Category Archives: USA – New York

A Star on Long Island

Recently, I happened to mention to my friend, Howard Goldberg, the longtime The New York Times wine writer, that I was writing a column about Loire wines made from Chenin Blanc.  Howard suggested that I visit Paumanok on Long Island’s North Fork because, he said, they made great Chenin Blanc.  So, I arranged a visit, insisting that I wouldn’t take more than 45 minutes of their time because I was just interested in their Chenin Blanc.  Well, not surprisingly, Goldberg was correct about their Chenin Blanc.  What was surprising was how a scheduled 45-minute visit morphed into a two and half hour tasting due to the discovery that Paumanok’s entire line-up is stellar.

Charles Massoud, Paumanok’s founder, clearly takes risks.  Charles’ son, Kareem, who now makes the wine at Paumanok, explains that his father, who was born in Lebanon and studied in Paris was, and is, a confirmed wine-loving Francophile.  When he, Charles, was stationed in Kuwait working for IBM, he found it impossible to buy wine since Kuwait was dry, due to its Islamic-focused government.   Since the country was dry climatically as well, growing grapes was out of the question.  So his father, always inventive, purchased table grapes and baker’s yeast in the supermarket, and voilà, according to Kareem, he made “wine.”  I can only imagine what would have happened to him had his winemaking been discovered by the Kuwaiti authorities.  I guess the risk of starting a winery on Long Island in the 1980s paled by comparison.

Back in the New York area with IBM, and having read about the Hargraves, who were the first to start a winery on Long Island, Charles took the plunge and purchased what was to become Paumanok Vineyards in 1983.   Already sensing potential xenophobia and potential for anti-Arab antipathy, Charles opted not to use the family name for the winery, instead choosing Paumanok, the Indian name for Long Island.  Kareem, who was in business school at the time, recounts his feelings about the name with his newly-minted business school knowledge: “Awful, three syllables, impossible to pronounce…a terrible brand name.”  Now, he admits that it has turned out just fine and, indeed, is appropriate because, as Kareem emphasizes, their wines are not a brand, but rather a reflection of place.

Paumanok remains an estate winery, that is, they buy no grapes.  All the wines they make come exclusively from their roughly 100 acres of vineyards.  About two years ago, they purchased neighboring Palmer Vineyards, adding another 49 acres.

Paumanok produces three levels of wine, giving them enormous flexibility in deciding what grapes go into which tier.  This stratification allows them to use only the best grapes for their top wines, maintaining quality.  In addition, in a tough vintage, such as 2018, they can make more rosé and less red wine.  Their white label is the most recognizable and the one under which most of their wine is bottled.  Next on the scale is the “Grand Vintage” line, which is mostly for reds, but has occasionally included a Chardonnay, and then, at the top, is the “Minimalist” range, which they bottle in only the best years.  Kareem describes the Minimalist wines as a “minimalist approach.”  He does not use commercial yeast for fermentation, relying on only those present on the grapes or in the ambient air in the winery.  He deliberately avoids the use of the term, natural, and says he is willing to interfere, if necessary, to avoid making flawed wine.  The grapes for the Minimalist line must be pristine and immaculate because he uses only a trace of sulfur during wine making and bottling.  His aversion to sulfur is both a matter of marketing–the public seems to think it’s bad–and also an issue of taste. He maintains that sulfites accentuate the tannins in red wines and account for an unpleasant burnt match-like aroma in whites.

Kareem insists that it is critically important to be selective in the vineyard, noting that sometimes you must “take a loss to preserve quality.”

Paumanok’s focus on Chenin Blanc–inexplicably, no other winery on Long Island makes one–was serendipitous.  Soon after buying Paumanok, the older Massoud purchased a nearby vineyard that had been planted with a variety of grapes, but abandoned.  They kept the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc and uprooted the Zinfandel.  Kareem explains that Zinfandel is a late ripening, thin-skinned variety that will rot if the harvest, which coincides with hurricane season, is marred by rain.  They started to rip out the Chenin Blanc, but Uve Michelfelder, the then-vineyard manager who was on-site (the Massouds were living in Connecticut at the time), suggested retaining the last two acres.  Kareem implied that Charles’ response was the equivalent of today’s “whatever,” and the vines stayed.  They are the oldest Chenin Blanc vineyards on Long Island and the grapes from them go into Paumanok’s Minimalist bottling of that wine.

A quartet of Chenin Blanc releases shows why it’s Paumanok’s most popular wine.  The 2018 ($25, 92 pts), similar to its predecessors, is dry, crisp and clean with a hint of flintiness.  Beautiful acidity amplifies its charms.  The 2015, from a riper year, delivers more tropical and floral notes, imparting a richer, but not sweeter, impression.  Again, enlivening acidity in the finish enhances the pleasure.  The 2011, from what Kareem calls “a lousy vintage,” is a resounding success in his mind–and mine too.  Rain during harvest resulted in rot in the vineyard.  Selection of grapes had to be severe, reinforcing Massoud’s philosophy that sometimes you take a loss to preserve quality.  The 2011 Chenin Blanc may lack the verve and precision of the 2018, but it is remarkably good at seven years of age, especially considering the conditions under which the grapes were harvested.  I’d be happy to drink it with spicy Asian fare.

Kareem describes Paumanok’s 2015 Minimalist Chenin Blanc as “drinking a cloud.”  With a broader array of flavors than their regular bottling, it delivers an intriguing subtle nuttiness.  It expands in the glass and shows the heights this grape can achieve in the right hands.

Their Riesling dances on the palate and is stylistic similar to their Chenin Blanc, meaning, graceful.  The 2018 Dry Riesling ($22, 90 pts), from vines planted in 2005, is delicate with enlivening, almost tingling, flintiness.

As good as Paumanok’s whites are–and they are very good–the reds are even more astounding.  The quality is unexpected given their reputation for Chenin Blanc.  The mid-weight 2016 Cabernet Franc ($29, 92 pts), a perfect balance of red fruit and savory herbs, is a joy to drink now.  The 2014 Grand Vintage Cabernet Franc ($55, 95 pts) is simply sensational.  The vines are 20 years old, which explains, in part, the wine’s grandeur.  Kareem’s decision to select only the top barrels and only wine made from free-run juice, which avoids bitter tannins, clearly adds to the wine’s elegance.  It is weighty, but not heavy.  Paumanok’s 2013 Grand Vintage Merlot ($40, 95 pts) shows that Kareem knows how to handle that grape, the most widely planted one today on Long Island.  Kareem describes 2013 as an amazing vintage, breezy and cool.  I describe the wine as a marvelous Merlot, fresh, dense and silky, combining earthy savory notes with dark fruit elements.

My advice: Buy Paumanok’s Chenin Blanc whenever you can, but be sure to try their reds as well.  Oh, and don’t forget the Riesling, either.

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September 11, 2019

Paumanok Vineyards, North Fork of Long Island (New York) Chenin Blanc 2018

($25):  Under the leadership of winemaker Kareem Massoud and his father Charles, before for him, Paumanok Vineyards has made consistently stunning dry Chenin Blanc.  The emphasis is on dry, because consumers often avoid Chenin Blanc because they can’t predict what’s in the bottle since the grapes can make a diverse range of wines from dry to gloriously sweet.  Their 2018, like its predecessors, is dry, crisp and cutting with a hint of flintiness. Though it’s mouth-cleansing acidity makes it a refreshing choice in the waning days of summer, don’t forget about it for the Thanksgiving table.
92 Michael Apstein Aug 20, 2019

Raphael, New York (United States) Riesling 2017

($17):  The problem for consumers with Riesling is knowing the level of sweetness since the grape is capable of producing superb bone-dry wines as well as gloriously sweet ones.  Raphael, one of top properties on Long Island’s North Fork, helps by indicating on the back that their Riesling is semi-sweet.  But doesn’t tell the whole story because while moderately sweet, this Riesling has excellent acidity so the overall effect is invigorating, not cloying.  Lovely and refreshing by itself, it’s an ideal match for fried clams or fried oysters.
88 Michael Apstein Oct 9, 2018

Bedell Cellars, North Fork of Long Island (New York) Viognier 2017

($21):  Bedell, one of the stars of the Long Island wine producers, has done a masterful job with this Viognier, a notoriously difficult grape to get right.  Normally Viognier needs full ripeness to deliver its characteristic floral flavors, often resulting in an alcoholic and heavy wine.  Bedell must have harvested theirs early — the stated alcohol is only 11.7 percent — but still managed to capture the delicate white flower aromas of Viognier.  It is lively — again, early harvest preserves acidity — and delicate, which is an unusual, but welcome, style for domestic Viognier.  It’s an ideal choice this summer for lighter luncheon fare, simply grilled fish, or Asian-influenced spicy cuisine.
92 Michael Apstein Jul 31, 2018

Macari, North Fork, Long Island (New York) Sauvignon Blanc “Katherine’s Field” 2015

($24):  It’s a delight to taste Sauvignon Blanc with this kind of balance.  Bright and clean, it delivers a pleasant pungency.  It has energy without a teeth-rattling aggressiveness common to many producers’ Sauvignon Blanc.  There’s a refreshing grapefruit-like bitterness in the finish.  Certainly an excellent wine for steamed clams, it has sufficient “oomph” to hold up to a tomato-based seafood dish. 89 Michael Apstein Nov 21, 2017

Paumanok, North Fork of Long Island (New York) Chenin Blanc 2014

($28): Chenin Blanc is a tough grape to transform into a balanced wine in North America because a little extra ripeness from the warmth of the growing season translates into an overly fruity and flabby wine.  But when a winery hits it just right, as the team at Paumanok does on a regular basis, Chenin Blanc is an ideal summertime choice.  Paumanok’s 2014 is crisp and refreshing with an engaging hint of fruitiness offset nicely by racy acidity.  Finishing dry, it can be enjoyed by itself on these hot and humid days because it is not overly aggressive, but is also a perfect choice for light dishes or for spicy food.
90 Michael Apstein Aug 23, 2016

Paumanok, North Fork of Long Island (New York) Dry Rosé 2015

($18): As regular WineReviewOnline readers know well, I am not swept away by the tsunami of enthusiasm for rosé, often preferring to chill a light red wine, which makes my reaction to this one all the more startling.  Made from Cabernet Franc, this rosé is dry and crisp with lots of character.  In short, real wine, not your usual vapid rosé. It will be hard to find west of Manhattan, but it’s worth seeking out.
90 Michael Apstein Aug 23, 2016

Macari Vineyards, North Fork of Long Island (New York) “Number 1” 2013

($27): Macari, a top winery on Long Island, doesn’t rest on its laurels.  It, like many cutting edge wineries, is using large oval tanks made of concrete (“concrete eggs”) for fermentation.  The idea is that the porosity of these concrete eggs lies somewhere between stainless steel and wood and imparts finesse to the wine without wood flavors.  Whatever the explanation, this Sauvignon Blanc is riveting, yet not assaulting.  An ever so slightly creamy texture balances the bite.  It’s a great match for seafood.
91 Michael Apstein Jan 12, 2016

Ryan William Vineyard, Finger Lakes (New York) Dry Riesling 2012

($22, T. Edward Wines): This Riesling shows why the Finger Lakes region is rapidly becoming known as THE place for Riesling in America.  Ryan William Vineyard’s 2012 delivers a zesty cutting edge seasoned with the barest hint of spice.  All the components come together seamlessly, adding to its appeal.  Its exceptional length is another reason it’s easy to recommend.
92 Michael Apstein Jan 12, 2016

Macari Vineyards, North Fork of Long Island (New York) Cabernet Franc 2010

($34): Long Island wines do not command the respect they deserve.  Though many producers there believe Merlot to be the island’s signature grape, my vote goes to Cabernet Franc and Macari’s 2010 shows why.  To use a highly technical word, it’s yummy.  With lots of savory herbal notes combined with dark fruit flavors, it’s like a combination of Napa and Bordeaux.  Not overwrought or heavy, the leafy, but ripe, character of Cabernet Franc comes through in this gracefully balanced wine.  Suave tannins allow you to enjoy it this winter.
92 Michael Apstein Jan 12, 2016

Dr. Konstantin Frank, Finger Lakes (New York) Grüner Veltliner 2012

($15): I’ve had this wine twice in one week — and was impressed each time.  Tasted blind at the Critics Challenge International Wine Competition, I awarded it a platinum medal because of its grace, precision, minerality and riveting acidity.  Without realizing I had scored it so highly at the competition, I ordered a bottle at dinner in New York.  Consumed over two hours, it was even better because it had time to truly express itself.  The minerality became more evident, white pepper notes emerged, and yet its balance persisted.  It was the perfect choice for steamed mussels and fries because its weight and edginess continued to cut through the food — and well-priced, too.
93 Michael Apstein Jul 8, 2014

Paumanok, North Fork of Long Island (New York) Chenin Blanc 2012

($28): As with many wines from Long Island, the retail availability of this one is limited since three-quarters of Long Island’s wineries’ production is sold at the wineries.  Nonetheless, this crisp and refreshing Chenin Blanc is widely available in restaurants and retail shops the New York City area and as far afield as Chicago.  So if you are dining out and see it on a wine list, go for it.  As importantly, this Chenin Blanc is one of America’s best so it deserves recognition.  Racy mouth-watering acidity amplifies the white peach nuances in this bracing, low (11%-stated) alcohol wine.  It’s a versatile wine, perfect by itself and equally enticing to accompany sushi or simply grilled fish.
90 Michael Apstein Aug 27, 2013

Bedell, North Fork of Long Island (New York) Merlot 2009

($30): Good choice, Mr. President. Selected to be served at the celebration of the President’s inauguration, this Merlot shows how far the wines from Long Island have come. It fits the Long Island wine style of falling between the heavier and riper ones from California and the more reticent ones coming from Bordeaux. This one from Bedell, one of the leaders on Long Island, conveys cherry-like fruit notes intertwined with a hint of herbal nuances. Fine tannins allow you — or your inaugural guests — to enjoy this balanced wine now.
90 Michael Apstein Jan 22, 2013

Under the Radar: Long Island Merlot

Some wine areas are vaguely familiar but not well known or fashionable.  Parts of Southern Italy, such as Puglia, fit this category, as do parts of Spain, such as Manchuela.  But there are other areas, such as Long Island, that fly almost completely under the proverbial radar, showing up on the “screen” of very few consumers.

This is understandable enough in the case of Long Island, which evokes images of traffic jams and suburban sprawl rather than vineyards.  Even if your mind’s eye moves further east, to where the grapes are actually grown, you are likely to conjure up images of sailboats or upscale mansions in the Hamptons rather than vineyards.

Maybe the wines are unknown because it’s a new area.  The Hargraves planted the first wines on Long Island in 1973, less than 40 years ago.  However, the Marlborough region on the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island was planted at about the same time, and their Sauvignon Blancs have taken the world by storm.

You might think that proximity to New York City, which likes to think of itself as the wine capital of the world, would be a perfect market for Long Island wines and a springboard to wider popularity.  But the sad fact is that few Long Island wines can be found on the wine lists of New York City restaurants.

Merlot:  Long Island’s Most Planted Grape

Conceivably the answer to why the wines remain so obscure is simply that the wines themselves are not very good.  As if to address that question, the Long Island Merlot Alliance hosted a blind tasting last week in New York City.

The Long Island Merlot Alliance, founded in 2005 (perhaps not the best timing coming right after the movie, Sideways, with it’s famous “I’m not drinking any f#$%& Merlot”) is composed of six wineries–Castello di Borghese, Clovis Point, McCall Vineyard, Raphael, Sherwood House Vineyards and Wölffer Estate Vineyard.  Their aim is to make Merlot the “signature grape” of Long Island.  With 700 acres of it planted already, accounting for about one-third of all vineyards, Merlot is the most widely grown variety on Long Island.

Leslie Howard, winemaker at Raphael, insists, “Merlot is the top grape for the area” because of the soil and climate, which are quite similar to Bordeaux, Merlot’s traditional home.  But, he admits, “Other grapes grow well, too.”  Indeed, Raphael, founded in 1996 and planted only Merlot initially, has expanded its plantings to include the other Bordeaux varieties, both red and white.

“It’s dependable,” is the way Howard describes Merlot.  Because it’s an early ripening variety, it always ripens even with Long Island’s maritime-influenced cool climate.  Howard notes, “In hotter years Cabernet [Sauvignon] does well, but in cool years, we make rosé [from it].”  Howard continues, “the looser bunches [of Merlot] also means less rot,” an important advantage with Long Island’s humid climate.

A Blind Tasting Proves the Point

The tasting consisted of 14 Merlots or Merlot-based wines from around the world:  seven, one each from members of the Alliance plus their collaborative blend, dubbed Merliance, three each from France and California and one from Washington State.  The wines at the tasting were well matched.  All were from the 2007 vintage and, with the exception of one, Wölffer’s Christian’s Cuvée Merlot ($100), all were in the same price range, $25-58.

Tasters, members of the wine trade and journalists, were asked to score the wines based on a system that I don’t admire.  It required assigning up to 20 points in each of five categories–appearance, nose, palate, perceived quality and readiness for drinking–and then summing them to reach a final score.  To me, the categories do not have equal importance.  Moreover, pitting seven Long Island Merlots against seven from elsewhere gives a Long Island wine a 50 percent chance of finishing first based on random selection, while each other wine has only a 7 percent chance of finishing first.

Nevertheless, I suppose that overall seven-against-seven format made for a relatively even test of the Long Island Merlots, and the results were indeed illuminating.
Illuminating Results

My top five wines, ranked closely together, all came from Long Island.  I correctly identified the origin of only half of the wines–and I misidentified the origins of three of my top five wines.  (Whenever I don’t fare too well identifying a wine’s origin–and it occurs more frequently than I’d like to admit–I’m reminded of the response of noted British wine writer, Harry Waugh, to the question he was asked one evening at a wine dinner, have you ever confused a Burgundy with a Bordeaux?   His response, “Not since lunch.”)

In retrospect, I should have identified the Long Island wines because, stylistically, they fell just where I expected them to–in between the burly, ripe and oaky West Coast ones and the more austere ones from St. Emilion and Pomerol.  The ones from France had an inherent disadvantage because of the 2007 vintage was difficult there and produced leaner styled wines.  The Long Island Merlots had plenty of concentration and ripeness without being overdone.  In short, they had balance and harmony, with invigorating acidity that kept them fresh.  The tannins were polished making them immediately enjoyable.

My Ranking

Raphael, First Label Merlot (North Fork of Long Island) $42 (92 points)
Clovis Point, Vintners Select Merlot (North Fork of Long Island) $35 (91)
McCall Wines, Ben’s Blend (North Fork of Long Island) $45 (91)
Sherwood House Vineyards, Merlot (North Fork of Long Island) $25 (89)
Wölffer Estate Vineyards, Christian’s Cuvée (The Hamptons, LI)  $100 (88)

Chateau La Croix St-Georges (Pomerol) $58 (87)
Freemark Abbey Merlot (Napa Valley) $28 (85)
Chateau La Fleur Cardinale (St. Emilion) $45 (83)
Castello di Borghese, Merlot Reserve (North Fork of Long Island) $29 (83)
Chateau Ste. Michelle, Canoe Ridge Estate Merlot
(Horse Heaven Hills, Columbia Valley, Washington) $25 (83)
Chateau La Confession (St. Emilion) $42 (82)
Duckhorn Vineyards (Napa Valley) (81)
Swanson (Oakville, Napa Valley) $29 (81)
Long Island Merlot Alliance, Merliance (Long Island) $35 (80)

Questions Remain

It’s clear that Long Island produces excellent Merlots, but since it is also home to other distinctive wines, only time will tell whether that grape reigns supreme.  But the big question now is:  Why aren’t Long Island Merlots yet up on the radar screen of more consumers?  They certainly deserve to be.

May 3, 2011

Hermann J. Wiemer, Finger Lakes (New York) Dry Riesling 2008

($16):  Despite a relatively short history–the winery was established only in 1979–Hermann J. Wiemer makes some of this country’s best Rieslings.  This one’s serious stuff with a hint of floral elements gracefully intertwined with piercing minerality.  Perfectly dry, it’s long, balanced and precise.  A touch of flintiness in the finish is a pleasant dividend.  Riesling fans should not miss it.  Everyone else should try it to see why so many are already Riesling fans. 91 Michael Apstein Apr 26, 2011

Dr. Konstantin Frank, Finger Lakes (New York) Riesling Dry 2008

($15):  Many people are surprised to hear that New York produces world-class wines.  But the Finger Lakes region is home to some of this country’s best Rieslings.  And Dr. Konstantin Frank’s rank among the top.  Dr. Frank, in the 1950s, figured out that vineyards planted on the shores of these deep-water lakes would benefit from the lakes’ moderating influences, which would prevent the vines from freezing during the harsh New York winter.  The relative coolness of the area is ideal for Riesling.  Their Dry Riesling is just that: dry.  It delivers earthy, slightly pungent grapefruit rind-like flavors that are supported by lively acidity.  It would be a good choice for sushi or Thai cuisine. 88 Michael Apstein Aug 24, 2010

The Grapes of Roth, Long Island (New York) Riesling 2008

($22):  As Ed McCarthy, my colleague here at WRO, pointed out in a recent column, winemakers on Long Island’s East End are turning out some impressive wines.  And this is one of them.  Roman Roth, one of the area’s best winemakers and the brain behind winemaking at Wolffer Estate, also has his own label.   Despite Roth’s German heritage, his Riesling does not fall into the typical fruity (off-dry) style for which that country is known.  Rather, it’s dry and racy with an alluring earthy, almost chalky, minerality.  It challenges the conventional wisdom that the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York is the place for Riesling.  It easily does double duty as a stand-alone aperitif or a match for a wide variety of dishes from simple seafood to spicy fare. 90 Michael Apstein Oct 13, 2009

Dr. Konstantin Frank, Finger Lakes (New York) “Semi-Dry” Riesling 2006

($18): Dr. Frank succeeds with Riesling that retains a dollop of residual sugar because sufficient acidity keeps it fresh, not cloying.  It may lack the engaging minerality and length of Frank’s Dry Riesling, but it is an excellent choice for spicy Asian fare, where a touch of sweetness is welcome to cut the bite of the food.  This producer’s wines consistently achieve excellent balance. 88 Michael Apstein Jul 22, 2008

Dr. Konstantin Frank, Finger Lakes (New York) Pinot Gris 2006

($23): Although the Finger Lakes region of New York is known for stunning Riesling, this Pinot Gris shows the potential for that varietal in the region as well.  Bone dry, with nuances of spiced pear and good density, it is clearly a Pinot Gris–not a Pinot Grigio–style of wine and a very good one at that.  Its mouth cleansing acidity persists into its fine finish. 89 Michael Apstein Jul 22, 2008

Dr. Konstantin Frank, Finger Lakes (New York) Gewurztraminer 2006

($28): The problem for consumers with Gewurztraminer, like Riesling, is the unknown and unpredictable level of sweetness.  Dr. Frank’s is a gorgeous example of dry Gewurztraminer that highlights the spice of the varietal.  Its prominent perfume suggests sweetness, but instead the wine delivers nuances of lychee nuts and spiced pears and finishes clean and dry.  This impeccable balance is accomplished far too infrequently in Gewurztraminer. 90 Michael Apstein Jul 22, 2008

Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars, Finger Lakes (New York) Rkatsiteli 2006

($20): Rkatsiteli, a grape native to the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia and widely planted in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, has naturally very high acidity and is often used for sweet wines.  Although Dr. Frank’s version has 7.5 grams of residual sugar, it finishes bone dry, with an almost bitter almond note.  Nuances or herbs and lemons give it added liveliness and make it extremely well suited for full-flavored cuisine. 92 Michael Apstein Jul 8, 2008

The Grapes of Roth, Long Island (New York) Merlot 2001

($50): Roman Roth, the winemaker at Wolffer Estate, one of Long Island’s best wineries, is making his own wine from purchased grapes.  This 2001 Merlot, his first vintage, is an outstanding wine and shows the potential for that region.  Not overblown — and barely over 13% alcohol — its succulent black fruit, earthy nuances, fine tannins and good structure are harmonious.  The oak flavors are still noticeable, but well integrated, not intrusive. 92 Michael Apstein Dec 19, 2006

Vintage New York

The current fashion in wine, certainly in New World wines, is for ripe, fruity flavors and the massive alcohol that invariably accompanies them. Consumers looking for alternatives need to look outside the mainstream. Wines from New York State, which certainly qualify as “outside the mainstream,” offer an extra touch of ripeness that is the New World’s signature, while retaining vibrancy that a cool climate imparts.

If New York wines have a problem, is not their quality but rather their lack of cachet. Although New York is the 3rd largest wine producing state in the USA, few outside of its boundaries recognize its wines. Even its citizens seem surprised when told that winemakers make excellent Merlot on Long Island.

Part of the problem stems from New York’s leading varietals, Riesling and Merlot. Wine connoisseurs and writers regularly praise Riesling, but when’s the last time you heard someone say, “I’ll have a glass of Riesling.” It’s just not a popular varietal at the moment. Merlot still retains its visibility, but has taken a bashing since Miles scornfully rejected it in the film, “Sideways.”

Riesling Reigns

Call it East Coast prejudice, but my vote for this country’s best site for Riesling goes to the Finger Lakes Region in upstate New York.

My vote goes to New York despite Eroica (the Riesling collaboration between Ernest Loosen and Chateau Ste Michelle, which has been a consistently delicious example since its first vintage, 1999) and despite the terrific Late Harvest Rieslings from Chateau St. Jean and Joseph Phelps from years past.

Nevertheless, the Finger Lakes Rieslings made by Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard and by Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars in the Finger Lakes region are consistently sensational. Wiemer, who hails from the epicenter of great Riesling along the banks of Germany’s Mosel River, started his winery only in 1979. In a very short time, he has made world-class wines from the shores of Seneca Lake, judging from a tasting last year of his 1981 and 1982 Riesling and his 1984, 1986, and 1987 Selected Late Harvest Rieslings. These wines have aged beautifully, delivering astounding complexity. Their lush flavors are balanced by an invigorating acidity that makes them a pleasure to drink.

Paul Lukacs, one of the leading authorities on American wine, selected Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars as one of the 40 wines he profiled in his newest book, The Great Wines of America: The Top Forty Vintners, Vineyards, and Vintages (W. W. Norton). Frank’s 2004 Dry Riesling ($16) won a Gold Medal at the prestigious Critics Challenge Wine Competition 2005 and their 2003 rendition took a Gold Medal at the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition in 2005. It’s appropriate that Dr. Franks’ wines are receiving their well-deserved recognition because he, more than anyone, was responsible for the modern New York wine industry and the state’s great Rieslings.

Native American (vitis labrusca) grapes, such as Catawba and Concord were grown in the Finger Lakes region since the 19th century. Those varieties are great for making jelly, but not for making fine wine. Vitis vinifera, the species of grape common in Europe (and transplanted around the world to places such as California), is the one best suited for making premium wine such as Merlot, Riesling or Chardonnay. Upstate New York grape growers shunned Vitis vinifera, thinking it was too fragile to survive their winters. But Dr. Frank, a German born, Russian trained botanist, showed that vinifera vines could thrive in the region.

Frank, who immigrated to the US in the 1950s, had made wine from vinifera vines in the Ukraine, where the winters are more severe than in the Finger Lakes region. Experience taught him that the nearby lakes would moderate the climate and temperature and protect the vines during winter. In 1962, he founded his winery on the shores of Lake Keuka where he still makes superb Rieslings. The “lake effect” not only keeps the vines from freezing during the winter, but also cools them in the spring, retarding budbreak and protecting them against frost. The overall cool climate of upstate New York provides a perfect environment for Riesling and allows the grape to retain its hallmark vibrant, balancing acidity.

Considered by many connoisseurs to be the world’s best white wine variety, Riesling is under appreciated in the US. Many consumers perceive it as a sweet — and hence, unfashionable–wine. In truth most California versions are cloying and heavy because the warm climate there robs them of acidity. Well made Riesling from an appropriate climate is in my view the most versatile and food friendly white wine, ready to accompany a diversity of fare from spicy Asian cuisine to a summery clambake. Wines labeled Late Harvest Riesling, though too sweet for most food, are fabulous with cheese or by themselves after a meal.

Long Island: More than a Suburb of New York City

As in the Finger Lakes region, vinifera grapes grow well on the East End of Long Island (where virtually all of the wineries are located) because of the moderating influences of the Long Island Sound, Peconic Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean.

Despite having a mere 24 wineries and 1,600 acres planted to vines (compared to 10,000 acres in the Finger Lakes and 50,000 acres in the Napa Valley), Long Island has been receiving recognition at national wine competitions as a place for making great wine. Galluccio Family Wineries on the North Fork was awarded “Winery of the Year, Eastern United States” at the Critics Challenge Wine Competition 2005 for their string of Gold Medal wines.

Some winemakers believe that Long Island wineries should focus on Merlot. First planted in 1974 by Hargrave Vineyard (the founder of the Long Island wine industry) and Mudd’s Vineyard, Merlot now accounts for about a third of all plantings. In late 2005, five wineries (Pellegrini Vineyards, Raphael, Sherwood House Vineyards, Shinn Estate Vineyards, and Wolffer Estate Vineyard) formed the Long Island Merlot Alliance in a “cooperative effort…to demonstrate to the wine world our commitment to…quality Merlot on Long Island.” (Curiously, Bedell Cellars, one of Long Island’s stellar Merlot producers and the only other New York winery profiled in Lukacs’ book, opted not to join the alliance.)

Roman Roth, winemaker at Wolffer Estate in Sagaponack in the Hamptons, compares the soil and climate on the East End to that of Bordeaux and believes that’s why Merlot, Bordeaux’s primary grape, does so well. (Wolffer also makes stellar Chardonnay, a grape not grown in Bordeaux). Merlot has the advantage of ripening early thus minimizing the chance the crop will be harmed by autumn rain, or by the unusual viticultural risk on Long Island of hurricanes. Many Long Island producers, such as Bedell Cellars, Raphael and Wolffer Estate, excel with this variety, using it to produce lush, deep wines. A tasting of Bedell’s Merlots in 2004 showed how beautifully the wines develop in the bottle. Their Merlots from 1987, 1993 and 1997 were magnificent examples of complex, classy wines. Bedell’s 2001 Reserve Merlot ($30) shows similar promise.

Wolffer consistently makes a range of superior Merlots. Since all the grapes, even from a single vineyard, are not of equal quality, a winemaker can select certain batches for a special bottling. Wolffer’s three Merlots (Reserve, $22, Estate Selection, $35, and Premier Cru, $125), all suave and silky, give consumers a chance to compare different quality levels and to decide which fits their budget.

Raphael, one of the newest Long Island wineries, has devoted 70% of its roughly 50 acres to Merlot because they thought it had a proven track record on the North Fork. Their 2000 First Label Merlot ($35) is sumptuous; the 2001 La Fontana Merlot, their second label (think junior varsity) is a great $20 bottle of wine.

Other winemakers don’t want to put all their grapes in one basket. They feel that there is inadequate experience to know what grapes grow best and that focusing exclusively on Merlot could be problematic in the future. Martha Clara Vineyards, located on the North Fork, hosts an annual Anything But Chardonnay & Merlot Festival where last year several Long Island wineries poured marvelous examples of Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc and other varietal wines. The warmer climate on Long Island, compared to the Finger Lakes, allows Sauvignon Blanc to ripen well, avoiding the overly grassy or herbaceous flavors that sometimes bedevil that wine. The 2004 Sauvignon Blanc from Macari Vineyards ($16) and from Paumanok Vineyards ($20) and Osprey Dominion Vineyard’s 2002 Fumé Blanc ($15) are all excellent.

Cabernet Franc, like Merlot, ripens early and is also well suited to the area. Macari Vineyards’ 2002 Cabernet Franc, an outstanding wine, shows how well a talented winemaker can do with this grape ($24). Similarly, Martha Clara’s 2004 Gewqrztraminer ($16), with lovely, but not over-the-top, spice suggests a promising future for this varietal.

Long Island Chardonnays are more restrained than their opulent California counterparts because the grapes become less ripe in this cooler climate. Most Long Island wineries make at least one Chardonnay, selecting grapes according to quality. Lenz Winery makes three particularly noteworthy ones labeled White, Silver or Gold Label Chardonnay ($12, $15 and $23, respectively). Two of Galluccio Family Wineries’ Gold Medals from the Critics Challenge Wine Competition 2005 were for their refined Gristina Chardonnay ($13) and their wonderfully expressive and balanced Cru George Allaire Chardonnay ($22).

Although vineyards were planted on Manhattan during Colonial times, the state’s industry is young, with more than 80% of the wineries founded since the New York Farm Winery Act was enacted in 1976. Prices for New York wines are reasonable too, considering their quality. Unlike California, there is only one New York wine selling for over $100 a bottle; most cost between $15 and $30. Given the industry’s youth and the region’s obscurity, some consumers are surprised that the prices are not lower. They fail to realize that making premium wine is expensive because, like waterfront property, there is a limited supply of prime locales for vineyards. And sadly, for the consumer, if New York wineries continue to make wines like these, their reputation will catch up with the quality and prices will rise.

Special thanks to Samuel Seidman, Wiemer’s former distributor in Massachusetts, for the opportunity to taste the older Wiemer Rieslings.

February 14, 2006.