The marked difference between the way Americans and Europeans experience wine became apparent to me when I first attended VinItaly, Europe’s biggest wine trade fair, in 1997. Unlike the typical wine event I’d attended here, where each producer served wine samples from behind a bar to ambulating tasters, in Italy attendees were treated like guests, invited to sit comfortably, eat a little snack and chat while tasting.
When I returned recently to Europe (this time to Moravia and Venice) I again found the attitude toward wine as a welcome part of everyday hospitality, but also found that the new glorification of gastronomy has, in some places, corrupted the old and charming ways.
In Czech Moravia, traditional generosity survives in abundance at the home of Radek and Lida Nepras. Radek, a dissident under the communist regime that ended in 1989, is one of Moravia’s leading vintners. Under a vine-covered pergola, he served an Alsatian riesling (not wanting to be just a promoter for his region, but a true host) with Lida’s special crêpes, filled with brandied cherries from their orchard. After leading us on a hike to the 12th-century castle above their vines, Lida made us soup from spinach just picked in her garden and traditional schnitzel with potato salad. Radek offered us two of his own wines, a dry riesling and a pinot blanc. Food and wine were all extraordinary, but instead of drawing attention to them, we talked of other topics: the Bronze Age cup and bracelet he had found while cultivating his vines, her uncle’s research into Paleolithic times, my plans to visit the caves up north.
The next night, I enjoyed an equally memorable evening with another Moravian family that also incorporated wine and food seamlessly into our activities. On a grassy hilltop with a 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside, our host took his two young sons (ages 5 and 7) into the nearby forest to gather firewood while his wife started a fire “Survivor”-style. Soon, a small group of us roasted corn and chunks of fresh local goat cheese on pointed sticks while kids cavorted with kites and a soccer ball. From good glass stemware, we guzzled wine made by students at the local enology school while eating chunks of speck bacon, crisped in the flame and dripping with luscious fat, on chunks of buttered bread. We also cooked short, plump sausages that had been cut at either end so that, as they cooked, they opened like blooming lilies. Salad, melon and chocolates completed the meal, followed by a sing-along under a blazing sunset.
On to the tiny island of Mazzorbo, in the Venetian lagoon, where the Bisol family, owners of one of Italy’s most prominent prosecco houses, has created Venissa, a much-touted “destination” restaurant and guest house in an ancient vineyard. Excited to see the dorona grape they rescued from extinction, and to taste locally inspired food of chef Paula Budel, I expected it to be the highlight of my trip.
Ah, the folly of great expectations.
Venissa is pretty enough, if you only look at the vineyard and bell tower, discount the burlap and imitation-Ikea décor and ignore the mosquitoes. Though artfully presented, the food did not merit its haut cuisine prices. For $45, an insipid little appetizer of raw bass deserved a squirt of lemon and my chunk of flounder should have been boned. A “glass” of wine contained about an ounce. One had the curious feeling of being in a temple of gastronomy where the high priest of a maitre d’ would rather be home watching soccer.
Surely the Bisols must be lauded for their effort, but the place was missing the very thing I had found in Moravia: warm hospitality, a generous spirit and that old European way of incorporating wine and food into a joyful experience. Maybe the change is a result of cable TV shows turning chefs and winemakers into celebrities; maybe it’s a result of too much money at the top of the world’s economy or maybe it was just a case of the place having supercilious management.
Whatever it was, that’s the last time I seek out a hot spot for wine and food. Give me some fire-roasted speck, a chunk of chewy bread and a quaffing of new wine; add to those pleasures some interesting conversation with lively people, a rising moon or a sunset — now, there’s the quintessential gastronomic experience. And (minus the ruined castles), we can replicate that here.
Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.
On June 28, I attended a tasting for winemakers sponsored by Bouchard Cooperages, representing French tonnelleries (cooperages) Cadus, Damy, Vicard and Canadell. This tasting demonstrated subtleties in flavor and style lent by oak selected, seasoned and “toasted” according to the techniques of individual coopers seeking a particular “je ne sais quoi” to differentiate their barrels from others.
Today’s barrel makers are more like chefs than carpenters: barrels are used increasingly for finely nuanced flavors. What consumers want from a barrel has changed; it used to be “bang for the buck” with big woody flavors but now, less is often more when it comes to oak influence in wine.
Wooden barrels probably originated with Celts in the Balkans around 350 B.C., becoming common wine transport vessels in Roman Gaul by the third century A.D. Made using techniques adapted from boat building, with wooden staves heated, bent and bound with hoops, these were more useful (but more expensive) than fragile clay amphorae. Large barrels were used for fermentation; small barrels holding 30 to 60 gallons became standard for transport and also for aging fine wines that deserve the extra quality derived from time in wood.
Almost all wine barrels used today are crafted from oak. European oak is tighter-grained, and thus less aggressively extractive, than American oak. American barrels cost about $350 vs. their French counterparts costing $750 to $1,000. Per bottle, that’s about $1 vs. $3.
The rough inner surface of oak catalyzes the harshest tannins in wine to complex and mellow, while the wood, seasoned and charred, adds flavors like vanilla, nuts, dust, coffee, chocolate, smoke, lead pencil, bourbon, burnt toast, cedar, coconut, butterscotch, pie spice or turpentine.
The use of wood to flavor chardonnay in particular offers an example of how the public’s expectations have been formed and changed in the past 20 years. The signature white grape of Burgundy, chardonnay was cultivated by medieval monks and elevated to elite status there. Because oak barrels could be made easily in this region and used for both fermentation and transport, all white Burgundies were, for centuries, made in oak and hence bore distinctive oak flavors.
In the 1970s, when California winemaker Robert Mondavi wanted to make premium French-style wines that were different from the ubiquitous redwood-fermented California jug wines, he introduced French oak to his winemaking arsenal. From then on, French oak began to define premium American wines.
Pretty soon the French tonnelleries, who made a few thousand barrels a year from trees planted by Louis XIV and Napoleon, began offering designer barrels. As new wineries all over the world clamored for these barrels, coopers began also sourcing wood from Hungary and Russia, refining their techniques as barrel prices soared. Even Spanish winemakers who for centuries preferred American oak have adapted to suit critics’ taste for European oak, deliberately cultivating big Parker scores.
Since the 1990s, some critics and consumers have rebelled against overblown oak elements commonly used to obscure high alcohol levels and unfermentable sugars in warm-climate chardonnays. Many former chardonnay drinkers have switched to unoaked wines like pinot grigio or sought out unoaked chardonnay.
But oak still plays a key role in the finest wines, both red and white. Used judiciously, it lends complexity, character and finesse, balancing fruit, acidity and alcohol seamlessly. This was evident in the Bouchard tasting. A Bavard Puligny-Montrachet 2007 Premier Cru, aged in Cadus “medium toast” barrels, had great dimension, with oaky vanilla aromas just hovering over the fruit. A Fichet Puligny-Montrachet 2008 Premier Cru aged in Damy “long toast” wood from Allier smelled more distinctly of toast and caramel, though that classy Burgundian chardonnay still appeared with vibrant acidity. Two red wines (Ch. Gruaud Larose 2008 from Bordeaux and Domaine Courbis 2009 from the Rhone) in similar barrels from Cadus and Damy revealed consistency in the two coopers’ styles, with Cadus being more subtle — and less spicy — than the Damy.
A tasting of Villard 2009 Viognier from Condrieu showed how well this fruit benefited from the spiciness of Vicard oak from Nevers, but the Chateau Giscours 2000 Margaux, also in Vicard barrels, revealed a drawback to barrel aging: it suffered from brettanomyces infection and smelled like Band-Aids.
These were expensive wines. For vin ordinaire, many vintners now use oak “chips,” infused like tea bags. These add flavor, but not finesse. Ultimately, the added cost of fine barrels has to be justified by the price of the wine.
Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.
When summer is in full swing, it’s hard to move off the patio at home. I can spend hours under my shady pergola, sipping something cool. Still, however much inertia takes hold, there are wine events coming up on the East End that are motivating enough to make me head on down the pike for some vinous entertainment.
As a devoted lover of bubbly, I never want to miss the James Beard Foundation’s annual summer celebration of all things sparkling: Chefs and Champagne at Wölffer Estate Vineyards in Sagaponack on Saturday, July 21, from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Raising money for the ongoing mission of the JBF, “to celebrate, nurture and preserve America’s diverse culinary heritage and future,” Chefs and Champagne is a gigantic, tented walkabout tasting representing the best of the best from America’s chefs. Coming as it does during New York City’s slow time, when anyone who can escapes to the country, it attracts an impressive array of foodie stars.
In past years, Chefs and Champagne has paid tribute to single celebrities like Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse, but this year JBF Award winners Ted Allen and the judges of Food Network’s Chopped — Maneet Chauhan, Scott Conant, Amanda Freitag, Alex Guarnaschelli, Marc Murphy, Marcus Samuelsson, Aarón Sanchez, Chris Santos and Geoffrey Zakarian — will all receive this honor together. These über talents of the food world are a spirited lot; their energy adds to the vibrancy of the evening.
Nicolas Feuillate is the official Champagne sponsor. I suggest you get there early, before the vintage Brut 2004 runs out, then hop on over to the Wölffer Estate table for winemaker Roman Roth’s divine wines, which this year will include the intriguing Diosa Late Harvest Chardonnay 2010 and Fatalis Fatum 2007.
Later this summer, from 6 to 9 p.m. on Aug. 25 (moved up from its previous September date to take advantage of a new location at the Hampton Classic’s Bridgehampton show grounds) the Wine Spectator will again sponsor Harvest East End, Long Island’s foremost celebration of local wine and food, benefiting East End Hospice, the Group for the East End and Peconic Land Trust. Organized by Merliance (an alliance of Long Island merlot producers) and the Long Island Wine Council, Harvest East End will offer tastes from up to 40 East End wineries and 30 top restaurants with an exciting array of award-winning wines — including barrel samples of not-yet-released wines — and local, seasonal dishes from some of the region’s finest chefs, using all locally sourced foods.
Harvest East End’s Festival Tasting (called “Fall for Long Island” even though it’s still summer when it takes place) is, like Chefs and Champagne, a walkabout event where you can graze to your heart’s content while schmoozing with chefs and vintners. If you want to hang out with the high rollers you can also buy tickets to the VIP section, which will get you in early and give you access to comfortable tables and, more important, a special “wine library” tasting of older vintages. These tickets are almost sold out, so act quickly if you want that extra dose of glamour.
Even more coveted are invitations to a handful of 10 Mile Dinners, part of the Harvest East End experience organized to raise money for its beneficiaries. Soon to be announced, these are dinners held at spectacular private homes and prepared by star chefs using food sourced from within 10 miles. Each dinner features the wines of a single Long Island winery. Most dinners will be open to only 10 invited diners each; invitations can be obtained by applying to email@example.com.
Besides these two blockbuster events, many wineries offer delightful places to relax and enjoy a glass of wine, often with music. Among my favorite picks are Martha Clara’s Sunset Vines and Canines educational vineyard walk (the next one is on Aug. 1) — bring your dog down for a walk through the vineyards with winemaker Juan Micieli-Martinez and his dog, Satchmo; a sybaritic afternoon sipping rose on the barn swing at Croteaux Vineyards; and Baiting Hollow Farm’s pony rides added to the mix of music and wine, supporting its equine rescues.
On Aug. 19, McCall Vineyards will host the summer’s most singular event: an aboriginally inspired buffet cooked by local chefs, where you can cut your fish or meat with an Algonquin flint, all to benefit the Southold Indian Museum. This is your chance to taste samp (cracked corn) and squash where Cutchogue natives once grew similar crops.
Choose your favorite, get out of that hammock and go for some summer fun.
Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.
It’s June again, the glorious “days of wine and roses.” As a winemaker and wine educator, I’m often asked if rosé wines are really made from roses. It’s understandable that some think that, especially when a wine has some aromatic kinship to rose petals.
It has been customary, since ancient Persians planted vines, to adorn the perimeters of vineyards with roses. Even today, in Bordeaux’s Haut Medoc, growers distinguish their properties by planting signature rose varieties at the ends of each row. And perfumers do use rose petals to make their scents. But in wine, even where there are plenty of rose petals handy, the flowers don’t go into the wine.
Sorry to destroy any romantic illusion, but rosé wine is simply any wine that is rose (French for pink) in color. Pink can be loosely interpreted to range in hue from magenta to copper. Since most color is extracted from the grapes’ skins, it will depend on both the characteristic color of the grape variety and skin contact during fermentation. White and red wines can be blended to make pink; sugar is often adjusted to smooth over any defects. Because rosés encompass such a vast and ill-defined array of wines, until the past few years they have been grouped together as wines of little interest or importance.
Many who began drinking careers with pink Mateus, Boone’s Farm or “white” zinfandel have since avoided alcoholic pink drinks. For wine, as sophistication (or snobbism) increased, the tolerance for astringency did, too. No more soda pop wines, please!
In an assault on this anti-rosé sentiment, about 10 years ago a group of dry rosé winemakers led by Jeff Morgan (a Napa winemaker whose career began on the North Fork) joined forces as the “Rosé Avengers.” Whether it was their influence, or the social pages showing rappers embracing Domaine Ott (a rosé from Provence in a female-shaped bottle), suddenly rosé — especially dry rosé — became acceptable.
The quality of rosé wines is dictated, in part, by how much a producer can sell it for. In the days when no one would pay up for it, winemakers had to use the lowliest wines, blended and sweetened, to make the bulk of their rosés. But today, as fans clamor for shimmering, refreshing, even phenolic pink wines, more effort can be made in the vineyards and wineries to refine pink wines to a new standard of quality.
Several of Long Island’s winemakers have honed their rosé-making skills to serve the popularity of dry rosé. Even after increasing production, Wölffer Estate’s cold-fermented rosé sells out by autumn. Croteaux makes only “rosé on purpose.” This year, they have 12 pink beauties, including one based on sauvignon blanc, one sparkler and their new Elite Rouge rosés, more similar to claret, the historic Bordeaux wine.
In calling its eight pink wines “rosati,” Channing Daughters signals their Italian style. All are small-batch fermented from varieties ranging from syrah to lagrein. They present a study in pink worthy of any seeking a lesson.
Among other notable Long Island rosés are a plush, juicy afternoon rosé from Corey Creek and Pellegrini’s equally fruit-driven (happily well-priced) East End Select Rosé. Bedell Cellar’s stylishly complex Taste Rosé was made aromatic by a splash of syrah; Mattebella Rosé is delicately tantalizing and Sannino’s Bella Vita Snow Merlot hides its big flavors behind a blushing hue.
Marjorie’s Rosé from McCall is intricate and fragrant; it’s 100 percent pinot noir, as is the Lenz Blanc de Noir, a favorite of mine for its dry, Champagne cuvée quality and refined bottle age. These are joined for pure refreshment by Lieb’s delightfully taut Bridge Lane Rosé.
The joys of sipping summer wines were, alas, far too fleeting for poor Ernest Dawson, the English poet who coined the term “days of wine and roses” in his 1896 poem “Vitae Summa Brevis”:
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
Dawson’s dream ended when the young girl he had pursued for the past seven years (since she was 11 and he 23) married the tailor who lived above her father’s restaurant. Dawson’s consumptive father died of an overdose of chloral hydrate, after which his mother hanged herself. Not surprisingly, Dawson, who also penned the words “gone with the wind,” caroused his way to an early grave.
You may take that as a moral, or keep on smelling those roses.
Despite the romantic aura that surrounds the topic of wine, growing wine grapes is as challenging as other kinds of farming; maybe more so because the vine is a perennial crop. Any damage done to the vine or its site will affect future vintages, till the eventual death of the vine.
In 29 B.C., the Roman poet Virgil made it clear in his “Georgics” (a treatise on agriculture) that constant vigilance and timely human intervention are essential to maintain a vineyard:
Be first to dig the ground up, first to clear
And burn the refuse-branches, first to house
Again your vine-poles, last to gather fruit.
Twice doth the thickening shade beset the vine,
Twice weeds with stifling briers o’ergrow the crop;
And each a toilsome labour. Do thou praise
Broad acres, farm but few.
Virgil’s advice to be less ambitious than one’s neighbors still rings true to any who spend their days toiling in a vineyard, for viticulture is a year-round job. Here on Long Island, vines open their buds in late April or early May. The sap that has been rising through their vascular systems since March finally pushes open the cottony lining of each bud that has successfully survived both winter’s cold and the decisive cuts of the winter pruner. Immediately, fungi that also survived the winter, or come airborne anew, begin to attack the tender leaves and tiny new fruiting clusters. As the clusters become enlarged, moths lay their eggs inside them and, after the clusters flower in June, the larvae are unwittingly trapped inside the burgeoning berries.
At the same time, as Virgil warned, weeds grow from seeds spread the year before by wind, bird droppings or established nuisance plants. Nematodes gnaw at tender roots. Viruses propagated along with the plants themselves may also flourish, curling leaves, interrupting photosynthesis or overwhelming the vines with a lassitude like flu.
Then there are predations by deer, rabbits, raccoons, birds and bipeds as the season wears on. “Tractor blight” occurs when technology gets the best of the vine as the tractor driver swerves. Lightning strikes fry rows of vines tied to metal wires. Drought, wind or torrents of rain challenge the ripening crop. Insufficient nutrients make for stunted vines; excess nutrients produce more leaves than grapes.
Indeed, whoever manages to be “the last to gather fruit” will have survived a long season of anxiety and inconvenience. This makes all vintners philosophers, if not poets.
To help wine growers successfully navigate these obstacles with an ongoing, proactive strategy, the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County grape program, under the management of Alice Wise, has announced a new protocol for sustainable viticulture. This is a project that has been developed over several years with Wise’s industry advisory group, especially Bedell Cellars winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich, along with Bedell vineyard manager Jim Thompson, Channing Daughters general manager Larry Perrine and Shinn Estates owner Barbara Shinn.
As Wise explains, “These growers have made a big commitment to creating their own very specific set of guidelines for ecological farming.” The program involves extra effort, cost and commitment by the growers, but in return it helps them maintain environmentally friendly ways of growing grapes with systematic records kept to inform future practices.
The advisory group also raises funds that are matched by the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, this year to continue variety and pest management trials.
Wise’s CCE division was also awarded a three-year grant by the USDA’s sustainable agriculture division to look at some alternative ways growers can manage growth under their vine rows, addressing that perpetual nuisance, weeds. Instead of routine use of herbicides that may kill beneficial organisms, or of cultivation that compacts the soil, these trials experiment with low-growing seeded ground covers and native vegetation. The CCE’s new blog, iutmforvineyards.blogspot.com, offers a fascinating look (with photos) at vineyards like Claudia Purita’s One Woman (she’s the one woman), where New Zealand white clover was planted to compete with invasive plants.
Alice Wise understands that not every grower will join the sustainable grape-growing program. She told me, “Vineyards and wineries are awash in paperwork. The record keeping and reporting aspects of these businesses are daunting. So those aspects must be outweighed by the desire of the business to work toward the common goal of environmental farming. The beauty of the program is that it is not static. It will be adjusted and updated as the industry grows and learns.”
As the Romans would say, “In vino, veritas …” The wine will tell the truth about what works in the vineyard.
Milla Handley has been making wine in California since 1975. Back then, she was one of very few women actually down in the cellar, dragging hoses around and monitoring fermentation temperatures. In 1978 she and her husband, Rex McClellan, moved to the remote Anderson Valley, north of Sonoma, where, over time, they planted 29 acres in chardonnay, pinot noir and gewurtztraminer. In 1982, she began to make her own wine in their basement.
At the time, Milla and Rex were true winemaking pioneers. While Napa was surging to prominence under the leadership of such wine greats as Robert Mondavi, the Anderson Valley was a little too far from San Francisco, a little too cold, a little too rural for the kind of investors who poured money into Napa. But Milla liked its isolation. She enjoyed the camaraderie of her hardscrabble farming neighbors. Even after Rex’s death, she continued making wine there despite its many challenges.
At Milla’s vineyard, heavy fog from the Pacific Ocean makes for cold nights (around 50 degrees during the growing season). When the fog clears, it can get as hot as 112 degrees. Most of the time, a 35-degree change in 24 hours is typical there. This makes the vines struggle to ripen, but it also conserves acidity in the fruit. Just when the fruit is almost ripe, autumn rains begin, sometimes forcing a premature harvest.
I met Milla in Manhattan at Keen’s Steakhouse, where a small group of wine writers was led through a retrospective tasting of 12 Handley pinot noirs from the 1997-2009 vintages. We tasted silently and seriously, then asked questions of Milla and her co-winemaker, Kristen Barnhisel. It was indeed a tasting worthy of focused attention; the wines were seriously good. But what I liked best about the tasting was Milla herself. She and I began making wine at the same time (1975), and she told stories that I could really identify with about raising two children while making wine professionally.
As much as Milla liked the remoteness of her Anderson Valley home, from a very early age her eldest daughter wanted to live in a more populated area. “Mom,” the child said, “Let’s move to New York.”
“No,” said Milla. “New York is too far away.”
“Then can we move to San Francisco?”
“No,” said Milla. “That’s too far, too.”
“Well then,” asked the child, “How about Booneville?”
My own daughter, at age 3, used to say, quite regularly, “I wanna go somewhere!” And we were already in Cutchogue, which was about as populous as Booneville back then.
Milla may live in the middle of nowhere, and favor a laid-back personal style, but she is sophisticated in the world of wine. She told me of her meeting with the cellar master at the famed estate of Romanée Conti in Burgundy. This man, revered for his wines but a notorious fanny pincher, encircled her shoulders with one arm, grasping her breast in one hand while firmly holding a bottle of 1966 Le Montrachet in the other. Being a true lover of wine, and not wanting to compromise her chance to taste one of the world’s finest white Burgundies, Milla ignored the inappropriate gesture.
“Hey, he’s French! And he was scheduled to have a triple bypass. He looked like a garbage man,” she told me. “Besides, the wine was worth it.”
Having survived this and other forms of disrespect familiar to many female winemakers (“We were once called a coven,” Milla says), Milla has expanded Handley Cellars, so that now she makes wines from several vineyards. Still, my favorites were those from her home vineyard, called “RSM” after her late husband. The 1997 had a wonderful subtlety rarely found in California pinot noirs. As old as it is, the wine still blossomed in the glass, with flavors of black cherries and allspice.
I also admired the 2005 RSM Pinot Noir, which had nuanced fruit and sweet, nutty wood.
Other tasters preferred the bigger, more extracted wines, like the 2009 RSM, with its brilliant color and lush fruit. But this is a style one expects from a California pinot. When Milla said, “New York has a European palate,” someone yelled, “No they don’t. They want fruit bombs!”
That’s an issue for Long Island’s vintners, too: Wine critics have led consumers away from subtle, cool-climate wines. I sympathize with Milla, who said, “I’m trying not to be a bitch. I’m trying but I fail sometimes.”
On March 24, I attended a fascinating Winemaker’s Roundtable at Roanoke Vineyards in Baiting Hollow, where my friend (and former employee) Dan Kleck was invited to lead a comparative tasting of wines he’s currently making in Paso Robles, Calif., and Roanoke Vineyards’ own wines. His comments elucidated my own observations on the kinds of wines that result from irrigated desert vineyards like Paso and those I’d recently seen in South America, vis-à-vis those of the ocean-moderated vineyards here on Long Island.
At the roundtable, 20 guests (mostly members of Roanoke’s Wine Club) sat around a long table equipped with bread, antipasti, wine and a view of a video screen on which Mr. Kleck appeared live via Skype from his home in Paso Robles.
Dan Kleck came from Michigan in the early 1980s to make wine on Long Island, and worked at Hargrave, Bidwell and Palmer vineyards. In 1998, Jess Jackson of Kendall Jackson Vineyards in Sonoma interrupted Dan at a family barbecue to offer him a job as winemaker at a new five-million-case winery in Carmel, Calif. Flying west in Jackson’s private plane, with 24 hours to decide, he took the bait and became a California winemaker overnight. After five years at KJ’s huge facility, Dan followed temptation again and moved to Paso Robles as a private consultant, making small batches of wine for inspired investors.
The first wine he showed us was Whalebone Vineyard’s Ballena Blanca, a blend of viognier, grenache blanc and rousanne — all white Rhône varieties from Paso. This lush, aromatic white wine (think of coconut and fruit cocktail) had a distinctively phenolic astringency, prompting Roanoke’s owner Richie Pisacano to ask Dan if it had been fermented with skin contact.
Dan explained that this astringency comes from the rousanne, which, along with a relatively high alcohol, creates an illusion of freshness. “These [Paso wines] are low-acid, soft wines,” he said. “Here, balance depends on alcohol and fruit. It’s a faux acidity. These are not real food wines. They are more afternoon sipping wines. Heat here respires acid. We need white grapes that hold acids or have other qualities.”
In contrast, we tasted Roanoke’s “Wild Yeast” chardonnay. Dan said, “I like how this compares. I get passion fruit character. It’s soft. You get viscous texture, silky feel, a sense of richness without being rich. Aromatic chardonnay like this can’t be used in California because it is too low in acidity.”
While we all tasted the steely, smoky, oak-aged “Sonnet” chardonnay from Roanoke (my favorite), Dan explained further: “We can make more mistakes in California and people don’t notice. The wines there are so bold. On Long Island, if you make a mistake it shows. In California any old winemaker will do.”
As we went on to taste red wines from both Whalebone and Roanoke, he elaborated, “Merlot doesn’t ripen well in California. It’s too hot here. Merlot shrivels easily. You guys [on Long Island] have a perfect climate for merlot. Paso has the perfect climate for syrah, zinfandel and cabernet.”
He added, “You can grow anything you want [in Paso], but you can’t get it right. Paso is too hot for pinot. The tannins aren’t right when the sugars are there. It’s a mess. For us, low alcohol is 14.5 percent.”
After we tasted the Roanoke 2007 merlot, Dan said, “We would die to have a couple of vintages like this. It expresses the fruit: dried cherry. Lovely balance.
“Long Island wines have a translucency: You can see and feel the vineyard through the wine. In California the vineyard source is opaque all because of alcohol. Long Island is exciting because the vineyard shows. You get a European character here,” he said.
As the tasting continued, the tasters got excited and their own opinions increased in volume. Over the roar, I heard Dan explain, “On Long Island, nuances go up and down the palate. In California no one looks for it. They don’t miss it. We try to start with delicacy and work into power.”
Our final tastings — Whalebone’s cabernet sauvignon vs. Roanoke’s cabernet franc-dominated “Gaby’s” wine — bridged the gap for me between delicacy and power. Gorgeously plush and spicy, both wines showed the skill of the winemakers as well as the quality of the vineyards.
To me, that’s the bottom line: No matter what the climate, great wines come from a winemaker who understands the natural benefits — and limitations — of the vineyard in its specific location.
Chile and Argentina are both defined by their shared border of the Andes Cordillera, that jagged mountain chain that runs down the spine of southern South America and affects the two countries in climate, history, politics and attitude.
On the Chilean side, the mountains are omnipresent. The country is so long and so narrow that the Andes seem to both protect and isolate the Chileans. On my recent jaunt to witness Harvest 2012, South American-style (discussed in part in my last column here), I got the sense that Chile has emerged from the domination of Spain, Peru, military juntas, aristocratic cabals and dictators to become a peaceful, prosperous, democratic nation. A week visiting Santiago and surrounding countryside gave me the snapshot impression of Chile as a laid-back, cheerful, generous place with many stray dogs.
Flying over the Andes from Santiago to Mendoza was worth the whole trip. Though the flight lasts barely half an hour, the view of the cordillera from above brought a lifetime’s worth of vivid images.
From the moment I exited the plane, I felt a different ambience in Argentina. The Andes are just as dominant as they are in Chile, except that between the mountains and the sea, Argentina’s lands are vast. Although her history is in many ways similar to Chile’s (both honor Bernardo O’Higgins, the illegitimate son of the Irishman who represented Spain in Peru, as a hero), Argentina feels far more touched by European influence. Argentines are serious about business.
In Buenos Aires, after their independence from Spain in 1816, the citizens replaced most traces of their Hispanic heritage with grand Parisian-style buildings, Italian parks and English railroads. Still speaking Spanish, they became fully international.
Argentina’s wine industry has also been distinctly influenced by European winemakers, especially in recent years, as some notable French vintners have taken advantage of Argentina’s recent financial crisis. My own interest in Bordeaux wines, and my curiosity about the globalization of wine, prompted my visit to a DiamAndes and Atamisque, both owned by French producers and about an hour from Mendoza in the Uco Valley, where Argentina’s best vineyards are located.
DiamAndes, owned by the Bonnie family that also owns the Grand Cru Classé Chateau Lamartic-Lagravière and Chateau Gazin Rocquencourt in Bordeaux, is part of a new 2,000-acre vineyard development called Clos de los Siete (enclosure of the seven). World-renowned wine consultant Michel Rolland convinced seven of his Bordeaux clients to invest here, with him, creating separate wineries plus one joint winery that makes a keystone brand, Clos de los Siete.
Each winery is a stunning architectural statement, making the whole Clos an eerie mixture of ultra-modern glass, steel and concrete, set against a backdrop of the soaring Andes. The land is brilliant green wherever irrigation feeds the vines and landscaping, but quasi-desert on the periphery. Every winery in the Clos makes use of the most contemporary innovations, including micro-oxidation, sorting tables, large oak fermenters to augment stainless steel and inert gas presses.
Atamisque is similar, but also has its own nut and fruit trees, plus trout ponds, to make the farm sustainable.
Like the Maipo, Colchagua and Casablanca valleys of Chile, the Uco valley in March is a balmy paradise. Huge birch and eucalyptus trees form allées along dusty roads that pass vast orchards and vineyards, often marked by roses, sunflowers, hibiscus and other brilliant flowers. Although these new wineries are intended as tourist magnets, they are gated and require appointments. Most people come with tour groups, a good idea since (as I found, driving around in a tiny Chevy) road or route signs are scarce. But getting there is half the fun and, once at the wineries, the welcome is extraordinary.
I enjoyed spectacular five-course lunches at DiamAndes, Atamisque and Mendoza’s fine restaurant, Azafran, where I learned that “rare” beef is cooked medium-well in Argentina, and that Argentines are brownie-obsessed.
As for the wines, they were more California than Bordeaux style. Even with the guidance of Michel Rolland, Argentina’s winemakers must adapt French techniques to fruit ripened under a brilliant, blazing sun. Altitude and cool nights preserve acidity here, but some of the nuances of Bordeaux are absent. They succeed well with aromatic Viognier and voluptuous Cabernet, Syrah and Malbec.
French oak dominates their wines, but that may change as new Argentine laws preventing foreign imports (like French barrels) and taxing exports at 35 percent affect how wines are made and marketed. It’s a new worry for Argentine businesses.
Fortunately, they can’t tax the tango.
Truly, the wine world has become very small. In the 1990s, the big joke in the wine industry was, “If you want to find a California winemaker, go to the Santiago, Chile, airport.” At the same time, a group of Chilean winery owners came to Long Island to invest, buying Laurel Lake Vineyards in Laurel. As winemakers in the northern hemisphere increasingly take advantage of a second harvest season by going to the southern hemisphere, and vice versa, the benefits of shared insight and opportunity have been tremendous.
I recently returned from my first South American jaunt to see for myself the state of the vine in both Chile and Argentina. February and March there are analogous to August and September here, so it was a perfect time to see the beginning of Vintage 2012, South American style.
Enjoying political stability today after of decades of turmoil, Chile’s wineries are led by the massive Viñas Concha y Toro. Concha began in 1883 with grape cuttings from Bordeaux; it has survived government land grabs, recessions and earthquakes (and adapted to anti-alcohol campaigns by buying the Chilean Coca-Cola franchise) to become the largest wine property in South America, with 2010 revenues equivalent to 812.3 million U.S. dollars. As if almost 21,000 acres of vineyards in Chile were not enough, in 2011 Concha also bought several California wine properties (including Fetzer and Bonterra).
Driving from Santiago toward the massive Concha processing plant, about one hour south of town in the Maipo valley, I went a little farther down the road to one of Chile’s smallest new wineries, Antiyal. Antiyal — a Mapuche word that means “sons of the sun” — belongs to Álvaro and Marina Espinoza, two organic/biodynamic practitioners who explain, “We founded Antiyal to teach our children, and all who would listen, about the earth, work and wine.”
When the earthquake of 2010 toppled the Espinozas’ ancient stone walls, Marina touched the trembling earth in an appeal for peace that now defines their reconstructed farm. Raising grapevines alongside almond trees and alpaca for biodiversity in their vineyard, the Espinozas have earned international accolades for their dense, rich red wines. Highly experimental, they have adopted the French egg-shaped concrete fermenters for making a supple carmenère.
With a production of only about 2,000 cases per year, Álvaro augments his income by consulting worldwide. When I told him I was from Long Island, he exclaimed, “I’ve been to Mattituck, consulting there with Macari Vineyards! I adore Joe and Alex!”
Like Álvaro, Argentine-born Alexandra Macari and New Yorker Joe Macari Jr. have studied biodynamic practices under California guru Alan York. It’s not as easy to go bio on humid Long Island as it is in dry Maipo, but the intent and enthusiasm for delicious, fruit-driven wines are evident in both families.
From Antiyal, I continued south into the Colchagua Valley to see Viña Montes, a super-premium winery founded by four successful Chilean businessmen who thought they could improve on supermarket-style Chilean wines by following the same practices (limited production, select varieties, hillside plantings, gravity-driven processing, French oak aging) that have led to premium wines in other parts of the world. Venturing into the neighboring Apalta Valley to take advantage of its underground streams and cool breezes, Montes built a showcase winery that rivals any in the world. Its barrel aging room is a temple to wine, with recorded medieval chants to tame the brawny wines and old-fashioned oak fermenters giving a nod to European tradition. The antique winemaking equipment in front of the glass and stone visitors’ center honors the past while putting the modern into perspective.
From Colchagua, I drove up the Pacific coast, through a paradise of fruits, nuts and vegetables, to Chile’s most audacious winery, Casa Marín, the winery closest to the Pacific Ocean and the only Chilean winery owned by a woman. On dry, fog- and windswept hills behind the blue-collar seaside resort of Cartagena, Maria Luz Marín cleared acres of eucalyptus forest to plant some of the most interesting riesling, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and gewurztraminer I’ve had.
These wines, relatively low in alcohol, are bursting with acidity and punchy, mineral-driven aromas. Delicate and textured at once, they prove once again the benefits of cool-climate maturation in protecting essential aromas under low-yield conditions. Of all the wines I tried, these had the most in common with ours on Long Island. Pushing viticulture to its limits will never appeal to the bulk producer, but lovers of distinctive, exciting wines can reap the benefits gained by visionary vintners who take the greatest risks.
In my next column, I will explore Mendoza, Argentina’s pre-eminent wine region.