By Lenn Thompson, Executive Editor
"It's too bad that Long Island cabernet is never any good -- and can't age."
I don't make a habit of quoting myself in blog posts, but this extremely sarcastic comment got quite a few laughs at a recent tasting of older Long Island wines. Just about every wine we tasted elicited metaphorical, if not actual, giggles actually -- the giggles of people in on the secret. The secret?
Long Island wines can not only survive a decade or two in your cellar, they can thrive.
I consider myself lucky to be in on that secret and to have been at a dinner gathering that proved it, organized by Charles Massoud, co-owner of Paumanok Vineyards and Jeff Jeff Filippi, a long-time supporter and consumer of local wines. Also in attendance were Charles' wife Ursula, his son (and winemaker) Kareem, Jeff's wife Nora, Louisa Hargrave (pictured right) and her daughter Anne.
As we gathered at Luce-Hawkins there was a mounting, palpable verve to the proceedings. This dinner had been in the works for at least a year. The day was finally here. How would the wines show?
In all, we had dipped into our respective cellars for 26 wines -- from 1990 through 2001. Was it a lot? Absolutely, but the goal wasn't necessarily to open all of them.
After tasting four whites before we sat down, we'd start with the oldest wines and move forward. If a bottle (or three or five or more) wasn't any good, we had enough wine to simply open another. Any we didn't get to, we'd save for the next dinner.
There will definitely be a 'next dinner' but we'll have to pull more wines. We opened all of them -- but wanted to, not because we had to. Two were corked, but I was surprised at the life the rest showed.
I'm not saying every wine was a stunner, but there certainly weren't any throwaways in this lineup.
I'll get to my notes for each individual wine below, but first some higher-level thoughts that I came away with.
Cabernet is Indeed King. There is little doubt that the best wines of the night were heavy on cabernet sauvignon. They consistently showed more complexity, intensity and life.
A Little Matter of Vintage. We all know that vintage matters of course, but the cabernets wouldn't have shown nearly as well had we not been tasting wines from top vintages like 1993 and 1995. Cabernet isn't easy on Long Island, but in the best years, from the best producers, they might be the the region's most exciting wines. They certainly seem to have the most aging potential.
Ageability is Found Among Top Producers. We weren't tasting "typical" local wines here. We tasted wines from Bedell Cellars, Hagrave Vineyard, Jamesport Vineyards, Gristina Vineyards, Lieb Family Cellars, Paumanok Vineyards, Peconic Bay Winery, Pellegrini Vineyards, Raphael and Wolffer Estate -- a group that includes many of Long Island's top producer, and certainly most of the best around in the 1990s. I wondered aloud what our experience would have been tasting wines not from the top-tier wineries -- but does it matter? When people discuss the longevity of Bordeaux, they aren't talking about the bottom rung of wineries, are they?
The Local Industry Needs to Do More of These. I was surprised to hear that this type of thing -- so older many wines from so many different wineries -- isn't done very often. In fact, it doesn't sound like it happens at all. How can one discuss how well Long Island wines age without experiencing it? I hope that changes and I'm volunteering a variety of 2000 and 2001 reds that I have in my cellar for another tasting like this in the near future.
And now, some quick notes on each of the wines we tasted:
1999 Lieb Pinot Blanc: White of the night for me. Still a certain liveliness. Layered tree fruit, nutty and apple skin.
2001 Wolffer Chardonnay: Austere. Lacks fruit. Wood and acid. Some orange peel.
2001 Peconic Bay “La Barrique” Chardonnay: Forward and mouth-filling. Honey and vanilla with roasted apple. Long but low on structure.
1990 Hargrave Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon: Wow. Lively nose. Dried and plummy fruit. Tobacco leaf and minty. Not long, but great tannin-acid framework. Could age longer. Starred it in my notebook.
1993 Paumanok Merlot Grand Vintage: Mushroomy funk on the nose. Sweet bramble fruit with nice density and intensity. Hints of licorice that flourish with some air time.
1993 Pellegrini Merlot: Earthy with a little funk. Ripe, still very apparent tannins and sweet, high-toned fruit. Oak more apparent than Paumanok. Fennel frond note.
1993 Gristina Cabernet Sauvignon "Andy's Field": Hickory smoked ham, not a ton of fruit. A lot more tannin than expected. Austere.
1993 Bedell Cabernet Sauvignon: Two stars in my notebook and one of my favorites of the night. Complex with a melange of red fruit and classic herbal minty notes along with licorice and brown sugar. Tastes far younger. Maybe a little VA?
1993 Pellegrini Cabernet Sauvignon: Corked.
1993 Paumanok Grand Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon: Gave it three stars. Bright, complex with layers of fruit, spice and earth. Intense-but-smooth tannins. Tastes so young.
1993 Hargrave Vineyard Merlot: Simple. A little funk on the nose but it opens on palate. Soft.
1994 Jamesport Vineyards Melange a Trois: Clearly the first real dose of cabernet franc. Herbal/veg notes poke through. Lots of brown spice, nice structure. Fruit is a little raisined/dried, but higher toned.
1995 Jamesport Vineyards Merlot: Little bit of stinky cheese on the nose. Restrained fruit, good balance.
1995 Bedell Merlot Reserve: Corked
1995 Gristina Merlot: A little austere. Plenty of chalky, mouth-drying tannins, but also ripe red fruit and nice spice.
1995 Paumanok Grand Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon: Faint brett. Grippy tannins and gobs of ripe fruit. Minty notes.
1995 Bedell Cabernet Sauvignon: Some brett here too. Rich, more overtly fruity, but also with underlying mint. Many similarities with the Paumanok.
1995 Paumanok Assemblage: Cab sauv heavy (55%) blend with merlot (35%) and cab franc (10%). Gave it two stars. Beautiful, complex, lively, beautifully structured and has plenty of time ahead.
1996 Hargrave Vineyard QED (Quod Erat Demonstrandum): Grippy but not hugely ripe. A little woody over plum and cherry fruit.
1995 Sag Pond Vineyard Pinot Noir: (Wolffer Estate). Cloudy with some residual CO2. Weird saltiness with high-toned cherry and strawberry.
1997 Pellegrini Vintners’ Pride Encore: Lots of oak but nice ripeness too. Very dry finish.
1997 Raphael Merlot: Raw steak and umami on the nose. Little eucalyptus. Maybe a bit too much oak.
1997 Bedell Cabernet Sauvignon: Fruity with a savory edge. Complex and very together. No rough edges.
1998 Bedell Cabernet Sauvignon: Crunchy red fruit -- cherry/cranberry. Showing a lot of American oak.