By Lenn Thompson, Executive Editor
As someone who has tasted several vintages worth now, it's almost impossible for me to understand why the Massoud family, owners of Paumanok Vineyards, are the only ones growing and making chenin blanc on Long Island.
It ripens and performs consistently in the vineyard, not requiring unique or special treatment -- outside of the regular challenges of growing grapes in a maritime climate, of course.
The winemaking Massouds, first Charles and now his son Kareem, have been working with the grape long enough to understand how to get the most from it in the cellar -- where it again doesn't necessitate any special techniques or trickery.
And perhaps most importantly it sells out -- and quickly -- every summer. Even at $28. It borders on cult status, really.
That Eric Asimov of the New York Times lauds it at least once a year doesn't hurt that status either.
So why isn't anyone else growing or making chenin here?
Ask Charles, who founded the winery in 1983 with his wife Ursula, and he'll smile, shrug and say something along the lines of "We don't know. But we are not complaining."And why would they? They have a unique and delicious differentiator -- Long Island's only chenin blanc.
Giving Chenin a Shot
The story of how the Massouds came to grow their now-seven acres of chenin blanc starts in 1989 when they purchased an abandoned vineyard out of bankruptcy.
Even though the vineyard had been neglected for many years, the vines were still viable, though it was still a "gamble" according to Charles.
"We started working on removing trees that had grown in the middle of many rows and it took us a few months to get it ready for the season," he remembers. There were 11 varieties growing in that 30-acre vineyard including chenin blanc of course and Charles asked the man who planted the vineyard why he had included chenin blanc in the first place, back in 1982.
"He told me that because chenin is a more prolific producer than chardonnay, and since under BATF rules (at the time) one could add up to 25% chenin blanc to chardonnay and still call it chardonnay, that this was his way to cheat cash flow out of chardonnay."
At that point, the Massouds' experience with chenin blanc had been limited to wines made in California at the time -- wines Charles refers to now as "flabby and totally uninteresting."
They decided to pull out the chenin blanc, along with pinot noir, zinfandel, gewurztraminer and a bit of merlot. A half acre of chenin was out of the group, when they ran out of time and decided to take care of the remaining vines for the season -- mostly so it wouldn't get sick and spread disease throughout the vineyard.
Uwe Michelfelder, an intern from Germany who is now a professor at the German oenology school Wiensberg, was managing the vineyard at the time, because the Massouds were still living in Connecticut.
One day that summer, Michelfelder turned to Charles and told him, pointing to the chenin blanc "You know Charles, these vines look happy here. If I were you I would give them a chance." They decided to give chenin a shot. The vines grew and the little bit of fruit that year was discarded.
Early Success and Subsequent Planting
The following year, Charles made wine from the crop and "We were stunned by the acidity," he recounts adding "We started paying more attention and our excitement grew as we learned more about the grape. In 1993 we even made a late harvest chenin blanc and to this day there are people who still ask for it."
Paumanok Vineyards planted an additional acre of chenin blanc in 2000 and then added another four acres in 2005.
When I asked Charles if the new vineyard coming online and producing a full crop might bring the price down from $28 he told me "If our production should increase, as anticipated, I am pretty sure it would affect the price." For this wine's many fans, this is great news. I know that I personally would like to be able to drink it more often.
Charles calls his family's singular success with chenin blanc on Long Island "an interesting accident."
I'm sure at least a few other growers wish they had such good luck.
Paumanok Vineyards 2009 Chenin Blanc
Aromas of honey-dipped pineapple, honeydew melon and Mandarin orange-citrus and white flowers mingle on an expressive nose.
The dry, medium-bodied palate strikes a tremendous balance between vivacious freshness and slippery, lanolin richness.
Melon flavors lead the way with more sweet pineapple, Bartlett pear, subtle honey and a squirt of Mandarin orange in the background.
Do not over-chill. These secondary and tertiary notes evolve -- stepping forward and then back -- as the wine warms from refrigerator to room temperature.
The lingering, fresh finish begs for local fish or pasta with a light cream sauce.
Producer: Paumanok Vineyards
AVA: North Fork of Long Island