Friday, September 28, 2007

Twelve at 12 Years Old: A Tasting of Mature Long Island Reds

Imagine this: a gorgeous late September Sunday afternoon in the bucolic North Fork of Long Island, verdant fields of fresh sod, roadside patches teeming with young families picking bright orange pumpkins, the weary afternoon sun's rays coming in at an oblique angle casting a warm golden glow on everything. One of those stunning afternoons that reminds you how good it is just to be alive.

The back roads of Pernand-Vergelesses? Cruising the hilly outback in the Willamette Valley, Oregon? Nope. This was the scene last Sunday when I went to the North Fork to meet Lenn and five other good people to taste a case of mature Long Island reds.

You probably know already that Lenn is a true believer in Long Island wine. He has encouraged many a wine lover to explore the wines, understanding that Long Island has its own style - this is cool climate wine, not jammy-ripe and big, not typical new world wine at all, in fact. Lenn can tell you about the producers who make wine that truly reflects climate and terroir, he can tell you about experiments planting Chenin Blanc and other grapes new to the region, and he can tell you how Long Island wines improve each year as wine makers hone their craft. This guys lives and loves New York wine!

So when some people claim that Long Island's Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Bordeaux-style blends are not built to improve with serious aging, well, that really perturbs him. Lenn decided to put together a tasting of 12 year old wines from the 1995 vintage. He brought together a group of people who love wine, and who with the exception of myself, work in the Long Island wine industry. How would these wines hold up? What brand of pleasure would they offer?

They held up beautifully, and offered complex and varied pleasures, I am happy to report. Complex secondary aromas and flavors had emerged, and we had lots to talk about and enjoy.

Tasters included Joe Watson, owner of Vine, the wine bar and cafe in Greenport, Chris Watkins, Director of Operations at Roanoke Vineyards, Tracy Ellen Kamens and Jared Skolnick of Grand Cru Classes, Lenn, and myself. We gathered at the renovated former goat cheese farm that houses the Grand Cru Classes tasting room in Mattituck.

Let me begin by telling you how utterly impressed I was with the way Tracy and Jared set up the tasting. Completely professional and totally comfortable. I had my own "place mat" with 12 numbered circles, one for each stem. There was plenty of water and bread, and I had my own little spittoon. If their wine classes are anywhere near as great as the way they host a tasting, it will be quite difficult to get a reservation.

Okay, now about those wines. They were very much alive, with broad and interesting flavors, sometimes delicious, sometimes lacking a bit of body, but in general, vibrant and alive. At about 13% alcohol or lower, they brought food to mind, from venison, to salmon, to tapas, to steak. And a sense of place? I definitely got it. There was a lingering menthol/eucalyptus/herbal quality that remained in the mouth and the nose long after swallowing many of these wines. And a spicy character in the initial aromas.

Chris Watkins said that Long Island is less about opulent fruit and more about spice, and I understood what he meant tasting the wines. He also explained that 1995 should have been a tremendous vintage in Long Island, with perfect weather, but back then people didn't let the grapes hang as long as they do now, they didn't make the most of it. That might explain the lean nature of some of a few of the wines.

First we tasted one Pinot and one Cabernet Franc, both by Hargrave, the founding winery in Long Island. Louisa Hargrave sold the vineyards a while ago and now Castello di Borghese makes wine from vines. Then we blind tasted three Cabernet Sauvignons, three blends, and four Merlots. Nice!

The Pinot was a welcome surprise. There was obvious bricking in the color and not just at the rims, bricking at the core of the wine. The nose was quite alive though, with wispy hints of stewed cherries, caramel, and dried figs. The palate was just lovely, with more cooked cherries, some minty notes and nice pomegranate acidity at the finish. All of the tannins had melted away and the wine was silky and fine. I wanted to steal away with this bottle, tuck into a plate of lean venison with dried cherry compote and enjoy it all evening long, all by myself. Sigh, not to be.

The Cabernet Franc was not as impressive, but I liked it a lot, probably more than anyone else at the table. I enjoyed the mediciney character of the nose and palate, and the hints of leather and dried flowers.

Our first Cabernet turned out to be from The Lenz, one of the standard bearers on the Fork. This wine, like almost all that followed, had a youthful appearance with no signs of bricking. The nose was minty with some dried rose petals, very inviting. The palate was dark and plummy with mushrooms, leather, and earth. Still kind of tannic - maybe it could continue to improve? It was my personal favorite of the three Cabs, but some folks preferred one of the other wines - they were all vivid and interesting.

Pellegrini produced the second Cabernet, and it was quite a dark and young looking purple. The nose was cocoa, plum, and leather, with palate staining dark fruit and that wintergreen finish. The third Cab was a Paumanok. Also dark purple to the core. I wasn't getting much on the nose, and I found the palate to be a bit green, maybe the fruit was not fully ripe. Others found interesting flavors in this wine, though, which just goes to show that wine is not like math where this is one correct answer.

There was one wine from our blended flight (although technically, wines labeled "Cabernet Sauvignon" or "Merlot" may contain up to 25% juice from other grape, so some of the Cabs were probably blends) that stood out for me. It was my favorite wine of the tasting, the Pinot aside. This was the Pellegrini Encore. A youthful ruby color and a rich and inviting nose that balanced high toned fruit, dark cassis, and fresh herbs. The palate was simply classic Bordeaux-blend, with juicy dark fruit, cedar, caramel, an herbal quality, and some lingering raspberry on the finish. The wine was clean and pure, and felt great in my mouth. How happy was I when at the end of the tasting, I got to take this one home? Very happy. It was beautiful the next evening too, by the way, with roast pork chops, fried green tomatoes, and a salad with farmer's cheese dressing.

The Jamesport blend had a nose of cocoa and cassis, and a fresh tasting palate of plums, tobacco, some cocoa, and something floral underneath it all. Bedell Cellars Cupola blend was the darkest wine of the flight, with an earthy and floral nose. The palate was pretty grippy, I thought, with nice dark fruit and spices, and something like an aspirin/powdery feeling on the tip of the tongue.

By the time we got to our flight of four Merlots, we had been at it for over three hours, and our palates were probably were not as sharp as they might have been. Also, Lenn was completely drunk by this point, which was kind of surprising. Usually he spits, but whattaya gonna do?

The Merlots as a group stood apart from the other wines to me in their aroma profiles. These wines were about smoke and tar, chocolate and spice. I was really impressed. I had no cler favorite, but I very much enjoyed the Wolffer Estate (our only South Fork wine) Merlot. It had a bit of bricking in the otherwise dark purple color, with a nose of spices, cocoa, vanilla, and some flowers. The palate was dark plum, still sappy, some cedar, and the flavors that carried through from the nose. Nicely balanced with firm tannins, a slight bitterness on the finish. Maybe a tiny bit hollow somewhere in the mid-palate, but I really liked this wine.

I also liked the Bedell Cellars Reserve Merlot, a wine that to me was quite different from the others. It was a more translucent ruby with hints of orange at the rims, and a nose of nutmeg, smoke, and bloody meat. The palate was clean red fruit with more meat. It reminded me of some grenache-based wines from the southern Rhone. It was very drinkable with good balance.

Jamesport's Churchill Merlot was also nice, with black tea aromas to go with the tar and smoke on the nose, and cocoa and leather on the palate. This wine had a somewhat lighter body. The Lenz Merlot had hints of orange at the rims and powerful brett on the nose, also some orange peel and eucalyptus. The palate was spicy with chocolate, plums, and grainy tannins.

And I was of course kidding about Lenn being drunk. He's a consummate professional who would never do such a thing at a tasting.

This was a wonderful event, with knowledgeable and great people, and truly fascinating old wines that offered lots of pleasure. Thanks to Lenn for setting this up and inviting me, and to Tracy and Jared for hosting. I want to do it again next weekend...


Dr. Debs said...

Wow. A brilliant piece of writing about a tasting experience that made me go green with envy. What a fabulous day. Thanks for writing it up for the rest of us.

RougeAndBlanc said...

Yes, great writeup. You summed up the quality of NY wines from older vintages nicely.
Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to buy mature NY wines from the retail market, even at shops like Vintage at SOHO. Even if they are availabe, it will be really expansive.

Joe said...

It is not easy to put together a flight of 12 old wines from the same vintage - that sounds amazing! Just curious - brown bag blinding - no sludge in the glases? I assume BKG took the picture, keeping his identity 'hidden'?

Brooklynguy said...

Thanks Dr. Debs, very kind words.

Hi Andrew - so buy new wines instead and lay some down for the future. Pellegrini Merlot can be had today for under $20. There are others too - see what Lenn has to recommend...

And Joe - no kidding. Lenn did an amazing job with this. There was, in fact, some sediment in the glass on at least three of the wines. I just "drank around" it. Yup, I took the pix.

Joe said...

Once again, a very cool tasting. I hate brown bagging reds now, any good wine has sludge. I guess if they were stood up for a week you avoid most of that. Very cool. You're not going to pull a L.I. on me next month, are ya? ;)

Brooklynguy said...

upright for a few days does the trick, yes. not yet sure what i'm pulling on you. i've considered putting together a "Brooklynguy's Loire favorites" kind of thing, but i have another idea now that i'm mulling over...something related to the November WBW, which we could team up and do together if you're interested. we'll talk before you get here. i will email you once i have something more solid planned out, but for now you should plan on dragging yer arse to brooklyn on sunday afternoon...