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