I wrote the following on a wine web board a few days after our tasting: "The New York wines were more uniform than the Loire ones. With their up front fruit, subtle oak treatment and spicy warmth, these were more 'obviously' take that as you will forward and attractive wines." Of the New York wines, we found that one was immediately impressive (Millbrook), one was big but unbalanced (Hosmer), another was disappointingly simple (Macari), one was quite showy in a modern style (Schneider), and one was particularly and surprisingly impressive for all the right reasons of varietal "honesty" (the Standing Stone.)
The Loire wines had more to differentiate them from appellation to appellation and vintage to vintage, with a far greater variety of aromas, textures and tastes. We had a couple of disappointments (the Raffault in particular) but also at least one pleasant surprise (the 2000 Sourdais Chinon). And clearly, the Taluau St-Nicholas 96 was only thinking about adolescence; 24 hours later, it was the best wine on the table. (At our guest Chris Coad's Brooklyn birthday gathering recently, we were treated to a 69 Bourgueil that was doing just fine, thank you.) I concluded then, that "until we know we can put down East Coast Cab Francs for a similar length of time i.e. 30+ years - the Loire claims ongoing superiority."
I thought that was fair comment. But I hadn't taken into account the prejudice that some people hold against new world wine makers. After I posted these notes and that conclusion, I heard from an angry Joe Dressner, whose company Louis/Dressner imports several of these Loire wines (and many of my favorite Rhône wines too), and who I've had plenty a pleasant face-to-face conversation with in the past. "Certainly, Loire reds are an acquired taste," he stated defensively, "but the cultured yeasts that dominate the Schneideresque milieu are used to please a certain milieu in the wine culture. Its great to see someone enjoys them." He then went on to paraphrase my own description: "I find the "up front fruit, subtle oak treatment and spicy warmth" as you describe these "forward and attractive wines" to be fake and phony concontions. Snapple with alcohol grown on a potato field. At the same time, I find it totally plausible that you like the stuff."
The "you" may have been intended as a plural, directed at all of us who participated in the tasting, but it appeared personally singular, aimed at someone who dared to speak up for East Coast wines. This would be unfair. While the Schneider wine was deemed a little too 'showy' for some people's liking, its upstate neighbor, the 98 Standing Stone won accolades even from Loire loyalists. And the Millbrook was unquestionably well-made, especially for a difficult vintage. What appears to have upset Joe Dressner so much is hearing, from Bruce Schneider in person at a conference a year or two back, that the Schneider Cabernet Francs are made using Pinot Noir cultured yeasts. Assuming this remains true, I can understand Dressner's annoyance that the very person who has chosen to 'represent' Cabernet Franc for Long Island is apparently making his wines in an 'untrue' manner especially given that Dressner deals with wineries in the Loire that have grown Cabernet Franc for several hundred years, and whose vineyards express their terroir so distinctly that neighboring plots can produce remarkably different wines.
And so, maybe, we need to ask the following questions:
1) Is Cabernet Franc particularly well suited to the East Coast of the USA? I think so, and so do many wine makers. "I'm a firm believer that if there is one varietal that the East Coast does as well or better than the West Coast it is Cabernet Franc," wrote Gary Goddard of Millbrook in an e-mail to iJamming!. "The climate allows full ripening while keeping the full fruit that is associated with a cooler climate. I often use the example of a cool climate Pinot Noir, e.g. Russian River Valley." As initial proof, I would suggest that there is more consistently good Cabernet Franc being produced up and down New York State than there is consistently good Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Pinot Noir.
2) If Cabernet Franc is indeed well suited to the region, then does it matter that, as on Long Island, it's often grown on former potato fields? The USA will always be several hundred years behind Europe in terms of terroir, but the wine-making surely has to begin somewhere - and if the climate seems correct in Long Island where potato farming has gone out of style, then why not use the soil for grapes instead? To insist that Americans don't have the right to attempt to make quality wine based on vinifera grapes is not just a prejudice, pure and simple. And so, perhaps the best question is. . .
3) If the East Coast wine industry is going to take its micro-climates seriously enough to focus on specific grapes Cabernet Franc being the prime example should it be following the Californian model of wine-making, which can be intrusive, industrial, and often involves copious amounts of oak to add "flavor" while filtering and fining the wines to remove unseemly sediment? Or should the industry adhere to the European model, which aims to capture the vineyard in the bottle via a policy of non-intervention, meaning near as damn-it organic or even biodynamic farming, hand-harvesting, and tank-fermenting the wines with a minimum of oak ageing, leaving them unfiltered and often unfined too?
Time, of course, will be the ultimate judge, and if the ageing capabilities of Loire wines are anything to go by, I may not even live long enough to see the East Coast come to wine-making fruition. Until we have some seriously devoted wine-makers concentrating on single varietals made from older vines with a minimum of industrial intrusion, wines that can last decades in the bottle as they develop ever more complex and interesting flavors, then the East Coast wines Cab Franc or otherwise will remain but crowd-pleasing imitations of more subtle old-world standards. All the same, I'm convinced we're heading in the right direction. And I have a personal hunch that Cabernet Franc is going to keep leading the way.
Written by and Copyright TONY FLETCHER, DECEMBER 2002
Part 1: The Basics and The Regions
Part 2: The New York Wines
Part 3: The Loire Wines