By Lenn Thompson, Editor-in-Chief
Doing a "Wines of the Year" is something that I've wanted to do on this site for a long time, but until the past year or so, I didn't think we had the people in place to do it and do it well.
But, with Bryan and Evan on board and covering their beats so enthusiastically (with the help of people like Tom, Jason and Julia) I felt comfortable announcing the project and taking it on.
With our intrepid band of wine geeks in place, I looked through the wine reviews I've published here on the site, my various tasting notebooks and re-tasted several wines until I was absolutely comfortable and confident in my selections for Long Island.
And there are still great wines that didn't make the list. I'm actually glad for that because if it were easy to pick finalists, that'd mean that there just aren't many worthy wines being made on Long Island. Clearly there are.
I think it's useful to tell you a bit about each of the wines that I chose and maybe offer some insight into why they were chosen. I don't think that anyone who drinks Long Island wine will be surprised that any of these wines have been named finalist, but each is worthy of note:
Lenz Winery 2002 Old Vines Merlot ($55): There aren't many wineries in New York (or really anywhere else) that have the ability to hold onto their high-end reds for seven years before release. Luckily, Lenz Winery and winemaker Eric Fry are able to hold wines back. This wine (released a few months ago) show mature, evolved flavors that younger wines just don't. This is a wine that I open for anyone who says Long Island wines "can't" age. It's not a finalist just because its older though, the balanced, nuanced flavors, incorporated tannins and lengthy finish make it a standout.
Lieb Family Cellars 2004 Merlot Reserve ($20): While not held as long as the Lenz, this classic Long Island merlot leans towards Bordeaux a bit and is tasting beautifully right now. It's fruit forward, but restrained, elegant and supple on the palate, with a nice mix of dark fruit, spice and herbs. This didn't factor into its placement in the finals, but the $20 price vtag makes it one of Long Island's best values.
Raphael 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon ($30): Some people say that cabernet can't be done and done well in New York, but its wines like this that more than prove them wrong. Winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich only makes a varietal cabernet in the best years (the previous time was 2001) and when he does, its always one of my favorite examples of cool-climate cabernet — full-flavored but at the same time elegant with a complexity of flavor only a long growing season and careful handling in the cellar can bring.
Roanoke Vineyards 2005 Merlot ($45/sold out): Even though it's sold out, this wine is still a baby. I think if owner Rich Pisacano had his choice, he wouldn't even have released it yet, but give it some time to breathe and watch out. It's big and full-bodied with dark, rich, concentrated fruit with coffee and mint — all framed by big but ripe tannins. In my review, I said that it just might be the "quintessential warm-year Long Island merlot."
Shinn Estate Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Franc ($38): This wine received more attention at TasteCamp 2009 than any other (or any others combined really). It blew people away and with good reason — it is a new benchmark for Long Island cabernet franc. I've tasted it several times since then, and the complexity of flavors and richness made it one of the must-haves for this list.
Wolffer Estate Vineyards 2005 Christian's Cuvee Merlot ($100): As I said in my recent review, this wine is probably best known for its price tag ($100) but this wine isn't about the price. It really captures the terroir of the Wolffer vineyards and is clearly winemaker Roman Roth's masterpiece. I don't think a tasting of top Long Island reds is complete without this one.
Channing Daughters Winery 2008 Ramato ($20): I knew that my list of white wines would have at least one or two of winemaker Chris Tracy's creations. In fact, if a few of his wines had been released in 2009 (rather than 2008) there would have been at least 3. This wine made the list because it's unique — a skin-contact pinot grigio — delicious and at $20 offers a tremendous entry into the orange wine style.
Channing Daughters Winery 2007 Vino Bianco ($20): This blend of 32% Tocai Friulano, 25% Sauvignon Blanc, 17% Pinot Grigio, 9% Chardonnay (Dijon clone 96) and 17% Chardonnay (“Musque” clone) is a beautifully integrated, classy example of just how good white blends can be on Long Island. Ripe but fresh, each component brings something unique to the table and yet the sum is far greater than the parts. With just a kiss of new oak, this has been a favorite since its release.
Lenz Winery 2006 Gewurztraminer ($20): Year in and year out, winemaker Eric Fry makes one of my favorite Gewurztes and I was thrilled that they released this just a few weeks ago (do it would qualify for the tasting). Super-long with good balance and flavors that lean more towards tropical fruit, spice, lychee and ginger rather than a rose garden, this is right in my gewurzt wheelhouse.
Paumanok Vineyards 2008 Chenin Blanc ($28/sold out): Another wine that sells out quickly every year, this wine was the other hit at TasteCamp. This chenin has bright pear and citrus flavors, super-fresh acidity and an almost mouthfeel — leading many to ask why no one else is growing or making chenin blanc on Long Island. This is another one that I love opening for people who are new to Long Island wines.
Raphael 2008 Naturale ($20): I'm not huge into the whole "natural wine" movement, but when a wine is made without the addition of sugar or acid,
without filtration or fining, and using naturally occurring yeasts and
with only the slightest bit of SO2 during bottling — and tastes good — I take notice. Unique, ever-evolving and delicious, I'm down to my last bottle of this. An easy choice as a 2009 favorite of mine.
Sherwood House Vineyards 2004 Blanc de Blancs ($37): Picking two sparkling wines proved much harder than I expected — especially when I re-tasted some of the contenders. In the end, this chardonnay-only sparkler beat out several others because it's the complete package. From start to finish, it's balanced, classic and delicious.
Sparkling Pointe 2000 Brut Seduction ($50): This beautiful sparkler from Long Island's only sparkling-only producer. My review of this wine will be published soon, but this wine is stunning in its complexity, balance and length. Interestingly enough, Gilles Martin made both of the finalists in this category.
Macari Vineyards 2005 Block E Sauvignon Blanc ($55): Most people think of the Finger Lakes when they think of New York dessert wines, but I think my choices from Long Island will impress as well. And "iced" wine (meaning made with commercially frozen grapes), the intensity of fruit with balancing acidity is near-perfect on this wine, one of 4 such wines Macari made in 2005. This was my favorite.
Paumanok Vineyards 2008 Late Harvest Riesling ($40): I think if we were to taste this wine 3 years from now, it would be a revelation. It's so young, but even now it shows tremendous acidity, layered flavors that will only develop with time and a purity that I enjoy. It'll be fun taking this wine to the land of riesling for the tasting.
So there you have it, a bit about each of the Long Island finalists. Stay tuned for some notes on Evan's Finger Lakes selections and of course information about the Hudson Valley as well.