The Atlantic coast is flush with dramatic terrain. I have marveled at the Gaspésie, Prince Edward Island, Maine, Cape Breton and Cape Cod. Who can discount the beauty of Chesapeake Bay, Kiawah Island and Myrtle Beach. What confounds is that from Newfoundland to South Florida, one spit of land is not only hospitable, but outright conducive to growing grapes. Risking an avocational hazard of overestimating interest in the topic, in case you hadn’t heard, eastern Long Island produces great wine.
With no disrespect to the manicured Hampton vineyards of the South Fork, it’s the stellar whites and reds of the North Fork that are turning heads. While invisible to most of the planet, they are well-known to the island’s cognoscenti, in Manhattan restaurants and across the boroughs. Locavinous, locavore Bruce Bushel of South Fork Kitchen is a champion of the industry. His Bridgehampton restaurant features seven domestic table wines on tap. An additional five sparkling, nine white, four rosé and five reds are available by the glass. There are a further 37 by the bottle. That’s commitment. I tasted through a few that paired beautifully with oysters and crispy Sardines.
Clovis Point Vineyards, Jamesport, North Fork
Somewhere around 10,000 years ago there lived a group of Paleolithic Native Americans known as the Clovis people. Their spear tips were found on the land where this 11-year old winery farms and fashions less than 2,000 annual cases of garagiste Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Managing partner Hal Ginsburg arranged for me to meet manager Kelly Bruer for a revelatory tasting of Clovis Point’s portfolio.
Bruer is as close to a native son as you will find on the North Fork of Long Island. He began his immersion life as a teenager on a journey for all things wine. He is at one with this spit of land measuring less than six miles between Long Island Sound and Peconic Bay, speaking more of micro-climatology than he does of terroir. Vines here must survive and thrive in sand and gravel soil (if you can call it that), where organic matter comes at a premium. Ocean waters and breezes work their saline ways into the wines, more obvious of note in whites. What is imbued to reds is a fascinating calm that neutralizes harsh varnish lines, resulting in beautifully balanced Merlot and Cabernet Franc. This is the North Fork’s somewhereness, something Niagara reds strive towards with hopeful and exponentially maturing vines, yet still remain in search of.
Chardonnay 2011 ($18) like vegetable consommé gets a floral lift from the smallest amount of Gewurztraminer. Think summer corn, linden/basswood/sumac blossoms and chamomile. Stainless steel fermenting allows the Sound’s airy salinity to breeze away. Early evening summer shadows in a glass. 87
Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2008 ($25) is aged for 10 months in French oak barrels. Energy and lively current passes through its white-hot incandescence. Accretes past Obsidian flint to a melon patch of flavours and fades dispassionately into a cultured end. Chardonnay for oozing cheese. 89
Merlot 2005 ($21) shares French and Hungarian oak with 19% essential Cabernet Franc in mendicant adulation ça vaut le détour. Cotton to the successful notion of Merlot’s North Fork planting and in turn, chemical certainty as to the outcome of its composition. Pins ’05 as the jumping off point for historical success. Better than the Peconic Bay, with longer lasting ever red fruit, twang and sandy spice. 88
Vintner’s Select Merlot 2006 ($35) will force North Fork disbelievers to eat crow. French oak adds smokey barbacoa, devil’s tea, espresso and bittersweet chocolate notes. Gamey yet resolved, Merlot of a quiet avarice, confident, self-assured. 89
Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($27.50) nearly goes it alone at 96% Cab. Sauv. capacity and it shows. Cedar and burning, luminescent charcoal smother ruby, red fruit. Time will tell the story of greatness lying in wait due to the heat and dry conditions of the vintage. 87
Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($27.50) incorporates 15% Merlot and 4% Cabernet Franc. Inaugural vintage hie to success. Salty sea drafts work their way into the crimson fruit, accented by Left Bank smoke and tobacco leaf. Beginner’s luck or oracle to the future? It matters not. Could drink this quotidianly. 88
Cabernet Franc 2008 ($27.50) is outright cerulean in blueberry and Clintonia. Caliginous and mysterious Cab. Franc, like nothing that has come before. Sea air at work once again, sifting with chalky sand, gravel and dulcet espresso. No Loire, no Niagara signal here. Pure North Fork. 91
Archaeology 2007 ($60) the flagship, Merlot based, proprietary blend is not a “Meritage,” insists Bruer, wink, wink, say no more. Laser focused like a Paleolithic spearhead, acidity and tannin are OTT. Sly and muscular, you have to wrestle to exhaustion to uncover a Bordeaux-like belle epoque. 90
Palmer Vineyards, Aquebogue, North Fork
Considering that the 1961 Palmer is one of the legendary wines of the universe, naming your Long Island winery as same might seem a bit surreptitious. If your name happens to be Robert Palmer, then all is forgiven. His eponymous vineyard is one of Long Island’s oldest with a wine rep cemented in good standing. In 2006 Miguel Martin was hired as winemaker and the rest is, history.
Martin is a native of Madrid, Spain and has worked around the globe, in his homeland at Gonzalez Byass, in California for Robert Mondavi and in Australia with Yalumba. Family man (three daughters) and Paella master (he promises we’ll cook together next visit), Martin too is obsessed with weather more than soil. While he shares a North Fork ardency for Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc, he also has a vision to experiment with European varietals like Albarino and Muscat. I ask him about Tempranillo. He notes that reds out here struggle to achieve maximum ripeness so the great grape of Spain is just not in the cards. Martin guided me through wines from tank, barrel and at the winery’s tasting bar.
Martin is a native of Madrid, Spain and has worked around the globe, in his homeland at Gonzalez Byass, in California for Robert Mondavi and in Australia with Yalumba. Family man (three daughters) and Paella master (he promises we’ll cook together next visit), Martin too is obsessed with weather more than soil. While he shares a North Fork ardent loyalty for Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc, he also has a vision to experiment with European varietals like Albarino and Muscat. I ask him about Tempranillo. He notes that reds out here struggle to achieve maximum ripeness so the great grape of Spain is just not in the cards. Martin guided me through wines from tank, barrel and at the winery’s tasting bar.
Pinot Blanc 2011 ($20) is typically round but also intriguing with notes of cashew, white strawberry and vanilla cream. Leesy, pear notes join chalk, biscuit and buff. Lieb may be North Fork’s PB darling but Palmer is simply irresistible. 88
Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($20) is uniquely vegetal and green, at once reminiscent of more famous cousins in Sancerre and Marlborough and then again, not. SB purposely picked early, indicating crab apple, gooseberry, sea grass and akin to a savoury tisane of lemongrass, orange peel and chamomile. 87
Chardonnay Reserve 2010 ($19) is more serious than expected. A Harbor Hill, mineral moraine backbone avers intellectual senescence and wisdom, not unlike Paul Pender’s Quarry Road. Caramel and cream make an appearance but after that it’s all citrus and zest. 89
Albarino 2011 ($25, 500 mL) is the most vivid and sterling white in the portfolio. Rinds of all kinds, Seville orange, grapefruit, lemon and lime join forces with tropically tart punch and white Sangria. Crazy acidity and length. 90
Merlot 2010 ($22) sees four weeks of skin contact for Syrah like, deep colour intensity. You’re a Julia, “a horn section you resemble and your figure makes me tremble.” Absent of reductive aromas out of barrel, this Palmer will be approachable direct from bottle next season. East coast Merlot, there’s the rub. “Julia, you’re a danger, just like giving sweets to stranger.” 89
Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($25) is a robust, earthy, muddy cup of morning coffee alongside rye and wheat germ toast smothered with bumble berry confiture. Another intensified red. Who knew? A bit over-leathered so look to pair with a simmered animal bone reduction and red meat. 87
Cabernet Franc 2010 ($29) wins me over. Cab Franc is the artist of the wine world. Never loved enough, bitter, green, work always unfinished. Martin coaxes the most from the unrequited grape and I’d sneak through the alley with Sally for a sip or two. Licorice, black currant, pine. Bring on the duck confit. 92
Good to go!