend called “First Fruit”; judging from what I had here in Manhattan, I suspect that several such examples are well worth trying.

Sauvignon Blanc is hardly the only white wine grape replacing Chardonnay in the affection of the Island’s wine producers: there are around a dozen different varietals out in the vineyards now. Surprisingly impressive amongst them was the Palmer Pinot Blanc 2007, which emitted a lot of fruit, some of it vaguely tropical, and plenty of tongue-pleasing flavor for such a generally humble grape. There’s a new wine-maker at Palmer, a company generally known more for bulk than boutique, and the progress showed clearly in its excellent white wines. Given how well Riesling has been doing in the Finger Lakes, it was no surprise to see several on offer from Long Island producers. I tasted and complimented the Baiting Hollow Riesling 2008 for being perfectly ripe and offering abundant fruit, before I found out that the grapes had, in fact, been trucked in from the Finger Lakes. By comparison, a Semi-Dry Riesling 2007 from Osprey’s Dominion, like that same winery’s Sauvignon Blancs, was indistinct, and I didn’t love the Martha Clara Riesling 2008 either, grapes grown at home on the North Fork, finding the nose a little off and getting an unpleasant yeastiness on the palate. Perhaps because of these disappointments, I skipped on Rieslings from Pindar and the Grapes of Roth.

Martha Clara is arguably leading the way in cool-climate white grapes on Long Island, and is enjoying much greater success with its Martha Clara Gewürztraminer 2008, which offers some of the jasmine/quince flavors you look for from that grape, a rounded orange peel tanginess too, and yet none of the overbearing spiciness on the mid-palate that sometimes turns me off of. Well built and well-priced, at about $20 retail, I’ll keep an eye out for this one in the stores. As a result, I had high hopes for Martha Clara’s 2008 Pinot Grigio, especially when I was told it had been made in an “Oregon style,” which I took to mean (given that I know my European wines) that it’s made like the Pinot Gris from the Alsace, where the wine has much more depth and grace and finesse and texture than the disposable quaffers that are being shipped out of Italy by the tankload. And yet, despite a luxuriantly supple nose, this wine was almost brutally fresh and acidic, like, indeed, an Italian Pinot Grigio, and again I found the yeastiness a little unsettling. Ho hum.

When I visited the North Fork in 2001, both Macari and the region’s original pioneers, Bedell, had truly lovely Viogniers in stock, but yields – and especially, market recognition – have proven so low that Macari has dropped the grape entirely (though a bottle is still pictured in their brochure) and Bedell, so I was informed, use it now purely for blending. The only 100% Viognier I could find was a Pindar Viognier 2008, and while it was true to the varietal, in that it was highly perfumed on the nose, with that same floral texture following through on the palate and yet restrained with it, still it explained why we don’t see more of the grape on Long Island, given that its relatively light color, body and finish. Too warm for Riesling, so Long Island appears too cool for Viognier.

nullBedell continues to lead the field, especially in price: the lovely Taste white blend retails for $30 (Barbara Kruger painting included for free).

No surprise, then, that other than Sauvignon Blanc, the most exciting thing going on in Long Island white wines is with the blends, which offer the opportunity for the producers to get all creative in the cellars as they learn what works (and what doesn’t) in the fields. Bedell, for example, has blended its limited Viognier, along with roughly equal amounts of Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc, into a mix dominated by Chardonnay, for a limited edition wine called Bedell Taste 2007, which comes complete with fancy artwork by Barbara Kruger, and is priced accordingly, at $30. Very creamy in texture, the Chardonnay shouting outs its heft, but giving way to the freshness of the Sauvignon Blanc, and ultimately letting shine the tropical textures offered by those other most distinctive of white grapes. Even more luxurious is the Bedell Gallery 2007, made only in the finest years, apparently (and, as previously noted, ‘07 was emphatically one such vintage). The Gallery removes the Gewürztraminer from the Taste blend, to make a hefty wine out of two-thirds oaked Chardonnay, approximate 20% Sauvignon Blanc, and just over 10% Viognier. Very tropical on nose, extremely well-rounded, elegant, and fleshy, with the Viognier more apparent to my taste buds than the Sauvignon Blanc. Bedell has always been a leader on the North Fork, and this blend emphasizes that it continues to be so. But at almost $50 a bottle, however, the Gallery is probably limited to the South Fork, where live the multi-millionaires of the Hamptons….

…And it’s in the Hamptons that you will find Channing Daughters. Like Martha Clara, Channing Daughters is experimenting with a wide range of white grapes, but rather than bring all their single varietals along to the tasting, they instead offered a couple of their fine blends. The Channing Daughters Vino Bianco 2007 is an enticing mixtures of 32% Tocai Friulano, 25% Sauvignon Blanc, 17% Pinot Grigio, 9% Chardonnay (Dijon clone 96) and 17% Chardonnay (“Musque” clone). A third of this blend is aged in oak, the remainder in stainless steel, and the result is a wine of good acidity, with plenty tropical fruit flavors, citrus touches, a luscious texture and great length, all the more impressive for its modest $20 price tag. Indeed, the Vino Bianco has apparently become Channing Daughters’ flagship wine, with over 1200 cases in the marketplace, encouraging the winery to make an even more ambitious mix from a specific plot in its Sylvanus Vineyard in Bridgehampton. The Channing Daughters Mosaico White Field Blend 2007 is 32% Pinot Grigio, 29% Chardonnay, 14% Sauvignon Blanc, 12% Muscat, 7% Tocai Friulano and 6% Gewürztraminer, with again, approximately one-third aged in oak (a mixture of new and old Slovenian barrels of various sizes), the remainder left to do its stuff in stainless tanks and barrels alike. With the exception of the Muscat, the grapes not only grew to maturity alongside each other, but were harvested, blended and aged together. The result was stellar: very aromatic, with orange and spice leaping off the nose (credit the Gewürztraminer), and though I didn’t find it quite so rewarding on the palate, I was still taken overall by the love and care afforded this alluring blend. The Mosaico is priced very similarly to Caymus’ perennially popular Conundrum, and I have a feeling that it’s the better wine.

The Channing Daughters Mosaico is a carefully crafted Field Blend.

If its sounds odd that the Gewürztraminer should have be so pronounced in the above complex blend, given that it comprises just 6% of the wine, then I should draw attention to perhaps the most remarkable wine of the tasting: the Clovis Point Chardonnay 2006, in which the slightest hint of Gewürztraminer – just 1% – completely altered the wine’s structure. Rather than the typical apples and potential tropical/vanilla/butter flavors of Chardonnay, I found myself tasting the Asian spice that is so particular to the Alsace-based grape; very strong, well-rounded fruit flavors made this a fascinating wine, well-priced at around $17 retail, that I’ll certainly be looking for in the stores.

It’s a shame, under the circumstances, that I didn’t get to taste the (pretentiously named) Bouké winery’s white blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer, especially as it retails for a friendly $19; I guess I just passed it by. But closing out on the whites, and proving that you don’t have to pay top dollar for a solid blend, I have to give a nod to relative newcomer, the sustainably-farmed, organically-soiled Shinn Estate Coalescence 2008, which mixes up Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and a relative rarity, Merlot Blanc, for an impressive wine that offers up a seriously alluring tropical nose of tropical fruits, and yet a nice easy finish. You should be able to find this wine for under $15 a bottle. All said, and despite the occasional disappointment on the single varietals, there wasn’t a single one of these white blends I would turn down if offered a full glass. Credit to the wine-makers for doing what the New World does best: saying to hell with convention and playing match-maker in the cellar.

Shinn Estates boasts of maintaining up to 25 species of cover crop inbetween its vines, including this buckwheat.

Red wine tasting to follow.

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