Christopher S. Miller
As a wine writer, questions I often get about Long Island wines include: Are these wines worth the money? Why are they so expensive? Do you think Long Island wines can compete with other great wine regions? What’s the signature wine style? Naturally, I have my share of opinions and have been around Long Island wines for more than a decade now. I was a disciple of Michael Todd (RIP), a wine writer and critic who was really excited about Long Island wines. Michael was also a huge cheerleader for New Zealand wines back in the early 90s. Let’s have a look at where the Long Island wine market was in the 90s versus where the New Zealand wine market was then. They were both infants, struggling to find a spot on a tough playing field. And guess what, New Zealand made it into the “big leagues” in the late 90s and Long Island is still hoping the scouts discover them. Why?
Are Long Island wines too expensive? Possibly. The image of a region’s wine pricing can change; regions such as Puglia in Southern Italy and Jumilla in Southern Spain used to make cheap wines exclusively ($2 a bottle) and now are called values at $12 to $15 a bottle. An obvious reason for this change is quality, but another important one is marketing and recognition.
Where are the high quality, value Long Island wines the critics will drool over? A recent trip to see Chris Tracy at Channing Daughters Winery showed me what the potential is. Chris’ opinion is that Long Island (North & South Forks) is a bit cool and wet for most internationally popular red grapes (Cabernet et al). He has staked the winery’s reputation on a selection of white wines with aromatic varietals leading the way. I don’t know enough about Long Island viticulture to comment on the suitability of the climate for Merlot and Cabernet Franc, but my palate says that Cabernet Sauvignon needs less rain and more heat than the average vintage.
Of these three grapes, I find the best and most interesting results from Cabernet Francs and blends of the three. As for white wines, my palate (and opinion) is that Sauvignon Blanc has shown the most potential (and interest for me). My visit with Chris Tracy did confirm this (look to get some of the very fine 2005 Mudd Sauvignon Blanc before it is sold out), but his wines did make me re-think my position on Long Island Chardonnay.
Chris had me taste three Channing Daughters Chardonnays, each with a different approach, each very well made, but only two of them stood out. 2005 Scuttlehole ($14, stainless steel fermented) crisp, clean with aromas of green apple, melon, pear skin and a dusty earth finish—a real value. 2004 Brick Kiln ($20, aged in new and used French, American and Hungarian oak barrels), my least favorite but very well made. This could be easily confused with a similarly and even more expensive Chardonnay from Sonoma. It is not very exciting to me, but my feeling is this is the style of wine most of Long Island’s producers are looking to make. 2004 L’Enfant Sauvage Chardonnay ($35, aged in 100% new French oak). Wow, what a blockbuster. Spice, vanilla and ripe apple with a toasty honey and nut character, apricot in the palate and a long, funky finish. A huge wine with amazing balance and length.
But it is the rest of the Channing Daughters portfolio that attracted me to visit. Their aromatic portfolio includes other standout whites, such as: the 2005 Pinot Grigio ($18, May release); 2004 Tocai Friuliano ($24 sold-out, watch for the 2005); 2004 Meditazione ($40, not a wine for beginners but truly amazing); and a very unusual, but delicious 2004 Envelope Chardonnay, that was barrel-fermented with skin contact for two weeks.
When these wines get national attention, their availability (already quite tight) will diminish, so get on their mailing list and let’s see the innovation and passion for Long Island wine spread beyond the two forks.