Category Archives: Vinification

Winemaking

Viniculture in LI, Part III: Corwith Vineyards

Interviews with David Corwith

Corwith VineyardCorwith Vineyards, in Watermill on the South Fork of Long Island, is a very new wine operation that was started with idea that it would be run as a sustainable operation from the beginning, and it became the first vineyard to begin operation as an already-certified member of the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing organization.

Dave Corwith, its owner and vineyard manager, has proven to be an iconoclast in his field from the outset, beginning with his choices of wine grape varieties to plant. He’d been a farmer for years, so I asked him, “Well, what motivated you to start a vineyard?”

He replied, “I’d done some nursery stock. I just didn’t have the interest in it. My heart wasn’t in it, and I started looking. . . . I’ve always wanted to do grapes. I wanted to do them with my brother twenty years ago and he said, ‘No. You can’t do it, Dave. Our season’s two weeks shorter than the season on the North Shore. It won’t work,’ and I sort of took his word for it [then], but I’ve always had it in the back of my mind and I said, ‘I’m going to give it a go.’ We went to Channing Daughters and Wölffer [Estate], [and if they] can do it, why can’t I?”

Dave started with a first planting of 300 vines on about half an acre three years ago. So far, he says, they’re doing well, promising to provide a small yield at this point. He deliberately began with varieties that are a bit easier to grow and have earlier seasons: Austrian varieties such as Lemberger, Blaufränkisch, and 100 vines of Dornfelder, a pretty popular red variety: it produces a light red wine, and the vine is very vigorous. Dornfelder was planted at Channing Daughters, where it does very well, and Dave says there’s also some on the North Fork, and that they’re pleased with it there too.

Though these are hardly run-of-the-mill varieties, so far only Channing Daughters has planted them in Long Island, along with a number of other German and Italian vines rarely seen in other vineyards in New York. However, over the years the viability of these varieties has been proven by Channing, and the popularity of the varietals made from them is proof enough.

Dave went on to explain, “I’m starting out. I was advised, and this is what I want to do, I want to start small . . . . Then again, there’s a learning curve, José. So I’ve got to learn how everything works. I’m not new to farming because I’ve been doing that since I was a kid. I’m new to grapes and all the idiosyncrasies that come along with it.”

“I’m about, I don’t know, three or four miles [west] from Channing Daughters. Channing Daughters probably [has] about the closest profile to what mine is as far as weather conditions, microclimates, etcetera. They’ve got thirty acres of good grapes over there and they really do the later varieties I was advised to stay away from, such as Cab Sauvignon and the fluffy Pinot Noir. So I’m not taking those on. You can grow Cab Sauv on the South Shore, but it’s going to be a little bit on the green side when it comes up and it will make a rosé, but you’re not going to make a first quality Cab Sauv that you can put away for a while. You will one in ten seasons, okay? But those other nine seasons you’re going to be making rosé, which is okay . . . . I chose not to go after the later [ripening] varieties, at least not until I get to know everything.

“I have two acres [planted] now. Lemberger, Dornfelder, those are two reds.  Grüner Veltliner (‘green velvet’ in German). One Woman Vineyards has it on the North Shore. [Claudia Purita and her daughter] Gabrielle are the only ones I know of that have it. I was just over there last weekend and we got a couple of bottles. So I put in 300 plants of the variety . . . .

“Then last year, José, I was up at the Rochester Convention. Once every three years they do a viticulture convention in the Northeast, and they named two grapes that Cornell’s been working on for probably 15 years plus, called Arandell and Aromella. Arandell is the red variety, which is highly disease resistant and it makes a really good grape. It has a Pinot Noir parentage and a complex parentage with it, as well as the interbreeding there; they made it a disease-resistant variety that still makes a good fruit. So I was very pleased with what I saw and I ordered a couple hundred plants of Arandell. ([Arándano] means ‘blueberry’ in Spanish, and Ell is [for] Cornell.) They had a naming contest last year in Rochester, and that’s the name that won for this grape. It has a blueberry nose to it, apparently. They gave us some at the conference. It was pretty good, so I put in 200 plants of that last year, and I’m excited, really eager to see how that’s going to play out.”

There is more information about Arandell and Aromella in Cornell’s Issue 13, March 2013, of the Viticulture and Enology Newsletter. They’re referred to as the 55th and 56th grape varieties named by the Agriculture Experiments Station in Geneva run by Cornell.  Dave’s information was particularly interesting, even newsworthy, because hybrid varieties have barely made a dent in LI viniculture, except for at Pindar. This is probably the first time that a new hybrid, Arandell, has been introduced to the LI wine region in years. Furthermore, Dave is one of the early adopters of Arandell and unique in planting a hybrid variety in Long Island when hybrids have mostly been eschewed entirely by other growers.

Dave went on to say: “I have 300 plants [of Arandell] this year. I’m very pleased with the growth and the disease resistance. It’s noticeably better disease resistant, and I’m just an amateur at this, and I can tell. Huge difference. So from a sustainable standpoint, . . . I’m very much involved with Long Island Sustainable Wine Council. Everyone [else who joined was already] established. I’m . . . the first guy to kind of take the Long Island Sustainable program from scratch. So one of the things that we don’t really talk too much about because everybody’s got theirs planted already is new planting. A good approach is to put in a disease-resistant variety that still makes a good wine. Those are hard to come by. This is where I’m sort of hedging my bet a little bit with the Arandell.

“What I’m learning in my research is that when you go either upstate, mid-west, Minnesota, and you get into these slightly colder climates, they really look hard at the cold hardiness of a specific variety as one of their key things that they have to pay attention to. We are not so much that way. We don’t pull up our grapes here on Long Island. It’s mild enough … I don’t even really worry about that at all when I’m trying to decide on a variety. But they have to. Vinifera, the European grapes, don’t do so well with the colder climates.

I replied that while his remark about vinifera varieties is largely true, there is considerable success in the Finger Lakes with Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and, of course, Riesling, which is most definitely a cool-climate grape. To which Dave said: “Right. So they made it work. They figured out how to make it work up there and I applaud them for being able to do that. Down here, on Long Island, I’ve had people tell me, ‘You can pretty much grow any variety you want.’ I’m sort of taking that advice, but carefully.

I pointed out that it’s absolutely astonishing how many varieties there are growing on Long Island. In a database about Long Island vineyards that I maintain I have listed so far thirty-seven: twenty whites and seventeen reds; add Arandell into the mix and that would make it eighteen red varieties.

Dave then popped another German variety to me:   “Well, here’s another one for you that I’m working with too. You probably have this on your list: Zweigelt.”

I replied, “Well, I think Zweigelt is being grown at Channing Daughters right now.”

He remarked, “They may have some. I don’t know. I know that Research Station has a little bit. I got a couple hundred plants of Zweigelt too. They’re babies. Here’s a story for you. Zweigelt and Lemberger, Blaufränkisch, are cousins.    They have the same parentage. Zweigelt is just a little bit spicier and it’s a little bit earlier maturing variety than Lemberger. So that’s another reason why in my research in trying to find a variety of grapes, when I came across Zweigelt I jumped on that. I think that would be a really cool one to have out here.”

To which I said, “Well, it looks like you’re trying to make your mark with varieties that are not typically grown in Long Island other than somebody like Channing Daughters, which loves to experiment.”

Dave replied, “Right. Part of my approach was, there’s fifteen hundred acres of Merlot on the north shore. Why am I going to put in more Merlot and compete? It’s a little bit of a ‘I’m a new kid on the block approach.’  I’m sort of going after some of the varieties that are not as commonly grown. That’s the marketing technique, the approach that I’m using. Because . . . initially I won’t have the high volume.”

At this point I asked him if he was growing grapes with the intention of selling them to other producers or have them made for you by another winery or a crush facility like Premier Wine.

Corwith Vineyards, garageDave pointed out that “Actually, I’m a do-it-yourself. I’m making the wine myself right now. The last two years I got some fruit from the north shore, Merlot and some Chardonnay, and we made up a nice batch last year. We made a rose, an orange, a Chardonnay, and a Merlot. You learn exponentially when you get your hands dirty and get in there and do it. I’m working out a garage right now . . . and I’m making small batches, okay? I have 100 to 150 gallons of wine. That’s all I have. A couple [of] barrels.”

I told Dave that it struck me that he was another garagiste, like Le Pin, the great, small winery in Pomerol.  He must be farming other crops in the meantime to derive some cash flow.

He said, “Yes. I put in about an acre or so of vegetables right now. I just put my tomatoes in today, this morning. I’m doing that and I take the organic approach to the maximum extent that I can, within reason. Without the onerous oversight of the federal government, which is difficult to sustain.”

This led to a discussion of organic farming in Long Island. At this point I feel that quoting the interview verbatim is useful, as the exchange between us was especially interesting (I should, however, point out that I don’t exactly agree with Dave about some of his ideas about the genealogy of some grape varieties, but they’re interesting in their own right):

JM-L:   Well, you know, Rex Farr, of course.

DC:     I know Rex.  Yep.  He’s taking the organic approach. He’s the only game in town, I think, [though] Barbara [Shinn’s] pretty close.

JM-L:   Barbara’s close, but not quite there. Rex, of course, has been farming other crops organically for years. I think he only started growing grapes in 2005. The fruit is excellent from what I understand and this other startup in the North Fork, Southold Farm and Cellar, is buying its fruit from Rex Farr.

DC:     Where my farm is there’s a forty-acre parcel that I share. I can expand if necessary, and I have farmland on another piece that I can work with. That’s not as good for potatoes; it would be better for grapes. So I got to look at that, but it’s presenting some challenges when I split the operation a mile away and you’ve got to have the earth cracks, you’ve got to have water, and you have to be able to get over there. When I retire from my full-time job and this becomes my full-time job, down the road, I’ll put in five or ten acres over there of something else I really like.

JM-L:   Of course. So tell me something. To whom did you turn for advice on how to prepare your fields and plant your vines?

DC:     Okay. A couple of things. I started with learning extensively about organic farming in general via dynamic approach, as well as the Soil Foodweb approach, which is Dr. Elaine Ingham. Look her up or Google Soil Foodweb. She’s the mother of compost teas. So I’ve been working a lot with compost teas the last several years for all of my crops.

Not just the grapes. I’ve had good results with it, but it’s something I would really like to see more testing done with. Compost teas are really good … They’re, basically if you take compost and you mix it with water and you mix it all up and you bubble it or you fish bubble it for 24 hours, you can culture the bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes. Then once you culture that and you grow those, remember from your science class bacteria splits every four hours, so same thing. If you can grow the fungi and the bacteria, that’s really what we’re after. Then you spray that on the plants as a foliar spray. The theory is you will push out [the good] from the bad guys. If you cover the leaf with beneficial bacteria and fungi, when the bad guys try to show up to eat the leaf, they get kicked out.

JM-L:   So this is Biodynamics?

DC:     Well, it’s a cousin to Biodynamics, [which] is taking compost, particularly what they call barrel compost, that’s been buried in the ground over the winter, put it in cow horns and it’s a dairy-based, or cow-based, manure compost, which is excellent. Then they spray that on. With compost tea, you take, particularly, a fungal dominated compost that you have made from a real thick compost pile. So you have to make compost correctly. You can’t just make dirt. You get a good quality compost, particularly one that has worm cavities in it, which is about as good as it gets, and then you put that in a teabag and you boil it … Well, you don’t boil it. You just bubble it in a barrel of water for 24 hours and you can take that and spray it out around your plants as a foliar nutrient spray, if you will. So I’ve been working with that, and that’s very, very similar to what the Biodynamics people are doing. Biodynamics takes it to the next level and they add a celestial component to it. What’s the phase of the moon when we’re doing all this?

JM-L:   Well, this, of course, is where Biodynamics becomes controversial.

DC:     I guess when people are . . . . When I try to explain Biodynamics to people, the simplest way, as I said, ‘Well, does the full moon change the tides on the Earth,’ and most of us know the answer is yes. Sure. It changes the high tide, low tide effect. So if the moon can change the high and low tides, why can’t the moon change the effect of way the plant is growing on a full or new moon. Then add that in and now Biodynamics goes five levels more than that, you know? Get in all the planets as well. That’s where it gets, like you said, controversial.

So I started with biodynamic and compost teas, learning how to work with those . . . . when it came time to look at grapes, I went over to talk to Alice Wise, kind of got to feel her out, and I went over and talked to Steve Mudd who’s put in probably half the grapes on the north shore. Talked to Steve about things and he was very helpful. Then I sort of got involved with the Long Island Sustainable program last year, and that’s been a tremendous benefit for me, a new guy learning how all this stuff works because they’re really promoting the educational side. Some of the speakers they brought [in] are really, really good.

The workbook that we use is excellent. It’s based on the Vine Balance Workbook, which is excellent with regard to how we’re farming it and … It looks at the big picture, which is good.

JM-L:   Actually, what’s interesting is that when the Vine Balance program was first developed by Cornell up in Geneva. They developed it for use statewide but they never took into consideration the proliferation of Vinifera grapes and, of course, at the time that they first came out with Vine Balance, there were no grapes being grown on Long Island. They had to modify it for the Long Island growers.

DC:     Okay. Well, then that sort of became the Long Island Sustainable [program], which they just started and that’s done very, very well. So that’s sort of how I got into it, and I very carefully researched for a couple of years different varieties and decided to go with earlier[-ripening] varieties. I ran them by some of the vineyard managers and they said, ‘Yeah. Those will all work for you.’

JM-L:   That’s fabulous. Now what, by the way, is your vine spacing?

DC:     I’m using nine by four and a half to five; nine feet on the rows and then five on the plants, four and a half to five. The first group I put in, I actually put them in about eight by three but that was too tight. It was too close.

JM-L:   Okay. Are you using machinery in the rows?

DC:     I use a mechanical weeder. I don’t use any herbicides. José, one of the things that came about with the Soil Foodweb model … I’m going to back up just a little bit here. The Soil Foodweb model talks about the fungi in the soil. It’s really … Dr. Ingham, for 30 years, she studied, “Well, what does the plant look like underground? What’s going on in the root system of the plant?” That’s what she studied. Okay? One of the things that she talks a lot about is what’s called mycorrhizal fungi. It’s a type of fungi that … I don’t know if you’re familiar or not, but I’ll give it to you. It’s root extensions. If you add extensions on the spiderweb of fungi that go out and get the nutrients for the plant. Dr. Ingham talks about this fungi going down, not feet, but higher than feet, they can connect. You can have fungi in the soil that can connect for even up to miles, distances. So it’s this fascinating web of fungi underground. With herbicides we kill the mycorrhizal fungi, so when I put my plants in, I gave them a shot of mycorrhizal fungi in with the soil mantis that I was using with the roots. I gave them a shot of that. Now they say you get another 20/25 percent growth if you put in mycorrhizal fungi.  I talked to Larry [Perrine of Channing Daughters] a little bit about it. Richie Pisacano over at Wölffer’s has been very helpful too.

JM-L:   Rich is fabulous. Rich is called the Grape Whisperer, you know?

DC:     I talked to him about Pinot Noir the other day. I said, “Richie, can I grow Pinot Noir here?” and he goes, “It’s a tough grape to grow.” It’s really tough. Although I talked to a guy that I order my grapes from upstate, and he has a clone that he said would work for me, what I’m trying to do. Pinot Noir 19, I think it is. That’s not what Ritchie’s got over at Wölffer. They put in Pinot 20 years ago and they make a rosé out of it, or they make a champagne out of it. They don’t make a [red wine].

Again, Dave began talking about other alternative wine-grape varieties, some of which have not been seen in Long Island before this:

I got a couple of out-of-the-box ideas for you for varieties that I’m sort of researching. I’ve got mixed emotions about all of them. Cabernet Sauvignon can’t do it. What about its sister grape? There’s Cabernet Dorsa, which is a cross of Cab Sauvignon and Dornfelder, earlier, that you can’t plant. You’ve got Franc, which is its own variety. Then there’s another one, Cabernet Mitos, which is a cross of Cab Sauvignon and Lemberger. These are varieties that I’m growing now, so I thought, ‘Well, okay. Maybe that’s how I can bring a Cabernet into the picture.’ Cabernet Mitos, I wasn’t able to find it . . . . I haven’t even tried it yet. There’s only 750 hectares worldwide, and it’s all in Germany. It’s a German-developed variety, so I’ve got to see what it can do. I’m looking at those and then the other ones that I think Chris and Larry are doing is Tempranillo, [which] is a sister to Grenache. Yes, and Grenache, they think, was originated in Sardinia and they called it Cannonau. At least that’s what they say, but it’s only grown in Sardinia.   And a sister to that is Tempranillo. I think Tempranillo would be a cool grape to try to grow around here. A good blender, you know what I mean? Also, Albariño.

JM-L:   Albariño! Well, you know, there are two people who are growing Albariño now. One is Miguel Martin at Palmer and Rich Olsen-Harbich has planted some at Bedell.

DC:     I put in 200 plants; that’s an experiment too. I got mine from upstate, The Grapevine, which is up by Geneva. They, I’m almost sure, grafted it for me. They put it on 3309 and Sl4 [rootstocks].

JM-L:   Miguel has been making a splendid Albariño himself. You should try it if you haven’t.

DC:     Yeah. I have. I’ve been over there. Miguel helped us make our Chardonnay this year. He is . . . terrific. Good people. You know, I want to say something, José. I kind of got into the grape thing, predominant over on the North Shore, but as I get to know people over these last three or four years, what I’ve discovered is it’s a small fraternity of wonderful people that all want to help each other out, and a rising tide lifts all boats. So I haven’t found anyone who has not been willing to help as I, have gone along the way. They’ve been very, very nice.

Corwith Vineyards, sign

JM-L:  Well, Dave, thank you very much. I think we’ve had a very interesting and instructive interview.  What you’re doing is exciting, and I want to continue to follow your progress.

This interview took place on May 20, 2014; a visit followed on November 17, 2015.

A trip to the Hamptons to visit my daughter was an opportune time to also see Dave at his farm.  The result was a delightful time in his garage winery and seeing the handmade and used equipment that he was using for his winemaking.  It’s pretty basic, and some would be familiar to any home winemaker.  Here are some pictures of the equipment, rudimentary and inventively-designed as it is:

Corwith Vineyards, pressThe basket wine press was purchased used and needed extensive repairs, which were done by Dave’s father.  It is very small–it has barely 50 gallons capacity–and not at all efficient, but it adequate for the small batches of wine that he’s currently producing.  This is a far cry from the much more advanced pneumatic presses that are used in most of the LI wineries, which have much larger capacity and press fruit with greater precision and control.

 

 

Corwith Vineyards, 1This is a handmade crusher-destemmer, again of very small capacity, so it requires considerable patience to work with it, but it works just as well as the much larger industrial versions and, after all, it is only being used for very small batches of fruit.  The crusher is at the upper left, and the fruit then drops into the perforated basket below, where the rotating wooden destemmer (with plastic tips removed from the posts) separates the stems, which are pushed out of the basket and fall on the ground while the crushed grapes pour through the perforations into a trough that flows the juice into a bin.

Corwith Vineyards, 6The must to be fermented is then placed in a metal or oak barrel, which in Corwith’s case are small and few in number.  Dave buys his oak barrels from a cooperage, East Coast Wine Barrels in Medford, a Long Island town.Their barrels are meticulously made from Romanian oak.  Dave has them medium-toasted to somewhat abate the oakiness that could be imparted to the wine.

Corwith Vineyards, 4When the wine is ready to be bottled, the bottles themselves first need to be properly sterilized by a dose of sulfur gas followed by a whiff of nitrogen to expel the sulfur so that it will not add flavor to the wine.  This is an entirely handmade device which has perforated wood bars allowing up to 12 bottles at a time to be treated.  Beneath the inverted bottle necks are nozzles that inject the gases into the bottles.  Rough-hewn as it is, it works perfectly well, even if it’s no match for industrial sterilizers that can handle far more bottles at a time with much less manual labor per bottle.

 

 

Corwith Vineyards, 5The final stage, of course, is filling the bottles with wine.  Yet another hand-crafted gizmo is brought to bear on this all-important function.  In this case only four bottles at a time can be filled, but it goes fairly quickly, especially if there are only small batches of wine.  However, each label has to be affixed to each bottle by hand and for now the contents are written by hand as well.  A completely automated device to do everything from filling the bottles to inserting the corks and adding the neck capsule, and finally applying the pre-printed labels costs many thousands of dollars and Corwith may never be able to afford one, but a larger rig like the one in the picture would certainly be called for once Corwith goes into commercial production.

Corwith Vineyards, DaveOf course a barrel-tasting was in order, and Dave very happily obliged.

The first wine was a “poor man’s” Bordeaux-style blend made of equal parts Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cab Sauvignon 2014 from North Fork vineyards, aged in Romanian oak.  It will continue aging in barrel for some more months, but it already is showing promise, with good fruit, lively acidity, and form tannins.

A Chardonnay from Lenz Vineyards fruit of 2015 is just weeks in stainless steel but the wine is from good, clean fruit and also shows good promise.

Also in steel is  a Grüner Veltliner from 2015 grapes of Corwith’s own vineyards.  Promising as well, but still too young to say much more.

An Arandell wine comes across as a tad foxy, but then it is a Cornell hybrid.  Dave plans to treat it like a Syrah or Petit Verdot but it will certainly have to be blended with a red vinifera to bring the foxiness under control.

All of this is the achievement of a “newbie garagiste.”  Not bad, not at all bad.

Corwith Vineyards LogoMailing Address:

Corwith Vineyards LLC
851 Head of Pond Rd
Water Mill, NY 11976

Email:

info@CorwithVineyards.com

Please note that at this time Corwith Vineyards is not open to visitors and its website is new and under development.

 

 

 

Long Island Wines Score Serious Attention

Anyone who has been enjoying wines from Long Island over the years knows that the quality of the wine has been improving to the point that most of the last several vintages have resulted in many superb wines. Occasionally a few wines here and there have received excellent review and high scores, such as from Wine Enthusiast, Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator.  Oz Clarke has long been a fan. Still, the mainstream press has largely ignored the breadth of the achievement.

Finally, there is a level of recognition of the quality of Long Island wine that should leave no one in doubt, given two sets of tasting notes published this past June and October.   In the June 30, 2015 issue of the Wine Advocate eMag, Mark Squires has rated the wines of 26 producers and given scores of 90 to 94 points to 78 of nearly 200 that were tasted, along with some detailed tasting notes. In the October 30 issue, he reviewed some 2013 new releases that weren’t available at the time of his prior review, and six producers not included earlier:   Brooklyn Oenology, Suhru, Mattebella, Pindar, Duck Walk, and Diliberto.  In all, 26 wines out of 78 scored 90 to 93 points,  while Paumanok had the best results with 10 of its 12 wines scoring over 90.  What this means that of nearly 280 wines that have been tasted for the two reviews, over 100 had high scores, but as usual, read the tasting notes to understand the scores.

90-plus scores are what catch the attention of readers, but the details are in the notes, which should be read carefully to better understand the reason for the points that have been awarded. These reviews are the opinion of one man, but he is a seasoned wine professional and really knows his stuff. His essay about the Long Island wine industry is well worth reading, but one needs a subscription to the Wine Advocate in order to do so. (I obtained the article by subscribing for a month–$20).

Some salient points made by him:

  • “There is plenty of evidence that the region has arrived and is on the cusp of maturity, no longer an outlier, but increasingly reliable in good vintage years. More improvements are likely, to be sure, but overall there is a lot to admire.”
  • “They also care about making wines to age. The top wines here typically demand cellaring and reward it.”
  • “The array of sauvignon blancs that I saw fit in well here and they were extremely successful. This region may be underrated for its sauvignons right now.”

What is particularly notable about Squires’ reviews is that none of the wines scored less than 82 points and that so many (nearly 36%) scored 90 points or higher. Until now, no wines from the region had ever received more than 92 points, but this time 24 wines had that score or more. But again, it must be emphasized that the tasting notes are the thing to read. The scores should be used as pointers.

32 producers reviewed out of 53 that make commercial wines is just two-thirds of the total in Long Island (including two in Brooklyn). Squires points out that he will be returning to the region from time to time so it is to be hoped that he’ll get around to reviewing the rest, for there are some significant brands that have been left out of the first two sets of reviews, such as Castello di Borghese, Laurel Lake, Palmer, and T’Jara.

Squires’ article has also been thoughtfully commented on by Eileen Duffy in her byline on Edible East End.  Notably, she has also provided links to the tasting notes for each winery.  Furthermore, for those who do not subscribe to Wine Advocate, she’s done a great service by making these notes available to all.

 

Juanjo Garcel Piñol and his Wines of Terra Alta DO

Catalunya map, Terra AltaThe Terra Alta DO in Catalonia barely was mentioned as a source of quality wine by John Radford in his book, The New Spain: A Complete Guide to Contemporary Spanish Wine (revised edition, 2004). Perhaps it’s time for a new edition, because in the intervening years much has happened in Terra Alta. Indeed, in the 7th edition (2013) of The World Atlas of Wine, by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, had this to say about Terra Alta: “imported red varieties have been replacing the region’s Garnacha Blanca . . . . Vinos Piñol . . . make refined red Garnacha and Cariñena.” Remarkably, Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2016, doesn’t even mention Terra Alta at all, much less Vinos Piñol. However, José Peñín, the authoritative Spanish writer on the wines of that country had, in his Atlas de los vinos de España (2000), quite a bit more to say about the region and its wines and was rather upbeat about its prospects for making quality wine.

How can this be? Well, the region is a relatively new DO or Denominación de Origen as of 1982. It is very small, its winters cold and its summers hot, and its average rainfall is between 14 to 20 inches annually. The soil is mostly limestone interspersed with some clay, very similar to that of the better-known terroir of Priorat. The winds of the region, particularly the southerly cierzo and the garbí that blows from the northeast, help to keep the grapes dry and healthy, as does the wide diurnal temperature variation. Terra Alta is a rather tiny part of the province of Tarragona, situated in the high mountains of the Southwest of the province (see the pink area of the map). It was settled before the ancient Romans colonized Spain; indeed, there is evidence that winemaking preceded their arrival.

Originally known for its white wines, particularly an oxidized type called “amber blanc” or rancio, the inevitable arrival of the Phylloxera louse in the late 1800s forced the replanting of the vineyards. In 2000 it had but 8500 hectares (21,590 acres) planted to vines and by 2010 that area had grown but little, to 22,793 acres. However, it has undergone a major transformation in the last 20 years. Once dominated by winery cooperatives, a few indigenous varieties such as Garnatxa, both red and white (Grenache in Catalan) and some imported varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, it has been transformed by the rise of small wineries with big ambitions. Today, Terra Alta’s top white varieties are Garnacha Blanca, Macabeo, Parellada, Moscatel, and Chardonnay. Garnacha Tinta and Cariñena (locally called Samsó) are the most-planted red grape varieties; Garnacha Peluda, the rare Morenillo, along with the imports, Tempranillo, Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon are also in the vineyards. There are also experimental plantings of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Marselan (a Cab Sauv × Grenache crossing).

Among the most notable of the newer wineries is Vinos Piñol, also known as Celler Piñol. This winery has been held in the Piñol family since 1945 for four generations. Their wines are made from entirely indigenous varieties that in many cases came from 85-year-old vines. The vineyard, located at an altitude of roughly 500 meters (over 1,600 feet), has been farmed organically since 2000. Most of the vines are trained to single-Guyot trellises and head-pruned.
Pinol, JuanjoJuanjo Garcela Piñol, trained as a chemical engineer, was called to the winery in 1998 by his aging parents, who needed his help in maintaining the vineyard and making the wine. Though he had no oenological training, his chemistry background was very helpful and over time he read heavily and took some courses in winemaking. Today he runs the winery and shares winemaking responsibilities with Toni Coca, along with María Mendoza, who also helps out in the winery and in the vineyard; his mother Josefa maintains the cellar.

His first bottling was the 1995 Avi Arrufi Blanco, of which there were 2,000 bottles. Nevertheless, apart from its appeal within Terra Alta, it turned out to be a very hard sell outside the region, itself barely known and the winery utterly unknown. However, today Piñol exports 85% of its production abroad and has received rave reviews and 90+ points many times since then. The US importer is Olé, which brings in a select number of each of nine different Piñol wines.

He currently produces wines made from four white varieties (Garnacha Blanca, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and Macabeo) and six red ones (Cabernet Sauvignon, Garnatxa, Merlot, Syrah, Tempranillo, and Morenillo). He has also introduced three new varieties (Petit Verdot, Marselan, and Verdejo). From these he makes a total of 11 wines, most of which are blends. For the interview with him, the following wines were tasted: L’Avi Arrufi Blanca, Portal Tinto, Sa Natura Tinto, and Mather Teresina. All of these wines have received both critical praise from Jancis Robinson among others, and high scores of 90 to 95 from José Peñín, Robert Parker, and Stephen Tanzer of IWC.

The overall style of the wines is decidedly nuanced, but with clear and distinctive character. This is due to the fact that the focus of the winemaking is on expressing the unique terroir of the vineyards. Whereas many Spanish wineries are increasingly turning to imported varieties, Piñol prefers to emphasize the local, autochthonous varieties, though in the case of the red wines some Syrah is added to deepen the color of the wines, especially given that the dominant red variety, Garnacha, though rich in aromas and flavors, tends to make slightly pale wines. Three-quarters of the wines produced are reds, the rest are whites made from Garnatxa Blanca. (This variety is a specialty of the region, and 35% of the global production of that grape is in Terra Alta.) About 85% of all the grapes they use come from their own vines and the rest are purchased from other organic vineyards in the DO.

L’Avi Arrufí White
The 2010 L’Avi Arrufi Blanca is made entirely of Garnatxa Blanca from 50-year-old vines. It spent eight months in French oak and yielded an alcohol level of 14.8%. The quality of the wine comes in good part from the fact that the vines have very deep roots that tap into the minerality of the soil, according to Piñol. The result is a wine of high minerality and flavors of stone fruit like peaches and apricots, with spiciness and smoky notes derived from the oak. Its mouthfeel is unctuous and rich, giving a long aftertaste that reminds of a fine white Burgundy. This is why Piñol has increased the production of its white varieties from 10% of its wines five years ago to 25% today. Only 300 six-packs have been imported by Olé, as it is now in high demand worldwide. 92 points from Robert Parker, 90 Points from José Peñín.
Sa Natura Tinto
At only $20 this red wine drinks more like a wine costing twice as much yet is made withPinol, Sa Natura label organic, estate-grown grapes, comprised by 50% Cariñena, 20% Garnacha, 15% Syrah, 15% Merlot varieties. The vines grow in clay and limestone soil at 356 m (1,168 ft) elevation. There are earthy tones, as well as pepper, blackcurrant and cherry fruit, with a medium to full body, balanced acidity, and lush tannins. 3,000 cases were produced. Drink it over the next 4-6 years.

Each variety was hand-harvested when optimum ripeness occurred for a given grape. After selecting the best grapes from each bunch, the grapes macerate with their juice for 4 days at 6ºC (43°F) for greater fruit expression. After that fermentation is carried out at a temperature of 27ºC (81°F). Maceration and skin contact lasts for 25 days. Malolactic fermentation then takes place, half in oak barrels and half in stainless steel tanks; after which the wine is aged for 13 months in 85% French and 15% American oak.  It contains 14% alcohol.

Pairing suggestions include a rare beef cheddar burger, but the wine’s fresh black and blue fruits will pair even better with a lamb or turkey burger with a slice of Jarlsberg. If grilling sausages, go toward sweet pork and veal rather than spicy beef dishes. White meat also pairs well with Sa Natura due to its inherently sweeter character and also is a good match for meat dishes in mushroom sauce.

The 2011 earned 92 points from Wine Enthusiast & was an Editor’s Choice; prior vintages all earned 90+ points from Robert Parker and others.

Portal Tinto
Pinol, Portal Tinto labelThis wine is made from certified organically-grown grapes, from which 3,050 cases were produced for the 2012 vintage. The vines are head-pruned, dry-farmed (no irrigation), and grow in limestone and clay soil. The vineyards are located within Batea, a town at an elevation of 450 m (1,476 ft). The wine is comprised by 50% Garnacha, 20% Carignan, 10% Merlot, 10% Syrah, and 10% Tempranillo.

According to the Olé Website, “the grapes are brought to the winery in the early morning hours before being de-stemmed and crushed. Prior to fermentation, the must is macerated at a cool temperature (43°F) for four days in large tanks of 5,000-10,000 liter capacity. Fermentation starts [by] utilizing neutral yeasts from Levuline (used mostly in Champagne) and the skins mix with the juice for 22-28 days. Malolactic fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks. The wine is aged for twelve months in 300-liter French and American oak barrels.”
Portal Red is dark ruby-colored, while the aroma reveals minerality, cedar, tobacco, cassis, and black fruit. Ripe and fruit-sweet on the palate, with licorice, dried herbs and mineral notes, ending with a long, fruity finish. It should remain enjoyable for a few more years.
This wine’s ripe, juicy character is very easy to pair with foods like casual American fare (burgers, wrap sandwiches, burritos), spicy Latino dishes, as well as aged hard cheeses.

Mather Teresina Red
Pinol, Portal Tinto vineyardA vineyard from which the Mather Terisina wines are sourced.

This is Piñol’s premiere wine, made from a selection of the best barrels of Garnatxa (50%), Cariñena (30%) and Morenillo (20%) of the 2008 vintage, resulting in a limited production of 7,750 bottles, of which over 1,400 were imported by Olé to the United States. The vines, by the way, are anywhere from 35 to 60 years old. The wines spent 20 – 24 months in 85% French and 15% in new American oak barrels and fined with no animal products, so it can be considered a vegan wine. Its alcohol content is 14.85%.

This wine has high-pitched aromas of red fruits, wet stones and spices. With acidity that lends a “nervous” character to the fruit in the mouth, the wine’s tannins are substantial but fine grained. This is a wine of roundness, volume, depth and great length and should be enjoyed with dishes like pheasant, duck, venison, fois gras, roast pork, and aged hard cheeses.

Among the awards won by Mather Teresina, Vinum Magazine (Germany) has lauded it as one of the best wines in Spain, alongside the prestigious Vega Sicilia.  Robert Parker gave Mather Teresina 92 points in his Wine Advocate magazine.

The Olé Website tells us that “the vineyards are located a few miles southwest of Priorat, within the Terra Alta DO (Zone 5) in Catalunya’s Tarragona province in northeastern Spain. In this remote region, the winemaking tradition dates back to the Romans, around the 2nd or 3rd Century. The winery and vineyards are in the town of Batea, situated at 400 meters (1,312 ft.) elevation. The soils are composed of 95% limestone and 5% clay. Yields are low (24.5 hectoliters per hectare, or 3,500 kilograms per hectare), which enhances the concentration and complexity in the grapes. The vineyards are organically farmed and certified by CCPAE. For climate, the average temperature from April-October is 67.3ºF. The hot day and warm-to-moderate night temperatures make Terra Alta a drier and warmer region than Montsant or Priorat. These conditions produce bright purplish-garnet hued wines with greater weight and ripeness than wines from other areas within Zone 5. The low average yearly rainfall of 16.3 inches is less than neighboring regions.”

The wine offers aromas of spice and red berries, as well as notes of licorice and coffee, along with vanilla and mineral nuances in the background. It has a precision on the palate, with both sour cherry and sweet raspberry flavors that amplify with time. It is full-bodied and well-developed, though promising a long life ahead, given its well-knit tannins and good acid backbone. The finish is long and lingering. A wine for contemplation as well as food, especially beef or game in rich sauces.

A wine that was not tasted for this interview is the Finca Morenillo, based 100% on a rare, local variety that had almost vanished. It is of very limited production at 500 cases or 3,000 bottles and is unique in the wine world. A small amount has been imported into the USA by Olé. Once this writer finds it and has tasted it shall be added to this review.

Pinol, barricaCeller Piñol
Avinguda Aragó, 9, 43786 Batea, Tarragona, Tarragona, Spain

Celler Pinol Website

 

 

 

Based on an interview with Juanjo Piñol in July 2015.

Viniculture in the Hudson Valley: Robibero Family Vineyards

For several years there was a winery called Rivendell that called 714 Albany Post Road in New Paltz home. Then, in 2003, Harry Robibero and his wife Carole purchased the 42-acre property with the hope that someday the winery operation would become theirs. As a matter of fact, the owners of Rivendell, Bob Ransom and Susan Wine, gave notice in 2007 and left the property for a new location.

Harry mentioned this over family dinner one night. “Did you hear? Rivendell is leaving. Do you guys want to start your own winery? Should I look for another tenant?” Tiffany replied, “Let’s do it. Let’s start a winery.” Ryan, then her husband, agreed.  So they took a chance and quit their jobs.

Very shortly after, Harry and his family were busy refurbishing and renovating the existing building. In May of 2010 Robibero Family Vineyards opened for business.

When I first visited Robibero shortly after they’d opened and tasted some of their wines I was frankly disappointed. The wines that I tasted, made from purchased fruit, were thin, sharp, and unbalanced. I told them so and did not return for a couple of years. But eventually I did go back and each time thereafter it was evident that the wines were improving, so much so that in 2014 Robibero won a Double Gold for their 2012 Cabernet Franc from fruit sourced from Sheldrake Point in the Finger Lakes, which came in at 24 Brix. It was aged for nine months in French oak, 50% of which was new. Once the wine was bottled they entered the wine in the competition before they even had an approved label.  A Double Gold.

The change in quality came about in large part due to the winemaker who was hired soon after they started, Cristop Brown. Cristop came to Robibero after a stint in Washington State working for Long Shadows. He’d first worked at Millbrook Winery as the tasting room manager. After a few years he went Benmarl, in Marlborough, which has the oldest working vineyard in the country, and it was there that he learned to make wine from Eric Miller, son of Mark Miller, the owner. In fact, Eric made it clear to Cristop that a condition of his being hired was that he had to take courses in biochemistry so that he could better understand that processes that go on in the ripening of the fruit and in fermentation; making the wine was learned on the job. Soon he was assistant winemaker. In a few years Eric sold the winery to Matt Spaccarelli and moved to Pennsylvania, and Cristop then became the Benmarl winemaker. Now it was his turn to teach Matt the art of winemaking and they worked together for nearly four years before he took off for Washington State to see how wine and grape growing are done outside of New York State.

By the time of his return from Washington, Cristop had become a very accomplished oenologist and had become committed to make clean wine marked by varietal typicity and good balance. In fact, it was Matt Spaccarelli who then directed Cristop to Robibero, which had placed a “help wanted” ad in a wine journal.

Ryan is the winery and vineyard factotum or jack-of-all-trades. Depending on the season and the need he may be outside pruning or inside filtering wine with Cristop or in the tasting room pouring. He also drives the truck making deliveries to the various wine shops that carry their label, or whatever else must be done that no one else would be available to do.

When we stepped out in the vineyard our conversation there went on for a while. We were standing on the east-facing slope of the acre of Vidal and Cab Franc, and discussed viniculture.

Robibero Vineyards, 1Members of the family do all the handwork in the vineyard. They try to use organic sprays to the extent possible. Cornell came and gave them advise on how to plant a vineyard, including the orientation of the vine rows, the density, the recommended varieties for the location, and so on. Spacing is about 8 by 8, with original fescue between the rows. Soil pH was just right so that no input was needed to neutralize the soil. According to Ryan, the Cornell team told them that root stock 101-14 would work best in their soil and then provided a list of the vines and clones that they thought would do well on that stock. [101-14 is a root stock that was developed in France and released in 1882 by hybridizers Millardet and de Grasset. It is the result of an interspecific cross between V. riparia and V. rupestris. It produces moderate vigor in scions—the vine cuttings that are grafted to the stock—and has very good resistance to the devastating root louse Phylloxera, scourge of European-variety vineyards.]

Cornell wasn’t the only source of good advice for Robibero. Another was John Whiteman, from Crop Protection Services in Marlborough. When they were thinking of digging up the soil and mixing shale and other matter, then grading to aerate the soil, Whiteman made an important observation: “You know what? It took nature ten million years to create that soil. Don’t mess with it. Just put in some drainage . . . .” He went on to explain that the colloids in the soil [the chemically most active part of soil] took millions of years to develop. Bringing in topsoil would not improve the vineyard because vines grow well in soil that may be too poor for other plants.

In 2015 it was decided to plant a new block of vines across the road–actually, the driveway–from the original plot.  Following Whiteman’s advise, and given that Harry is a construction contractor with a great deal of experience managing building sites and the hydrological issues that need to be dealt with–particularly water drainage and runoff–they first excavated the soil along the length of each row to be planted.  The 4-inch thin topsoil lies atop a clay stratum about 4 feet deep, beneath which is a layer of shale.  By excavating down to the shale they were then able to install a drainage system so that any water would run out of the vineyard, and the clay, now broken up, then was returned to the excavation trench.  Now, when the 1,000 Cab Franc vines were planted the roots would be able to penetrate all the way down to the shale and not be harmed by an excess of water held in by clay.  The rows, set 9 feet apart with the vines spaced 5 feet from each other, ran almost exactly north to south, slighted angled askew from a true north-south axis so that surface water would run out of the vineyard onto the road.  All had been very carefully thought through, thanks to Ryan’s careful research and Harry excavation skills.

So, Robibero is dealing with the land that it has by providing the drainage needed because there is lots of clay there and vines don’t like wet feet.

Robibero Vineyards, 3The winery’s cellar is very small but adequate for the level of production that they have at present. Cristop and Ryan worked together both in the vineyard and the winery, but since Ryan’s departure, Jonathan H. Lander, the current general manager, lends a hand. With respect to the wines, at present virtually all is made from purchased fruit from the Finger Lakes, Long Island, and the Hudson Region itself. Most are made from vinifera varieties like Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and so on. However, one of their most popular wines, Rabbit’s Foot (non-vintage) has a base of 75% Baco Noir plus Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, of which 453 cases were made last year. They also have Bordeaux-style blend that they call 87 South, made with Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, of which 210 cases were produced for the 2013 vintage. The 2013 New Yorkie Rosé is also a Bordeaux blend, and it quickly sold out.

Robibero winesRobibero has won a Best in Category White Wine in the 2014 Hudson Valley Wine and Spirits Competition for their 2013 87 North as well as Gold Medals for their 2013 Traminette and New Yorkie Rosé, the last of which I find to be a perfect summer quencher—austere, dry, and delicately flavored.  It goes well with anything you wish to serve, as long as it’s not too spicy.

Its newest red wine is called The Stray and was introduced in 2015. It is dominated by Cab Franc and Petit Verdot, with a dollop of Malbec. It’s a dry wine with a solid acidic backbone, mild tannins, and tasty red fruit. The 2015 has sold out, but the 2016 is now on offer. It’s worth laying down.

The tasting room is ample, well-organized, and offers a very good space for parties. A large veranda invites people to sit out-of-doors and enjoy the fresh air and the pleasant view. Because too many visitors seem not to understand that a small operation like Robibero’s depends on the sale of all manner of beverages including wine, a local craft beer, and bottled water, signs are prominently displayed telling visitors not to bring in their own drinks of whatever kind. But this is a problem all small wineries face.

Robibero Family Winery & Vineyards and its wines have arrived and the results are impressive. It is certainly worth a visit and a taste or two or three, or buy a case.

Interview with Ryan Selby & Cristop Brown 1 May 2015

updated 11 Sept. 2018

Robibero Medallion logo

Robibero Winery
714 Albany Post Road
New Paltz, NY 12561

Phone
845.255.9463

Fax
914.693.9593

Email
Rnywine@yahoo.com

Books about Long Island Wine

Now that a new book on Long Island wine by Eileen Duffy has been published as of April 2015, it seems appropriate to review all of the books on the subject that have come out since 2000.  These are presented in order of publication:

The Wines of Long IslandVital–thanks to its clear, lucid writing and very useful history and background of the region’s viniculture and winemaking–is the excellent if outdated Wines of Long Island, 2nd edition (2000) by Edward Beltrami & Philip E. Palmedo.  It includes profiles of many of the most important personalities in the LI wine world (as of 2000), descriptions and reviews of wineries and their wines and a generally judicious insight into the trends and achievements of the region as of the end of the 20th Century.  Definitely worthwhile owning, if you love LI wines, though it has long been out of print.  It is still available through Amazon.  (NOTE:  It is currently being brought up to date by this writer, with elements from the series on Long Island viniculture and wine in this blog being incorporated into the book.  It is expected that the 3rd edition, to be published by SUNY Press, may be out by September 2017.)

Hargrave, The Vineyard, coverLouisa Thomas Hargrave wrote a gracious memoir, The Vineyard: The Pleasures and Perils of Creating an American Family Winery (2002). One cannot begin to understand what was involved in creating the Long Island wine industry without reading this charming and touching account of the establishment of Long Island’s first winery, Hargrave Vineyard, in 1973, when there were only small farms and potato fields. It is charming in its modesty, touching in its honesty, and a remarkable tale of what it takes to start a vineyard from scratch when you don’t even know what you’re doing! And look at what it started–a whole industry that is one of the dominant features of the East End of Long Island, begun with passion, commitment, and hard work, but ultimately at the cost of heartbreak and renewal.  Now out of print, it is still available on Amazon or AbeBooks.  Some used copies are available for a penny plus shipping from various book dealers.

Ross, NoFo Wine, coverAn interesting and somewhat chatty book is The Story of North Fork Wine: Historical Profiles and Wine Country Recipes (2009), John Ross’s up-close-and-personal look at the people who work in and run the wineries.  A chef who owned Ross’s North Fork Restaurant, he became close to many in the wine trade, especially given that he was interested in devising recipes and menus that would best accompany the wines of the region.  The first half of the book is comprised by his personal profiles, which include everyone from owners to winemakers to vineyard managers to tasting room personnel.  The second half is devoted to recipes from his restaurant and suggested wine pairings.  In the intervening years since the book was published many of the persons featured in the book have moved on, but many of their stories remain relevant even now.  Also out of print, but it can be found on Amazon.com.

Starwood, Vineyards, coverLong Island Wine Country:  Award-Winning Vineyards of the North Fork and the Hamptons, is well-illustrated guide to visiting Long Island vineyards and wineries.  Written by Jane Taylor Starwood, editor-in-chief of Long Island Wine Press, she gives us an insider’s track on the owners, the winemakers, and the wineries themselves.  In a conversational tone (and amply illustrated), the book leads the reader from East to West on the North Fork, and then down to the Hamptons, as though the route would be followed by visitors travelling by car. It’s a bit frustrating an approach if one wants to do research and would prefer an alphabetical organization, but it’s a quibble given the overall quality and usefulness of the book, which is still reasonably up-to-date as of 2015, given that it was published in 2009. One should bear in mind though, that already important personnel changes have taken place: Richard Olsen Harbich left Raphael in 2010 and went to Bedell Cellars, Anthony Nappa is now Raphael’s vintner, Kelly Urbanik Koch is winemaker at Macari, and Zander Hargrave, who was assistant winemaker at Peconic Bay Vineyards, is now at Pellegrini; Peconic Bay has closed its doors.  A new, major winery, Kontokosta Vineyards, opened in June 2013 in Greenport; Southold Farm and Corwith Vineyard are brand-new startups as of 2014.

Duffy, Behind the Bottle, coverThe most recent contribution to the story of Long Island wines is Eileen Duffy’s book, Behind the Bottle:  The Story of the Rise of Long Island Wine (2015).  This is a book that focuses on the winemakers and their wines.   In fact, the conversations that Duffy had with the winemakers as they discussed their wines in considerable depth, give the reader the clearest sense possible of what the winemakers look for and try to achieve with their wines.  It makes for fascinating reading.  Unlike John Ross, who tried to include anyone whom he knew that was in the business, Duffy’s book includes interviews with just 16 of the region’s winemakers, including Louisa Hargrave, who still has a few bottles of her 1993 Cabernet Franc, still aging, still drinkable, and from a very great year for Long Island.  My favorite conversations, due to the great detail with which the winemakers discussed their craft, include one with Roman Roth, who talks about his 2008 Merlot as though he were painting a portrait of a lover.

Viniculture in LI, Part III: The Lenz Winery

A statement on the Lenz Winery Website by Sam McCullough, its vineyard manager:

At Lenz, our philosophy in the vineyard is high-touch.  We are interventionists and we intervene, at great cost in time and effort, to micro-manage each vine to ripeness each year.  Leaf removal, shoot thinning, cluster thinning, crop reduction, triple catch wires, super-attentive pest and fungus control (our ‘open canopy’ approach keeps fungus problems to a minimum), all combine to add cost (unfortunately) but to ensure fully ripe grapes of the highest quality.

Lenz, 36 years, 2Established in 1978, the winery has three vineyard plots with a total acreage of about 70 acres planted to nine different vinifera grape varieties: Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir.  Of these, the principal red variety is Merlot and the principal white is Chardonnay.  Bearing in mind that the original Lenz vineyard is over thirty years old and came under new ownership only in 1988, when Peter and Deborah Carroll purchased it from the original owners, Patricia and Peter Lenz, the original vines of Chardonnay and Merlot are among the oldest on the island.

Sam is an affable, direct, and very knowledgeable farmer, with a degree in horticulture and with long experience in the business of growing wine grapes.  He is not shy about saying that though the Lenz vineyards are farmed as sustainably as possible, when there is a need for using conventional farming methods he’ll not hesitate to employ them.  The reason is simple:  there is too wide an array of fungal and other pests to rely entirely on biodegradable or organic means of control.  With respect to herbicides, he prefers to use what he calls pre-emergent controls so that stronger ones are not needed later in the event of an outbreak.  The same is true of the fungicides he uses:  low-impact controls for prevention, but will not hesitate to use copper and sulfur when infections do break out.  It is because of this that he makes no claim to running a sustainable-farming operation, but is rather a conventionally-farmed property that tries to be ecologically low-impact where possible.

In other words, Sam is not taking Lenz down the organic road due to cost and practicality.  Speaking frankly about Shinn Estate’s achievement in bring in its first organic harvest of grapes, he takes a wait-and-see attitude with regards to being able to achieve similar results three years in a row—which is necessary for organic certification.  He feels that the weather last season was especially favorable for organic viticulture.  It may not work so well this year if the weather turns too harsh.  On the hand, Sam feels that some Biodynamic® applications may actually work insofar as even the very small quantities of compost tea that are used (about 50 gallons per acre) may enhance the development of healthy biota on the vines and help them better resist pests and other infections.  He’s not persuaded that cow horns or astronomical events such as the soltices are at all important, and that the applications would work anyway.  As he put it:

I am not opposed to organic viticulture or biodynamics.  I am indeed skeptical that it is possible to consistently succeed at producing vinifera grapes in our climate without the use of synthetic chemicals and I am in no position to try it.  I do not disdain or ridicule those making the effort.  I wish them success.

I do believe, and strongly, that it is quite possible to use conventional agricultural methods responsibly and safely: safe for the environment, the farmer, farm workers and the consumers of our crops.

I believe conventional farming to be safe and economical.  Without conventional farming, the 2% of our nation’s population who are involved in agriculture could not feed the country with production to spare.  Those who wish to use alternative methods that avoid the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are free to do so and I wish them success.  The popular hysteria so easily incited by the mention of pesticides and food is unfounded.  However, those who wish to consume naturally-produced foods and can afford to do so constitute a lucrative market.

Thus, to the extent possible Lenz employs “green” practices in the vineyard, such as the use of self-seeded cover crops between rows so that there is considerable variety in the flora and fauna of the soil.  These, of course, are a natural habitat for insects that are predators of many vineyard pests such as aphids.  The crops also include plants that return nitrogen to the soil, encourage earthworms to propagate, and generally keep the soil healthy.  Nevertheless, while he prefers to use pre-emergent herbicides to control pest plants, he will use Roundup to control weeds within the vine rows proper when necessary, as he considers it to be highly efficacious and of low environmental impact if used sparingly.  So too with pesticides—he uses Danitol, a wide-spectrum insecticide/miticide that is essentially a synergized pyrethrin that is especially effective with grape pests such as the glassy-winged sharpshooter, the grape berry moth, and others, but will also use Stylet oil, which is biodegradable, as well.

Sam tries to use dry farming for the three vineyard plots and therefore has no irrigation lines permanently threaded into the rows of vines as is the case at some of the other wineries (not that those irrigate at times other than drought either).  He finds that if there is a need to irrigate, it’s easy enough to bring the irrigation lines into the vine rows as needed, Furthermore, he explains that given the problems with permanently-installed irrigation lines, such as leaks, breakage, blocking of the lines, and so on, he really doesn’t think that it’s worth the expense, especially since irrigation is only needed once in every three to four seasons, when there is drought.  So too with machine-harvesting vs. hand-picking the grapes.  Rather than use a large and expensive machine such as that employed by a few other wineries, Lenz removes the grapes with a tractor-towed harvester.  He notes that hand-picking clean grapes can cost around $100 a ton; hand-selecting while picking grapes can elevate the cost to about $200.  By using a towed harvester with an attached selection table and a man or two to pick out the detritus—leaves, stems, bad grapes, insects—he can keep costs low and still have the advantage of selected grapes.

Actually, some varieties are better off being hand-picked, due in part to the thinness of the skins, and that is the case for the Lenz Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon.  These are, after all, 36-year-old vines, which are able to produce more concentrated, flavorful fruit than can young vines, though they are rather shy bearers.

Sam works closely with Eric Fry, the winemaker who has been at Lenz for 25 years. When Sam first came to Lenz in 1990 the two “butted heads” at the beginning, but they now have a very effective relationship. It is, after all, for the winemaker to decide when the crop is ready to harvest, and both men agree that the kind of ripeness that they are looking for in the fruit can only be tasted, not just measured for sugar levels with a densitometer or looking at phenolic ripeness. It must taste just right to be harvested—this is experience, not science, at work in this instance.

Because they collaborate closely on the timing of the harvest, which includes deciding which parcels and which varieties to pick first—at optimum ripeness to the taste of the winemaker, ultimately, the estate grapes are ready to be made into wine not only for Lenz, but for several clients that do not have their own vineyards or winemaking facilities. These clients (not all of them in Long Island), buy their grapes from parcels set aside for them by Lenz and are then made into wine by Eric according to their style specifications. He also works closely with several local vineyards to help make their fruit into wine at the Lenz facilities.

Lenz Winery, Eric Fry 2Eric, by the way, is a really gifted winemaker and highly respected by his peers. Some refer to him as a kind of genius. He wears his gray hair in a pony tail and has something of the Hippie about him still. He is actually a very gentle person, very direct, strongly opinionated, self-assured, and generous with his time and readiness to help others. For Lenz, Eric’s practice is to make its best wines to be capable of aging, and he refers to himself as an “acid head”—not referring to LSD but to high acidity levels in the wine. In other words, he encourages it in the wines he makes. It is acidity, after all, that helps give wine structure and longevity. For Eric, that means holding on to the wine for a few years before releasing it. Most wineries don’t hold on to their wines any longer than is absolutely necessary once they’re bottled. It costs money to store it and it means that money is tied up until the wine

So, for example, when Eric works with clients, some of whom have collaborated with him for years, he tries to get them to take his advice. He feels that wine should be held for at least two years before being released to market, but not all of his clients see things his way—at least not at first.

He explains that “I actually have custom clients that I bottle for, that I make wine [for] here. We’re bottling the wine, and they’ll stand there and at the end of the bottling run, they’ll take cases off and throw them on the market, and I’m going, ‘Your call, I wouldn’t do that!’”

Over time, many of his collaborators come around to his way of thinking, or as he puts it, speaking of some of them: “Old Field is into my rhythm, Whisper’s into my rhythm, Harmony, they’re into my rhythm. This is a new client that we’ve just taken on, and I’m still trying to teach him my rhythm, to teach him my way of doing things, and so he had several wines that he was out of stock, and he was calling me up every day going ‘Oh, I need it, I need it.’ And I go like, ‘That means you didn’t plan ahead.’

“At the beginning he bristled and he got all upset and he was like, ‘You’re not cooperating with me.’ And I’m going, ‘I’ll do what you want, but if you want good wine, you should do what I want.’ So he’s coming around, he’s beginning to understand the concept, because I bottled a red wine for him and he wanted to release it right away and I said ‘It’s your wine, you can do whatever you want.’ And he goes and takes a sample and he goes ‘This doesn’t taste like it was before we bottled it.’ I’m going, ‘Well, hello? It needs some bottle age.’ And he’s going, ‘Oh, OK.’”

When he makes a Chardonnay, be sure that the wine is not just made from the Chardonnay grape, pressed, fermented in steel, and bottled—a simple, straightforward, and possibly excellent wine. That’s not Eric’s way. He seeks complexity, and a Chard may be, as he says, 5 % of the wine may be “keg fermented” in 15-year-old barrels, with perhaps a little M-L (malo-lactic) to add more character, but not so much that it makes the wine buttery, as a full M-L may do to a Chard. It imparts more complexity, but in the background. You can’t taste the oak, you can’t discern the M-L, but you can tell that the wine is complex.

But let’s talk about yeast. Eric is a “control-freak,” which means that he’s not someone who uses wild or indigenous yeast in his fermentation. He prefers to buy yeast that has been specifically modified for a particular set of characteristics. For example, for the Chardonnay just mentioned, he used EC1118, a workhorse yeast that brings out fruit flavors. In fact, as he explains, “I’ve been experimenting with yeasts for thirty years. Right after harvest, you go through and taste the barrels or taste the kegs; it’s like ‘Holy cow, this one tastes like this and this one tastes like this, and they’re so different and it’s amazing the yeast affect whatever like that.’ Six months later, you can’t tell them apart.”

He went on to say, “With different wines I use different yeasts on purpose and get different characters on purpose, but most of all the concept that I have is, if whatever yeast you’re using or whatever you’re doing, if the fermentation sticks you’re screwed. So what I do is I use yeasts that are dependable, that will not screw up, because if they screw up, everything’s out the window. All the wonderful nuances you’re looking for, they’re gone.

“The yeast does have a function and does make different flavors, but it’s overrated, it’s not a large factor.”

Eric is also something of a provocateur, so he asked me what I thought about the concept of terroir. I said that I considered the idea of terroir—as conceived by the French—to be something real and that affected the wine made from grapes grown in a particular place. To which he replied, “Terroir is BS, strictly a marketing gimmick. It’s all about marketing.” He then offered me a glass of wine of which he was very proud: the first botrytised dessert wine made at Lenz in the twenty-three years that he’d been winemaker there. Usually botrytis only produced gray rot, something to be avoided and which needed to be controlled with fungicide, but last year the conditions were unique, and the botrytis that settled on the Chardonnay grapes appeared when the grapes were very ripe, the early-morning humidity would burn off as warming sun rose in the East, and violà, a rich and delicious botrytised dessert wine at 73° Brix. When I pointed out that this happened in most years in the Sauternes region of Bordeaux, which surely was an expression of terroir, Eric was dismissive, “Well, whatever.”   Provocative, indeed. With respect to organic viticulture Eric feels, again, that it is mostly a matter of marketing rather than making a better wine.

Sam was a bit more philosophical about the matter of terroir, suggesting that its influence may be exaggerated but that it shouldn’t be entirely dismissed out of hand. And, after all, I would like to point out, it is what is done in the vineyard by human intervention, whether by using one kind of trellising over another, say single vs. double Guyot, or vertical shoot positioning or something else, how often the vines are green-harvested or not at all, the use of sustainable practices such as crop cover or biodegradable pesticides, and even the use of a recycling tunnel sprayer for pesticide agents, that are all part of terroir. This, of course, is a broad definition of the term; the traditional definition is more narrow and confines itself to geographical/geological/climatological issues of soil, climate, slope, drainage, aspect to the sun, etc.

Thus, both Lenz wines and the client wines benefit from the careful, practical, and highly professional care that is given to the grapes in the fields from which they are made. Then there is the thoughtful care that the wines get in the winery itself. These are crafted wines, not “natural” ones. The result can be tasted and Lenz wines have often been compared—favorably—to great European wines; for instance, the Lenz 2005 Old Vines Chardonnay held its own to a Domaine Leflaive 2005 Puligny-Montrachet “Les Folatieres,” while a Lenz 2002 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon tied with a 2002 Château Latour at a blind tasting held at the great Manhattan restaurant Le Bernardin in April 2011. These comparative tastings have been held every year since 1996 and always pit Lenz wines against French equivalents—not California ones, for the Lenz style is closer to that of France than the West Coast. The Lenz Website has a list of these blind tastings and the results.

I can attest to this personally with a blind tasting that I conducted with friends in 2012, comparing a 2007 Meursault-Charmes 1er Cru with a 2007 Lenz Old Vines Chardonnay–they all guessed that the Lenz was the Burgundy wine.

And to think that such results come from a Long Island vineyard . . .

Lenz logo38355 Route NY 25, Peconic, NY 11958    631.734.6010

office@lenzwine.com
Lenz Winery home page
Based on interviews with Sam McCullough & Eric Fry at the Lenz Winery in April 2011 and September 2014

For further reading, Fry and his wines were written about by Eileen Duffy in her book, Behind the Bottle (Cider Mill Press, 2015). Profiles on Sam McCullough and Eric Fry by John Ross can be found in his book, The Story of North Fork Wine: Historical Profiles and Wine Country Recipes (Maple Hill Press, 2009).  Jane Taylor Starwood, former editor-in-chief of Long Island Wine Press, featured Lenz Winery in Long Island Wine Country: Award-Winning Vineyards of the North Fork (Three Forks, 2009). Philip Palmedo and Edward Beltrami discussed Lenz in The Wines of Long Island (Amereon House, 2000).

Oenology in Long Island: Anthony Nappa Wines

Anthony at ESC

Anthony Nappa pictured with his wines prior to a Winemaker’s Tasting at Empire State Cellars in Riverhead

Anthony Nappa wears several hats at once: as winemaker for Raphael, a major winery on the North Fork, as founder and owner of Winemaker Studio in Peconic, Long Island, and as winemaker for his own brand of wines with intriguing names like Anomaly, Luminous, Spezia, and more. Of the eleven Nappa wines that are presently offered at the Winemaker Studio three have earned 90 points from Wine Enthusiast and a red has won 91 points–the highest score ever by WE for a North Fork wine. That’s really quite remarkable for such a small producer—albeit clearly a gifted one.

Anthony’s road to becoming a winemaker in Long Island was, as is so often the case, circuitous. Born in Massachusetts, he went to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst to earn a degree in agriculture with a focus on fruit-growing. A couple of years later he decided to obtain a degree in viticulture and found that the program at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand, was the most economical for an English-speaking country. It ended up being a degree in oenology as well, and that was where it discovered that he had an aptitude for it. Four years later he went to Italy, where his family is from, and spent a year at a winery near Naples. After six years abroad he returned and helped start a winery, Running Brook, in southern Massachusetts. He was there for a year before moving on to California to try winemaking there, but West Coast life wasn’t for him. Finally, in 2007, he came to Long Island, got married, and in partnership with his wife, Sarah Evans, who works as a chef, started making his own wine while working at Shinn Estate.

I met him several years ago, when he was at Shinn (2007 to 2011). He went there with the understanding that he could use their facilities to make wine for his own label, which bears his name. His first wine under his label was 200 cases of LI Pinot Noir that he dubbed Nemesis. After he left Shinn he focused more on his own wines and made them at Premium Wine Group, the custom crush facility in Mattituck.

He now has same arrangement with Raphael. As he explains, “We keep everything very separate. [Raphael’s] business is very separate from ours. We pay to make the wine here; it’s just like at Premium. We pay to store it; we pay everything just like we would if we were just a customer. A lot of times I’m working on my stuff, I’m working on their stuff or whatever, but I just try to keep everything very separate.” (To read about Raphael’s wines, see Viniculture in LI: Raphael.)

For Anthony, who has certainly had plenty of experience on both coasts, Long Island is the place to make wine in the East. He told me that “I really think Long Island is the best wine region on the East Coast by far. It’s so diverse; we’ve so much potential. The wines that I’d tasted even ten years ago were better than anywhere else along the East Coast, and they’re even better now.”

As Anthony Nappa Wines has no vineyards of its own, all the wines are made from purchased grapes. Anthony explains:

“I buy grapes from a dozen different vineyards. It changes all of the time. We buy grapes from Upstate, as well. We made a Riesling in the beginning. For me Finger Lakes Riesling is the best Riesling in the country, and I’m just buying grapes. Why wouldn’t I make Finger Lakes Riesling? We label it Finger Lakes and everything; we put vineyard designation on as much stuff as we can.”

Speaking of the dependence on purchased fruit, Anthony said, “The hard part about only buying grapes is we can’t necessarily be consistent. We don’t always get the same quality of fruit. So we might make a wine and then not be able to make it again for years. So it’s hard to be in the marketplace that way. But on the other hand, it’s got its advantages, because we can adjust our production levels every year. We can be opportunistic and jump on good vintages and make extra wine and hold back in bad vintages. We can just do a one-off wine with some grape variety that I was able to purchase and make whatever even just once, if there are some grapes available. We can be opportunistic at the last minute and buy fun stuff, different stuff. There are a lot of advantages to not owning a vineyard, and there’s a lot less risk.”

For example, Anthony has made Nemesis, his first wine, a Pinot Noir, only once.  He eschewed making again until this year as he did not find grapes of the quality he demanded for making that varietal again.  Talk about fussy.

Anthony operates on the idea of honesty in all things bearing on his wine: honest wine that is made with minimal manipulation (if any) and reveals its varietal character; honest marketing—with full disclosure of how the wine is made; and honest labeling—straightforward and direct, without unneeded embellishments.  A testament to that is found in his wine spec sheets which accompany each of his wines.  Talk about full disclosure.

The Winemaker Studio

Anthony’s The Winemaker Studio is owned and operated by him and his wife, Chef Sarah Evans Nappa, of Anthony Nappa Wines.   They moved to the North Fork in 2007 and in the same year Anthony established his own wine brand, Anthony Nappa Wines while working as winemaker for Shinn Estate.  His first wine was Nemesis, a white wine made from Pinot Noir, of which 200 cases were made.   Sarah has considerable international experience and is previously the Sous Chef at the North Fork Table & Inn in Southold, NY.  When she is not looking after their son Leonard (born in 2013), or running the tasting room, she is available for hire as a private chef for small events and dinner parties.

In the beginning Anthony invited other winemakers who were producing their own brands but had no tasting facilities of their own to offer their wines at the Studio.  It was a cooperative venture, and tasting rotated with a different brand being highlighted for tasting each weekend.  Over time a number of them moved to other tasting rooms that were more connected to their production.  For example, Russell Hearn, John Leo, and Erich Bilka all work at PWG (Premium Wine Group, a custom crush outfit) which has its own tasting facility, The Tasting Group, for brands that are made at PWG.  So while their wines are now available at retail from the Studio, their wines are no longer offered as part of the tasting menu, which now only highlights Anthony’s own wines and Greg Gove’s Race label of wines.

The Winemaker Studio is currently offering:

  • Anthony Nappa Wines from winemaker Anthony Nappa of Raphael Vineyards
  • Race wines by Greg Gove, former winemaker at Peconic Bay Winery—now closed.
  • Suhru Wines from winemaker Russell Hearn of Lieb Cellars and head production winemaker PWG
  • Leo Family from winemaker John Leo of Clovis Point and production winemaker at PWG
  • T’Jara Wines from winemaker Russell Hearn
  • Influence Wines from winemaker Erik Bilka of Castello di Borghese and production winemaker at  PWG
  • Coffee Pot Cellars from winemaker Adam Suprenant of Osprey’s Dominion Vineyards, who now has his own tasting room.

Anthony’s own wine labels are elegant in their simplicity and he likes to give his wines distinctive names—each in a different typeface—that reflect something of the character of each.  For example, of three that we sampled, the names suggest a story:

Anthony, anomalyAnomaly, so named because it is just that:  a white wine made from a red grape–in this case Pinot Noir.  According to the spec sheet for this wine, the fruit is sourced from several vineyards: that from the Finger Lakes brings acidity and fruitiness, while from the North Fork the grapes impart more structure and body.  Together the blend brings forth a good balance to Anomaly.  All the fruit comes from sustainably-maintained vineyards.  The grapes are hand-harvested and gently pressed with no skin contact, but using red-wine yeast from Burgundy.  Cold-fermented for two weeks, no oak was used nor was there a malolactic fermentation.  It was bentonite-filtered for heat stability, cold-stabilized, and sterile-filtered before bottling.

The 2013 Anomaly comes from an excellent vintage characterized by a cool summer and 50 days without any precipitation until harvest, resulting in fully-ripe and very clean fruit. The wine is of a medium lemon color with a slight blush, with a full body, firm acidity, and notes of strawberry, white peach, and a minerally finish, perfect as an aperitif or summer wine. 12.3 % abv; $20; ;  90 points from Wine Enthusiast.  Drink within a year.

Anthony, dodiciThe 2012 Dodici is a blend of 67% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Cab Sauvignon; the fruit, of an excellent vintage, came from two pre-eminent vineyards on the North Fork:  McCullough and Matebella, which are sustainably farmed.  The spec sheet also tells us that the grapes were fermented after 5 weeks of maceration and aged separately for 18 months in French oak, only blended just prior to bottling unfiltered and unfined.  Just 187 cases were produced. The resulting wine is a deep brick-red color with suggestions of tobacco, licorice, and red fruit on the nose while offering a full body and a nice, long finish with mineral notes. Drinkable now, it could be laid down to evolve for five more years.  It will happily accompany any red-meat dish or go with a full-bodied cheese. 13.2% abv; $35;  91 points from Wine Enthusiast.

Anthony, chardonnayAnthony’s 2013 Chardonnay has an Italian spelling that reflects what he considers to be a “rustic Italian style,”  but given that the grapes come from McCullough Vineyards one might wonder if there weren’t a touch of the Irish about it as well.  Anyhow, the vintage has been described above and as a result the fruit shows beautifully.  Unoaked, the wine was fermented with wild yeast and then underwent a malolactic fermentation, yielding aromas of ripe peaches, citrus, and buttery notes.  With that we have a full-bodied wine with firm acidity and a medium-length with some minerality.  In fact, we’d call it elegant, and it has excellent typicity–this can be nothing other than a Chardonnay, and a very-well made one at that.  Perfect with any fish or seafood.  13.9% abv;  $20; ;  90 points from Wine Enthusiast; to drink now or hold for a few years.

Anthony, TWS signAnthony Nappa Wines

Viniculture in LI, Part III: Raphael Winery

Raphael Winery entrance, by Petrocelli Construction

Raphael Winery, in Peconic, on the North Fork of Long Island, was founded by John Petrocelli Sr. and his wife, Joan, and is family-owned.  Petrocelli is also the owner of J. Petrocelli Construction, which specializes in quality design and building, and the handsome, 28,000 sq. ft.  winery was designed by him, inspired by the architecture of the Neapolitan monasteries of his native Italy.  He named it after his father, Raphael, who was an avid home winemaker like his own father before him, so John Sr. came by his oenophilia perhaps genetically.  The venture was five years in planning and cost $6,000,000 to complete, with the intention of making the premium winery of Long Island, Italian-inspired but Bordeaux-oriented.

When the commitment to build the winery was made, it was clear that a vital component, the vineyard, needed to be tended to by expert viticulturalists.  The family then hired David and Steve Mudd—Mudd VMC is the premier vineyard management consulting firm on the Island—to help guide them in the development of a Bordeaux-type of winery.  Also hired as advisers were Paul Pontallier, managing director of Ch. Margaux—one of the five Premier Cru châteaux in Bordeaux— along with Richard Smart, a respected Australian viticulture consultant who had earned his Ph.D. at Cornell.   With their advice the cellar and equipment was developed along those lines, and built twelve feet below the ground in order to allow for the first gravity-fed fermentation tanks to be used in the region, using as models Opus One and Mondavi, of Napa Valley.   (Gravity feed is considered to be less stressful and damaging to the fruit and organic matter that constitutes the must than is mechanical pumping.)

One of Raphael’s vineyard plots

In 1996 the Mudds planted the first vineyard for Raphael with Merlot, and have been managing the vineyard, which has grown to 60 acres over the years, ever since, using sustainable practices, including what Steve Mudd calls “fussy viticulture”—green harvesting by hand—from the very beginning.  (In fact, the first wine made under the Raphael label came from Merlot vines grown at the Mudds’ own vineyard and were vinified at Pellegrini Vineyard.  The first wine produced at the new facility was the 1999 vintage.)  Other varieties have been planted since the Merlot, including Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Riesling, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

According to Steve Mudd, a nine-foot space between rows is supposed to provide room for equipment to move along the rows, but it’s a myth that that much space is necessary.  Pontallier, when asked his opinion about the row spacing and vine density, said, “it is not for me to say” what it should be, but back in 1994, when the vineyard was still in the planning stage, he had argued against close spacing, suggesting 3 meters (10 feet).  The density of the first planting at Raphael is just 820 vines per acre (9’x6’ spacing) as opposed to about 2,550 in Bordeaux.  Later plantings increased the density somewhat, and the rest of the vineyard is now spaced at 9’x5’, or 968 vines/acre.

The quality wines produced by Raphael simply would not be possible if it weren’t for the work done in the vineyard by Steve Mudd and his crew.  High-quality fruit is always there for the winemaker, even in a bad-harvest year like 2011.

For further insight into the viticultural practices at Raphael, the reader is referred to another post, on Mudd VMC, the contracted vineyard manager for the winery.

Richard Olsen-Harbich, who had been Raphael’s winemaker since its founding and helped define its style of wines—made reductively, using native yeasts, with minimal intervention, in order to allow the hand-picked grapes to more clearly express the terroir.  After he left in 2010 to work at Bedell Cellars  Leslie Howard became winemaker, but in 2012 Les moved on and Anthony Nappa, former winemaker at Shinn Estate, maker of Anthony Nappa Wines, and founder of the Winemaker’s Studio, took over as winemaker at Raphael.

I met Anthony several years ago, when he was winemaker at Shinn (2007 to 2011). When he first went to there it was with the understanding that he could use their facilities to make wine for his own label, which bears his name. His first wine under his label was 200 cases of LI Pinot Noir. After he left Shinn he focused more on his own wines and made them at Premium Wine Group, the custom crush facility in Mattituck.

Anthony-Nappa at RaphaelHe now has same arrangement with Raphael. As he explains, “We keep everything very separate. [Raphael’s] business is very separate from ours. We pay to make the wine here; it’s just like at Premium. We pay to store it; we pay everything just like we would if we were just a customer. A lot of times I’m working on my stuff, I’m working on their stuff or whatever, but I just try to keep everything very separate. They don’t sell our wine, we don’t sell their wine.”  (To read more about Anthony Nappa and his own wines, see Oenology in LI: Anthony Nappa Wines.)

For Anthony, who has certainly had plenty of experience on both coasts, Long Island is the place to make wine in the East. He told me that “I really think Long Island is the best wine region on the East Coast by far. It’s so diverse; we’ve so much potential. The wines that I’d tasted even ten years ago were better than anywhere else along the East Coast, and they’re even better now.”

To the question, “What have you done since you’ve been here to in any way define the wines of Raphael to a new standard, an Anthony Nappa standard?”

He replied that by “having standards, the first goal is to just figure out where we are and what’s going on with sales and production, and try to get the business side of things in line as far as what we’re making, cutting packaging costs, and streamlining the whole production side. Raphael wants to make money, so obviously the financial side of it is important. And then on the winemaking side, it was just looking at every product. The first thing is to only make as much as we sell. A lot of wineries just bring in the fruit, make it, bottle it, warehouse it. Our goal is to figure out what we’re selling, and any excess we sell off in bulk—any fruit or wine or whatever—and then figuring out each product and having a standard for it.

“We have a whole line of what we call ‘First Label.’  It’s all the Reserve wines, and those are all from our vineyard. We buy a lot of fruit too, but those are all from our vineyard. It’s just like with my own wines, we have very high standards for fruit and we have very high standards for the quality of each wine. I’ll just not make a wine. If the quality is not there, if the fruit doesn’t deliver, it gets downgraded to a lower level wine, and if the vineyard doesn’t deliver, we just don’t buy the fruit. That’s easy for me, because I’m the one buying the fruit.

“It’s easy to fuck things up. You’re taking grapes and from the moment you pick them, it’s all downhill. You’re just trying to protect it through the process, but it’s on a long, slow trail to becoming vinegar from the moment you pick it . . .”

I replied, “It seems to me every single winery should have a sign that says ‘First thing, don’t fuck it up.’”

He went on: “But we try to make everything.  I’m a non-interventionist. I want the grapes to express themselves. I want the Cab Franc to taste like Cab Franc and I don’t want to just make everything taste the same. So usually I just bring things in and let everything ferment wild and let things go. And then I intervene when I have to. When the fruit comes in we look at it and we make decisions sometimes on the fly based on what we’re going to do. Then I always err on the side of caution. If I’m not sure about something I do nothing, and I intervene when I have to.”

Anthony concluded with this remark: “I think a lot of wineries just go through the motions and just make the same wines every year and there’s a huge separation between upstairs and downstairs and outside and inside and there needs to be more synergy, there to have some more consistency. No one has done anything different ever in this business that hasn’t been done for the last thousands of years. It’s just about taking thousands of decisions and putting them in a different order and you get a different result. But there are no secrets, you know.”

Trying Raphael’s wines in the spacious and handsome tasting room proved to be very interesting, as there was a wide range of wine types and styles on offer, and he had plenty to say about them.  (Please note:  the wines identified as “First Label” are considered to be Reserve Wines; i.e., the best produced by the winery.)

The 2010 First Label Chardonnay ($39), which came out of Mudd Vineyards (there is no Chardonnay planted at Raphael) was pressed to yield 120 gallons per ton of grapes (clone CY3779), so out of 5 tons of this particular parcel 600 gallons, or about 3,000 bottles, were made.  It underwent a 100% malolactic fermentation, was kept on its lees, and spent eight months in oak barrels.  It was bottled unfiltered, with low sulfites.  The result was that in the glass the wine was clear, offering citrus, butterscotch flavors, and toasty notes.  It has the typicity of an oaked Chardonnay, somewhere between a Burgundy or California version.  2010 was perhaps the greatest wine vintage in Long Island—given its early budding, excellent weather, and early harvest—and the quality of the Chardonnay was also a reflection of this.  Made by Leslie Howard.

The 2013 First Label Sauvignon Blanc ($28)  The last months of the growing season had no precipitation and no notable disease pressure, so Raphael was able to harvest each grape variety at leisure and at each one’s peak. According to them all the wines from 2013 show exceptional natural balance and full ripeness, which is also promising for the future longevity of the wines of this vintage.  The Sauvignon Blanc was made from hand-selected grapes from their oldest vines to help produce balanced, structured wines. Made with partial skin contact and cold-fermented in stainless steel, this dry wine exhibits a bright nose of citrus and pineapple, along with flavors of pineapple, grapefruit and lemongrass, a full body and a long dry acidic finish.It’s a clear, pale-lemon colored wine with aromas of pineapple, white peach, and, citrus; clean, medium-bodied, with high acidity and a mineral finish.  An exceptionally enjoyable Sauvignon Blanc that matches well with seafood and spicy Indian and other Asian cuisines.  Made by Anthony Nappa.  13.1% ABV.

Raphael Riesling 2013The 2013 First Label Riesling  ($28) from the same excellent vintage as that of the Sauvignon Blanc described above.  The grapes were hand-harvested and pressed very gently after two days of skin contact in the tank. The juice was fermented using naturally-occurring indigenous yeasts from the  skins. Fermentation was carried out cold at 55F and lasted 5 weeks. The wine saw no wood, as befits a Riesling.  It was blended from several batches and then bentonite-fined for heat stability, cold-stabilized and sterile-filtered before bottling.  This is a limited-production, dry Riesling that offers a firm but balanced acidity matched by fruit concentration that produces a beguilingly aromatic and rather full-bodied—for a Riesling—with a dry, minerally finish.  This wine shows flavors of fresh apricot and ripe pear.  Excellent as an aperitif or to accompany seafood, chicken dishes, and spicy cuisines.  Anthony Nappa.  12.4% ABV.

The 2013 Cabernet Franc ($25) also benefited from the excellent conditions of the vintage.  The fruit was hand-harvested, de-stemmed, and crushed. The grapes from different lots were then fermented apart.  The fermentation was carried out at 75F to retain fruit flavors and took a month with pumpovers twice a day. The wine was aged with 50% in stainless steel and the rest in French oak barrels, where it underwent natural malolactic fermentation. The aging took ten months before the wine was blended and then bottled unfiltered and unfined.  The resulting wine has a firm acidity, full body, and offers a pronounced fruity aroma of ripe red berries with herbal notes and a hint of tobacco.  It is actually ready to drink now bout would certainly bear aging a few more years, given that it was so recently bottled.  A fine accompaniment to any variety of pork, beef, or lanb dishes.  It would be good with cheese or chocolate as well.  Anthony Nappa.  12.9% ABV.

In June 2015 the Wine Advocate blog posted a review of 200 Long Island Wines, of which 7 were from Raphael, earning scores of 86 to 92 points.  The top Raphael wine was the 2010 Merlot First Label, by Leslie Howard, with 92 points, followed by the 2014 Suvignon Blanc First Label, at 91 points, by Anthony Nappa, and the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon by Howard at 90 points.  Quite a track record from Robert Parker’s Website.

Based on interviews with Anthony Nappa and Steve Mudd

13 June 2012; updated 22 June 2014

39390 Main Road/Route 25, Peconic, NY 11958; (631) 765.1100

Raphael Wine

tastingroom@raphaelwine.com

For further reading, Anthony Nappa and his own brand of wines were written about by Eileen Duffy in her book, Behind the Bottle (Cider Mill Press, 2015).

Viniculture in LI, Part III: Macari Estate

Based on interviews with Alex and Joe Macari, Jr on 9 July 2009 & 17 June 2010; updated 21 November 2014

Macari sign, 2014, 0Macari Vineyards is on the North Fork of Eastern Long Island (aka the East End) in Mattituck, and owned and operated by the Macari Family.  Joseph Macari Jr., now runs the winery with his wife, Alexandra (called Alex by those who know her—but actually Alejandra, for she’s originally from Argentina).  Though Macari Vineyards was established in 1995, the Macari Family has owned the 500-acre estate—bounded by the south shore of Long Island Sound—for nearly 50 years [though in 2009 they sold 60 acres of non-vineyard land, so it is now down to 440 acres].  What were once potato fields and farmland now includes a vineyard of 200 acres of vines with additional fields of compost, farmland, and a home to long-horn cattle, goats, Sicilian donkeys and ducks.

Macari sees itself as on the cutting edge of viticulture and has long been committed to as natural an approach to winemaking as is possible. Since 2005 Joseph Macari, Jr. has been considered as a pioneer in the movement towards natural and sustainable farming on Long Island, employing principles of biodynamic farming beginning with the vineyard’s first crops.  By giving consideration to the health of the environment as a whole and moving away from the noxious effects of industrial pesticides towards a more natural and meticulous caretaking of the soil and plants, Macari believes that it has found a more promising way to yield premium wines (recalling the old French axiom, that wine begins in the vineyard).  This does not mean that Macari claims to be producing organic grapes, nor organic wines—that, in Joe’s view, is not possible for a vineyard of its size in Long Island, given the climate, with its high humidity and much rain during the growing season, both of which tend to encourage the ravages of fungal and bacterial infections of the vines, as well as attacks by a range of insects.

My first visit was in July of last year, and my follow-up visit was this June.  We started in the new and modern Tasting Room at the Winery.  Alex, as Joe’s wife is called) began with a tasting of a range of Macari wines, all of which were well-made and at the least, quite good, with some of very fine quality, well-balanced, with good acidity and fruit.  The winery produces both barrel-fermented and steel-fermented whites as well as barrel-fermented reds and a couple of cryo-ice wines (“fake” ice wine, as Alex teased, but Joe is an enthusiast, and the wine is actually delicious and has won awards).  In fact, the winery employs two winemakers, one of whom is Austrian and makes the steel-fermented whites as well as the ice wines.  (I’ll review the wines when I write about wine-making at Macari in a separate post.)

The vineyard tour in a 4-wheel-drive pickup truck began with an exploration of the composting area, where manure from the farm animals is gathered (cows—including long-horn steers—horses, and chickens) as well as the vine detritus (which is charred in order to render any infection or harmful residue neutral), and 35 tons of fish waste that is delivered once a week by a Fulton Fish Market purveyor (Joe says that the fish guts & bones provide excellent nitrogen & DNA for the compost, so it is highly nutritive for the vines).  At the time of my visit the compost heaps—some of which were from six to eight feet high—were covered in weeds, which will be removed before the compost is applied as fertilizer.

In order to save time and space—two valuable commodities in growing wine grapes—vineyards sometimes graft new vines onto a mature rootstock, rather than starting an entirely new plant.  According to the Macari Website, theirs is the first vineyard on Long Island to successfully grow over-grafted vines.  With over-grafting, a new variety can be grown from the rootstock of a different plant, which is a much faster way of growing vines than planting new ones.  The future of every vineyard depends on the carefully executed process of planting new vines.  Macari’s vision of the future is constantly evolving as the owners, vineyard manager and winemaker learn more about their vines, and the microclimates found in the fields.

The vineyard proper is very well-tended, the various varieties separated into blocks, using Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP), and in many parcels irrigation tubes were carefully aligned along the bottom wires of the rows to provide drip irrigation if necessary, though the high humidity and rainfall of the region reduces the likelihood of needing its use.  In fact, the 2009 season thus far has had such an excess of rainfall—often very heavy—that in many parts of the vineyard there was blossom damage and many of the developing bunches of grapes were, in effect, incomplete due to fruit loss.

Joe has been using, to the extent possible, both organic and Biodynamic® methods of viticulture, but due to the highly-humid conditions in the vineyard, he must still resort to conventional sprays from time to time, so he refuses to claim to be organic or biodynamic, though he finds that to the extent that it is possible to use these viticultural methods, it is worthwhile.  For one thing, Joe worships Mother Earth, and believes in the Rudolf Steiner principle that there ought to be a harmony between earth, sky, and water, and in consequence has resorted in the past to planting cow horns at the ends of rows, with the requisite composting “teas” that are recommended by the biodynamic movement.  He plans to return to this practice again in coming years.  Though Alex appears to be skeptical of the remedy, the special attention and care demanded by organic and biodynamic practice are evident in the vineyard, as can be seen in the picture above, which shows the cover crop extending from between the rows right into the vines themselves, weeds and all, in order to allow the greatest amount of vegetative variety and expand the quantity of beneficial insects and other fauna to find their natural habitat.

Another reason that Macari does not seek Organic Certification is economical.  It is one thing to apply expensive organic sprays on, say a 20-acre field, quite another to do so on 200.  The sprays cost twice as much as the industrial alternatives and the spraying would involve higher labor costs, as the number of times that the spray needs to be applied would be higher than for conventional applications.  Furthermore, the fact that you can practice organic and/or biodynamic farming without going for 100% organic—being pragmatic about using industrial sprays when absolutely needed, but otherwise being committed to organic ones when it is suitable—means that you can have a sustainable, healthy vineyard in almost all respects.

In other words, as Joe sees it, Organic Certification may be economically viable for a small vineyard, but is much less so for large ones.

One additional bit of evidence regarding the exceptional care given the Macari vineyards is the employment of a team of specialized grafters from California, who travel around the country—and the world—grafting new shoots to old roots, so that, for example, a field of Chardonnay can be quickly converted to Sauvignon Blanc.  The process is highly meticulous, requiring special knowledge of the condition of the roots.  For example, in the case of a root with splitting bark, one type of graft and wrapping may be applied as opposed to another for a root that doesn’t suffer from the problem.  This team of five men can graft about 500 roots a day at a cost of $2.00 per root—a highly efficient rate that is cost-effective for the vineyard.  (This team had earlier been working in Hawaii, and has also done grafting for Château Margaux—yes, that one in Bordeaux of 1855 Classification fame—and at the same time was working at Peconic Bay Vineyards nearby.)

As a further example of the globalization of viticultural practices, Joe also has a French specialist in tying vines to the trellising system come from Southern France with his own team in order to train his Guatemalan workers in how to properly tie vines to the wires, for it must be done properly if the vines are to be held to the wires for the duration of the growing season.

To the extent that one can achieve balance with nature in viticulture (or in agriculture as whole), Joe Macari has certainly shown that he in the vanguard of that search.  It is not for the sake of certification, either organic or biodynamic, that he does this, but out of respect for his vineyard’s terroir, which is to say, the land, the soil, the vines, the climate.  But all viticultural work involves experimentation, and Joe is always experimenting, as new ideas and information become available to him.  There is always a better way.  The pursuit is endless, and the story therefore never ends.

PS–For another recent appreciation of Joe Macari’s work, see the informed and thoughtful account by Louisa Hargrave in the January 14, 2010 issue of the Suffolk News at   https://www.macariwines.com/macari.ihtml?page=awards&awardid=184

B'klyn Uncorked, Kelly UrbanikLouisa also wrote a very nice profile of Kelly Urbanik Koch, Macari’s resident winemaker, in the Winter 2014 issue of Long Island Winepress:  Meet your winemaker Kelly Urbanik Koch of Macari Vineyards/

In fact, a favorite wine of ours offered at the New York Uncorked wine tasting was a really sublime 2013 Sauvignon Blanc by Kelly—deeply perfumed with floral aromas and the typical Sauvignon flavor profile beautifully tamed with a fine balance of citrus fruit and floral notes against a firm acidic backbone. The best American SB that I can remember, frankly. Kelly was so happy with the result that she said that she wished that she could “swim in it”–in a tank, to be sure.

In the summer of 2014, Macari was named New York State Winery of the Year at the NY Wine & Food Classic, a tasting competition of over 800 wines from across the state’s viticultural areas.  Macari’s 2010 Cabernet Franc was named by the competition’s judges as the Best Red Wine of the show.

Mattituck Winery

150 Bergen Avenue, Mattituck, NY 11952
(631) 298-0100

Cutchogue Tasting Room

24385 Route 25, Cutchogue, NY 11935
(631) 734-7070

http://www.macariwines.com/

This article was first published on June 30, 2010

Interview with Tom Puyaubert of Bodegas Exopto, Rioja

Exopto logo

 

 

exopto1 | ,eksõptõ | verb [ with obj. ]

1 from the Latin exopto, are, avi, atum.
To desire eagerly, long for.

2 winery founded in 2003 by Tom Puyaubert in La Rioja.

It is fascinating that more often than one may care to count, a winemaker comes across a way to make a new wine quite by accident. Not all accidents in the vineyard or winery are happy ones, but in Tom’s case two such accidents led to very happy results.

The first such accident happened in the vineyard in 2005, when heavy rains threatened the crop. Fortunately, the Tempranillo was ready to be picked before the rains struck—it is, after all, an early ripener, as its name indicates (temprano means early). There was a significant crop of the variety and not very much of the shy and recalcitrant Graciano, which was then still rather green on the vine. Tom made the obvious and appropriate decision to pick the Tempranillo and leave the Graciano for later. Ten days later, in October, after the rains were over and he finally had time to take a look, he found the Graciano nearly raisined on the vines but chose to pick it nonetheless. The results amazed him, for Graciano is usually picked much earlier to escape the September rains. In this case the resulting wine was exception and this led to his flagship wine, Exopto. (More about Exopto below.)

The second accident occurred in the winery. Viura, the primary Rioja white grape, was already in cask and after a few months was ready to be bottled, but Tom’s wife was about to give birth, so of course the new baby took precedence over the fate of the Viura. By the time that Tom got back to the Viura in barrel, it had already developed further. Tom realized that the additional time in oak had evolved the wine into something much more interesting that he’d expected and decided to give it yet more time on wood. A full year of aging in barrel produced a wine of surprising and exceptional character. That wine became his Horizonte Blanco. (More about Horizonte Blanco below.)

Tom PuyaubertTom, born in Bordeaux, has now lived in Spain for fifteen years, even though his original intent was to complete his studies in international business within six months. In order to support himself while there he engaged with a French oak-barrel maker, Saury, to sell its products in Spain. However, he fell in love with the region and its wine-producing potential and decided to pursue his dream of making his own wine there. He had already had experience working for wineries in the United States and France. In fact, when he was but 20 years old Tom had decided not to go to California, as so many European hopefuls who wanted to become winemakers did, because he felt he’d gain more and learn more by working for a small, family-owned winery than for a California behemoth. He chose Virginia and worked for Rockbridge Vineyard in the Shenandoah Valley for four months where became adept in all aspects of winegrowing and winemaking, picking up Spanish while working in the vineyard with the Mexican workers.

It was while working at Rockbridge that he determined that this was what he wanted to do in life, and he will always remember with gratitude Shepard Rouse, the owner and winemaker, whom he considers his mentor. He learned everything that he needed to know in the vineyard, the winery, the office, and the tasting room. It was, Tom said, “A complete experience technically, culturally, and even linguistically.”

Bodegas Exopto is one of the many new wineries in Rioja that is breaking new ground with new ideas, new attitudes, and new technology. There are still many traditionalist die-hards (and long may they live) such as Marqués de Murrieta, López Herredia, and others that will continue to produce their wines using American oak, aging the wines—both red and white—for long periods, and then delaying their release in bottle until they are deemed ready to consume. Very deep pockets are needed in order to do this. This has long been a recipe for making great wine in Rioja, but it is slowly yielding to the global advances in technology and new ideas. Exopto, founded in 2003, is at the cutting edge of the new in all respects.

An important point to grasp about Rioja is rooted in its history as a wine region. Wine had been made there for many generations and its consumption was largely local. For the most part it was sold in cask and very little of it was bottled. This was radically changed by the arrival of many Bordelaise winemakers who fled to Spain when phylloxera devastated the vineyards of Bordeaux. The French purchased grapes from the growers, established many new wineries or worked for existing ones, and changed the nature of Rioja wine, but they also helped create a divide between the winegrowers and the winemakers. There are now 500 wineries and 15,000 vineyards.

Tom wanted to do things differently, which meant that he would lease his vineyards but also have a winery to make wine from his own fruit. In this way he could control everything. He is a genuine terroirist and garagiste, which is to say vineyard manager and winemaker, as well as part owner. Nonetheless, all of his wines conform to the regulations of the Rioja Consejo de Denominación de Origen Calificada (D.O.Ca.).

The following are Exopto’s vineyards with a full description of the terroir of each (this information comes from the winery’s Website):

Exopto vines, PeriquitaPeriquita

Location: Abalos, altitude of 200 meters.

Surface area: 1,5 Ha. (3.8 acres)

Soil: gravel with sandy subsoil.

Variety: Tempranillo.

Orientation: south.

Special features: due to its orientation and soils this vineyard produces some very mature and fruity Tempranillos.

Wine: Bozeto.

Exopto vines, PortilloEl Portillo

Location: Abalos, altitude of 600 meters.

Surface area: 0,5 Ha. (1.25 acres)

Soil: gravel with sand subsoil.

Variety: Tempranillo, Garnacha.

Orientation: north – south.

Special features: very old vines situated on land in part of the village. An air current often blows through this parcel lying at the foot of the Sierra Cantabria Mountains. However, its stony ground allows the heat of the day to be absorbed. This results in grapes that are well-balanced and complex with great freshness.

Wine: Exopto.

Exopto vines, las abejasLas Abejas

Location: Abalos, altitude of 400 meters.

Surface area: 1,5 Ha. (3.8 acres)

Soil: calcareous clay.

Variety: Tempranillo.

Orientation: south – east.

Special features: vineyard of very old vines (60 years old) with an extremely limited yield (1kg/per vine) producing some highly concentrated wines with excellent structure.

Wine: Horizonte.

Exopto vines, chulatoChulato

Location: Abalos, altitude of 200 meters.

Surface area: 2 Ha. (5 acres)

Soil: calcareous clay.

Variety: Tempranillo.

Orientation: south – west.

Special features: the particular feature of this slope with very good sun exposure is the presence of a subterranean river that borders the vineyard. This cool atmosphere ensures that some very well-balanced, complex grapes are obtained which always maintain very good acidity.

Wine: Horizonte, Exopto / Parte Alta.

Exopto vines, las balsillasLas Balsillas

Location: Alfaro – Monte Yerga, altitude of 500 meters.

Surface area: 0,2 Ha. (0.5 acre)

Soil: pebbles.

Variety: Graciano.

Orientation: east.

Special features: a Graciano “micro-parcel” with very good orientation that allows the grapes to ripen gradually. A river running in the subsoil regulates maturity in extremely hot conditions.

Wine: Exopto.

Exopto vines, el agudoEl Agudo

Location: Alfaro – Monte Yerga, altitude of 500 metres.

Surface area: 3 Ha. (7.6 acres)

Soil: gravel, sandy subsoil.

Variety: Garnacha.

Orientation: east.

Special features: an old Garnacha parcel (60 years old) that enjoys a Mediterranean influence especially favourable for perfect maturity. The altitude allows good acidity to be obtained and vigour on the palate.

Wine: Bozeto

As can be seen from the pictures above, all the vines are gobelet-trained (called en vaso in Spain, and also referred to as bush vines). The vines must be managed manually and hand-harvested.

There is something extremely satisfying about finding a winery Website that provides such complete information about its vineyards, for very few provide it.

Eighty percent of his production is exported abroad. It is difficult, as a newcomer, to break into the highly competitive markets for wine in countries like France, Germany, England, or Spain itself. He’s had much more success selling his wine in Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Australia, Singapore, and now in the United States, thanks to Patrick Mata and Olé Imports. In fact, Olé has been importing his wines to the U.S. since 2006, beginning with his 2004 Horizonte. He now sells about half of his total production here.

Etiqueta bozetoHis most popular and affordable wine is the Bozeto (formerly known as “Big Bang”), made of 50% Garnacha, 40% Tempranillo, and 10% Graciano, made from organically and sustainably-grown vines that were planted in 1980. The 2012 is still young but very approachable. It has a nearly opaque purple core in the glass with a very narrow meniscus, and its nose is of medium intensity, redolent of red and black berries, and briefly manifests notes of sardines when first opened, but that vanishes as it breathes and peppery notes come forward. (In fact, I’d give it an hour to air before serving it so that it can really open up.) In the mouth it shows a lifted acidity and medium to full body with nicely-balanced tannins; very fruit-forward—dominated the berry flavors—with notes of licorice, especially in the finish. It has gotten 90+ points from Robert Parker over several vintages. I’d call it a perfect barbecue wine and the price is also right at $15 retail.

Etiqueta horizonte tintoThe Horizonte Tinto is another wine that is exceptionally good and available at a very reasonable price, but there is so little of it that most of it can only be found in restaurants. Still, a wine that earns scores of 90 plus consistently is one to which we should all pay attention. This red wine stands out by being a blend that reflects Rioja tradition, while the growing and making of it is other than traditional.

As with his other wines, Tom’s approach is very rigorous, with an almost fanatical attention to details. When the grapes are brought into the tiny winery 70% are destemmed and the balance is lightly crushed. All are then macerated for four days at 5° Celsius (41° F.) before being transferred to concrete tanks for fermentation with the native yeasts that live on the skins. Post-fermentation the wine then spends another twenty days of maceration in contact with the skins, which impart yet more color, tannin, and flavor. The wine is then placed in highly-toasted barrels, 80% of which are made by Saury, a famous oak cooperage in France for which Tom is the representative in Spain. The other 20% are made of American oak—a nod to another tradition in Rioja, the use of American oak from the Appalachians However, beginning with the 2011 vintage, Tom only uses French oak, which in his opinion seems better suited to Rioja wines as what it imparts lends more elegance and subtlety to the wine. One third of all the barrels are new, another third are one year old, and the balance is two years old. The result is wine that after a year in toasted wood has acquired a smoky aroma and tobacco notes, while the fruit is expressed as black fruit—cherry and berry alike, and a hint of licorice in the finish. This is a wine that can be drunk now but should continue to evolve for a few years. Pretty remarkable for only $32.

For Tom, the use of new oak is akin to using salt to season food. Too much salt and the dish is ruined, too little and it lacks flavor. So it is with new oak; its use must be judicious and balanced. As a matter of fact, one could say that Tom is a master of oak usage, given that he also works for a cooperage.

Exopto 1,5L CUVÉE IBONThe Exopto is made of 60% Graciano, which is almost unique among the wines produced in Rioja. In the first place, there are only 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) planted in all of Rioja; his plot of Graciano is a mere half-acre. Furthermore, it is a wine that is only made in good years, as is the case with the 2010. Graciano is a difficult grape to grow and really needs ideal conditions in order to develop and mature properly with ample exposure to sunlight, else it will be far too acidic and green. As a result, given that most growers are looking for quantity more than quality, Graciano has been pulled and replaced with more productive vines like Tempranillo.

The thing about Graciano, as Tom discovered in 2005 quite by accident, is that it is the variety that must be picked last in the season, so that the acidity is brought more in balance, sugars have time to build up, and over-ripeness is the key. In years that are too cool, like 2008 and 2013, no wine is made as the fruit will not adequately mature in such a condition. In a year like 2010, when the conditions were just right, he bottled the Exopto, producing just a few dozen cases.

This is a very big wine, presenting itself with a purple opacity in the glass that cues you to what lies ahead. At four years this is still a young wine as is apparent from the color and nose, which is pungent with aromas of blackberry, graphite, black coffee, and minerals. In the mouth it feels huge, with its bracing acidity, firm tannins, and black fruit, along with a long, lingering finish. Still youthful, it needs about five years before it will ready to drink, and could be held in a proper cellar for decades more, thanks to its 60% Graciano, blended with 30% Tempranillo and 10% Garnacha. It earned 94 points in Wine Spectator. With only 342 cases produced it is indeed a very rare wine, yet its price for the quality is very reasonable at about $70 retail, but it is mostly sold in restaurants.

Mazuelo, a variety often used in Rioja red blends (usually with Tempranillo and Graciano), is the one traditional variety entirely absent in Tom’s wines.

Etiqueta horizonte blancoViura is another challenging variety. Usually, by itself, it produces a rather neutral and uninteresting wine. A handful of producers make some remarkable white wines dominated by Viura that have been aged in oak barrels for ten years, such as López Heredia’s Viña Tondonia White Grand Reserve 2009. These are very big and rather expensive wines, but then López Heredia is among the greatest and most traditional of wineries and one of the few to own its vineyards. For Tom, the discovery that Viura benefited from long contact with wood was a personal epiphany. One year in mostly neutral oak was all that it took for him to create a Viura-based white that was far from ordinary, though not at all like a Viña Tondonia either.

Tom makes the Horizonte Blanco with great care. Once the Viura is picked it is first fermented in stainless-steel vats so that the temperature can be controlled. As the fermentation begins to slow down the must is transferred to oak barrels to complete the fermentation. The barrels are not racked but rather the wine is kept on its lees, which at the beginning undergo battonage once a week, later every two weeks, and finally once a month. It is done using a system of special rollers that support the barrels and allow them to be rotated rather easily by hand. No baton is used for these lees. The same is done for all his wines.

The resulting wine is bright, with at first a nose offering stone fruit and citrus, but as it evolves in the glass it begins to yield a floral bouquet of considerable intensity. It offered a long, minerally finish that was refreshing and very satisfying. It is certainly ready to drink now but could continue to age in bottle for another several years. Only 1,800 bottles were made. All this for a mere $32.

These are wines that represent an interesting spectrum, from the quaffable, barbecue-friendly Bozeto, to the more refined character of the two Horizontes, to the powerful and elegant Exopto, all the product of a master crafter of wine from one of the great vinicultural and oenological regions of the world. It is not by accident.

Exopto wines come into the U.S. through Olé Imports, about which I wrote in a post back in October 2012 (Patrick Mata of Olé Imports). Their address and phone are:

Olé Imports USA:
Patrick Mata
56 Harrison St. Suite 405
New Rochelle, NY 10801
Ph.: 914-740-4724
Fax: 413-254-8923

Olé Imports Spain:
Alberto Orte
C/ Girasol, 4, Bq.1, 3ºB
11500 El Puerto de Santa María, Cádiz
Ph.: +34-91-559-6659
Fax: +34-91-185-0945

Olé Imports

Bodegas Exopto

01.300 Laguardia, Álava, Spain / T +34 650 21 39 93 / info@exopto.net

Exopto Web page

The interview with Tom Puyaubert took place on 9 June 2014