(This story appeared originally in the 4/14 issue of the Long Island Press)
It's no secret that Long Island produces its share of wine. You can find local labels easily in stores, and wine tasting on the East End has become a popular activity. Some of the wines are good, and others aren't, but if you look hard, there's a select group that is truly world-class.
The LI wine region, born in 1973 with a single vineyard, has grown to now include more than 60 vineyards and 30-plus wineries. If you've tried LI wines before, chances are you picked something up at your local wine shop—probably a sweetish blend with a cute, water fowl-adorned label, or a gulpable, second-label wine from one of the larger producers.
If you didn't like them, you're not alone. These wines sell extremely well, but they often lack the elegance and character of the world's best wines. If that's all you've tried, you haven't even tasted LI wine yet.
The fact is, LI produces wines that compare favorably with those from the top winemaking regions in the world, like Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace and even Austria and Hungary. You just need to know where to look, and most of the time, your local wine shop isn't the place to find them.
Here are 10 wines, five white and five red, that are made in such small quantities by smaller wineries, they are sold mostly to restaurants, upscale wine shops and in their own tasting rooms. Each is worth the trouble of tracking a bottle or two down.
Because there's no better way to start a party, let's begin with Lieb Family Cellars' 2001 Blanc de Blanc ($35). While many top sparklers, including authentic Champagne, are made with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or a blend of both, Lieb's offering is 100 percent Pinot Blanc. Of the 375 cases made, only 160 cases are left and it's easy to see why. The wine is citrusy, with pear and subtle honeydew melon flavors, and features the tiny bubbles found only in the best. It's perfect paired with shellfish and light salads, or for everyday celebrating.
To many wine lovers, Riesling is the most noble of all white grapes. Too often however, American Rieslings lack the elegance and acidity of the best German examples. Not so with Waters Crest Winery's 2003 Riesling ($17). Jim Waters, the winery's owner and winemaker, crafts this mouthwatering, crisp white that is unmistakably Alsatian in style. Filled with melon and lime flavors and bright acidity, it's great with spicy Chinese or Thai take-out.
If you think dessert wines are always burningly high in alcohol or syrupy sweet, think again. Macari Vineyard's Block E 2003 ($35) is ripe, rich and filled with honey and tropical fruit flavors like mango and pineapple. It's sweet without being heavy and shows lively acidity and hints of crisp pear. Its long, elegant finish will leave you wanting another sip. Open this at the end of a meal and watch it disappear.
Another wine from Macari Vineyards, the 2004 Early Wine ($13), is 100 percent Chardonnay, but you'd never know it. Released just months after the grapes are picked, this tantalizing, appetite-whetting wine overflows with bright citrus fruit and crisp apple flavors without any of the oak or butter flavors often associated with Chardonnay. If you're sitting by the pool or beach this summer, this is the wine you should be drinking.
If you like your Chardonnay a bit more traditional, 2003 Comtesse Therese Russian Oak Chardonnay ($18) is a fine option. It's delicious and lush without being heavy or over-oaked. With toasty vanilla and beautiful underlying fruitiness, it's definitely not a California Chardonnay. This wine, and the well-regarded Comtesse Therese Merlots, is available at both of The Tasting Room's locations (a co-op tasting room for small producers).
Also available at The Tasting Room are two intriguing reds from Broadfields Wine Cellars. The Broadfields Wine Cellars 2002 Cabernet Franc ($18) is smoky and spicy with ripe black plum and vanilla accents. Cabernet Franc is well known in France's Loire Valley and is starting to catch on here. But LI is known as a land of Merlot, and the recently released Broadfields Wine Cellars' 2002 Merlot ($24) is deep, sultry crimson in the glass, with complex layers of blackberry and black cherry flavors accented by vanilla and licorice notes. It's extremely smooth, with smoky, spicy tannins.
One of the Island's newest and smallest producers crafts the sophisticated Roanoke Vineyards 2000 Merlot ($38) a toasty, spicy wine filled with lush berry flavors and a lingering, layered finish highlighted by a touch of mint. Even at $38, it's a value that rivals many LI wines at twice the price. There are only 75 cases of this available at their rustic tasting room. Keep an eye out for a summer Rosé release and two different red blends in the fall.
Yet another top-flight Merlot is the Shinn Estate Vineyards 2002 "young vines" Merlot ($24). This nuanced red is expertly balanced and offers nice black plum and berry fruitiness with hints of vanilla cream and cinnamon. With feather-soft tannins, good acidity and well-integrated oakiness, it's a great food wine, which isn't surprising considering owners David Page and Barbara Shinn also own (and run) NYC's Home restaurant.
Lastly, if you're like Miles from Sideways and just won't drink any "f**king Merlot," Channing Daughters Winery in the Hamptons has just the thing—Blaufrankisch, a major grape in Hungary and Austria. Channing Daughters Winery's 2003 Blaufrankisch ($22), the only of its kind made on LI, presents delicious black plum and cherry flavors accented by grilled meat and black pepper. The tannins are incredibly soft, barely noticeable, but they bring a spiciness. It usually sells out to wine club members before being released to the public, but if you go to their tasting room, you might get lucky. If not, join the wine club for next year.
To learn more about these and other LI wines, visit www.liwines.com.