SAG HARBOR, N.Y.
LONG ISLAND wines don't get much attention. They certainly don't get much respect, and it's not hard to understand why.
They are East Coast wines, and despite the occasional blips on the radar screen for rieslings from the Finger Lakes or viogniers from Virginia, the East Coast is largely consigned to the cut-out bin. In "Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide" (Simon & Schuster, 2002), Robert M. Parker Jr. consolidates his thoughts on the wines of Maryland, New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania to one page out of 1,635. On the plus side, that was more attention than he gave to the wines of Bulgaria.
Not that I should point fingers. My last article on Long Island wines was in April 2005. It was also my first.
And then there's the issue of merlot. Just as the merlot grape was establishing a reputation for making many of the best wines on eastern Long Island, the movie "Sideways" came out, with its blanket smear of merlot. Regardless of the fact that Long Island merlots are often very different from California merlots — more refreshing and better with food — it seemed that Long Island would never catch a break.
So when Charles Massoud, who owns Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue with his wife, Ursula, and their three sons, invited me to eastern Long Island for a tasting of older vintages from four producers, I was eager to attend, genuinely curious to see how well these wines aged.
We agreed to taste the wines here in Sag Harbor, a pretty resort village on the South Fork that doesn't have much in the way of vineyards itself. But it has a fine restaurant with a great wine list at the American Hotel. The wines would come from Paumanok and three other East End producers: Wölffer Estate in Sagaponack, Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue and Lenz Winery in Peconic. Each of the four estates has a history stretching back into the 1980's, infants to the rest of the wine-producing world, perhaps, but senior citizens on Long Island.
Older wines are not necessarily better wines, but the capacity of a wine to age is considered a cardinal virtue, especially in wines made from Bordeaux grapes like cabernet sauvignon and merlot. This rule is being questioned, particularly in California, where a fruitier, sweeter style of wine that is high in alcohol and low in acidity has become popular.
Dan Berger, who writes a newsletter, "Vintage Experiences," is among the critics of these wines, calling them incapable of aging. Defenders insist that they will age well, but others question the premise, suggesting that whether a wine will age has little to do with its capacity to offer pleasure.
To me, this assertion is simply a rationalization for making wines incapable of aging. Of course a great wine must be able not only to last, but also to improve over time. Mr. Parker has pointed out the difference between wines that survive and wines that evolve. A survivor wine doesn't necessarily benefit from aging. It endures time, retaining its primary flavors and aromas rather than developing and changing. But a wine that evolves develops layers of complexity, buttressing the youthful fruitiness with other dimensions. Those are the characteristics of old Bordeaux, Burgundies and Barolos. California reds, too, are entirely capable of aging.
So how would these Long Island wines fare? When winemakers invite a writer to taste their older bottles, they are going to choose wisely. If they are aiming to prove a point, they are going to arrange the odds in their favor as much as possible. Nonetheless, the 15 wines tasted over eight courses (including hors d'oeuvres, cheese and dessert), offered plenty of surprises.
For one, not all the wines were red. A magnum of 1994 chardonnay from Wölffer Estate, served with a minty, pure pea soup, was rich and round. The youthful acidity had softened, and I doubt this wine will last many more years, but it was full of pleasing nutlike, mineral flavors.
Unlike the other wineries at the tasting, Wölffer is on the South Fork, and when the other producers spoke generally over dinner of the pleasures of North Fork wines, Christian Wölffer would interrupt. "East End, you mean," he said.
But things quickly turned red. With a duck magret, we drank three merlots, 1997, '95 and '93, from Lenz, which I think makes the most interesting Long Island wines. Each Lenz merlot had flavors of minerals and licorice and was balanced, varying in intensity depending on the vintage. Of the three, my favorite was the '97, but clearly these wines all came from the same plot of dirt.
A '95 merlot from Bedell, served with a bison fillet, tasted young and tannic, possibly because it was served from a double magnum. Wines in bigger bottles tend to age more slowly. The Bedell style has evolved, and more recent vintages taste sleek and polished, with integrated oak and fruit flavors. A '97 Wölffer merlot was full-bodied with lingering anise and fruit flavors.
We did not taste only merlots. With cheese we tried two cabernets, a 1995 Tuthill's Lane from Paumanok and a '93 Bedell. Both tasted surprisingly fresh, with plenty of fruit flavors. Would they evolve with more age? I wasn't sure. By contrast, a '95 Bedell Cupola, cabernet blended with merlot and cabernet franc, had developed an earthy, minerally complexity that came as close as any of the wines to reminding me of a Bordeaux.
What to make of it all? This was a small sample of wines, but I think Long Island wines are proving themselves worthy of respect. The best have a style of their own, leaner than the California wines with lower alcohol and higher acidity. As tastes swing away from the fruit bomb end of the spectrum, people are going to find a lot of pleasure in the wines from the North Fork. Sorry, Mr. Wölffer. Make that the East End.