The whole growing season wasn’t sub-par, but one of the most important parts was.
After a perfectly fine spring and summer, untimely rain and then two October frosts did the vintage in. Basically, frost kills the vines’ canopy, stopping photosynthesis and keeping the grapes from getting fully ripe. You can talk about “hang time” (on the vine) all you want, but without the sugar factory, the grapes won’t develop any further.
Some vineyards dodged the frost — either both or the first, more detrimental one — and there are good wines to be had from 2003. Sherwood House Vineyards, one of my favorite small producers, has recently released its 2003 merlot and chardonnay, and it seems they’ve done okay with the down vintage.
Owned and operated by Charles and Barbara Smithen, Sherwood House Vineyards — and their little tasting room — located north of Route 48 on Elijah’s Lane in Mattituck, share a passion for the East End that comes through in the wines.
They purchased their 1860 farmhouse in 1996 and planted their vines soon after. In 1999, after selling their grapes to other wineries for a few years, they decided to make their own wine. Since then, they’ve focused mostly on Merlot and Chardonnay, while also bottling some Cabernet Franc. Their 2001 Chardonnay was and is one of the best examples of Long Island chardonnay made in a rich Burgundian style, and their Merlots always display the North Fork’s terroir under the watchful eye of winemaker Gilles Martin, who also makes wine at Martha Clara Vineyards.
Sherwood House Vineyards 2003 Chardonnay ($20) is a medium gold in the glass. The nose is reminiscent of buttered toffee and caramel corn, with only the most subtle hints of apple and citrus beneath. Medium-to-full bodied, it’s not as elegant or fruit-forward as previous vintages and the oak influence is more obvious. Still, there is just enough fruit for balance and subtle acidity to keep it from being weighty on the palate. This isn’t the Chardonnay style I typically favor, but if rich, barrel fermented Chardonnay is your thing, you’ll like this one.
Much more to my liking is the Sherwood House Vineyards 2003 Merlot ($24). Juicy medium garnet, this wine’s nose is straightforward with black cherries, blackberries and light smoky oak. This is a very Old World-style wine with a rustic edge that is charming even if the nuance and grace of a typical Sherwood House merlot is a bit absent. It’s not complex, but French oak influence, cherry-blackberry flavors and a medium-long finish are tasty nonetheless.
Stop by that tiny tasting room nestled among their vines. It’s not a big room, but the wines are well worth the trip off of the main drag and down the gravel driveway. If you get lucky, you’ll see the Smithen’s poodles, Rufus and Raven, who act as unofficial greeters and tasting room workers.
(This story appeared in the 10/27 issue of Dan's Papers)