Just as the rhubard blushes and the peas flower, Long Island vintners bring forth pink wine.
Near the base of Long Island’s Fork, we drive along Route 25 and pull into the lot of Paumanok. It’s one week before Easter and there’s a chill in the air, but we’re dressed in down. From the lot we can see the tasting room abuzz with revelers on the prowl for local wines. My tasting assistants and I follow Charles Massoud with a bottle of Paumanok Dry Rosé and settle into one of the tables on the deck overlooking the vineyards.
Charles, who shares proprietorship of Paumanok with his wife, Ursula, wears his life-well-lived with a smile that stretches wide across his lips. Originally from Lebanon, Charles has sliced a pie of heaven in Long Island, and it seems that his sons are following his steps. For over two hours, we sit captivated at his castle, as Charles spins stories and life lessons while pouring and discussing his rosé and the methods behind his bliss.
In the early 1990s Charles produced a blush wine, which was demand-driven at the time, when consumers came asking for white merlot or white zinfandel. However, says Charles, “a couple of years ago, the fad shifted people discovered Provence and Tavel.” This led Paumanok to produce their first dry rosé vintage in 2008, with the eldest son, Kareem, as their winemaker, and it sold out in two months. This year, adds Charles, “we got the message.” Paumanok’s dry rosé production increased from 250 cases last year to 450500 cases this year, all of which will likely soon sell out.
Once the signature of Provence, France, rosé wines are now produced in most every wine region, worldwide. For the past few summers, pink bottles have shimmered in the windows of nearly every wine store display. As the New York wine region most connected to international markets, like Gotham, it is no surprise that Long Island’s 50 wine producers are inspiring the craze. Of the 33 licensed wine producers on the North and South Forks, 20 wineries produce rosé, many of which could very well compete on the global market, if they didn’t sell out so quick.
Bedell Cellars, just down the Fork, produced 1,350 cases of Domaines C.C. Rosé in 2008, but the 2009 vintage presented a bit of a challenge. With daily rain in June, the vines fell behind schedule, and at Corey Creek they were still picking grapes at Thanksgiving. A blend of cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, Domaines C.C. is made in the “Provence style,” bone dry but forward with its raspberry and strawberry fruit.
“Corey Creek has been making a dry rosé wine for about 10 years,” says winemaker Kelly Urbanik. “This wine allows us to showcase the beautiful aromatics we can get from our red grapes while also offering a lighter and more refreshing mouthfeel.”
To make rosé Corey Creek practices the method saignée, which is the French term for “bled.” Dark-skinned red grapes are crushed, before undergoing a short maceration then fermentation. To make saignée rosé, the winemaker releases a portion of free-run juice while the tank’s contents are pink. The remaining juice receives further skin contact, which makes for a more concentrated red wine, while the light pink runoff is fermented to produce rosé. Paumanok uses both this and the traditional method for making their dry rosé, which entails crushing and macerating ripe grapes for one to three days before fermenting the pale juice without skins. The longer the time spent on skins, the darker and more concentrated the wine. A blend of cabernet sauvignon and petite verdot, Paumanok’s Dry Rosé is minerally and almost clear, with red ripe strawberry fruit that lingers.
At Edible East End’s annual event, Brooklyn Uncorked, I first discovered our next destination—Croteaux Vineyards, where the specialty of the house is rosé and only rosé, made from merlot—three different clones.
As the sun nears the horizon, we drive toward the Island’s tip. Here, in Southold, we turn right on South Harbor Road and park at the estate of Michael and Paula Croteaux. Built in 1888 and purchased in 1992, their house is surrounded by vineyards and a handful of barns, each in different states of renovation or repair. In the home, Paula conducts classes for her Farmhouse Kitchen, Cooking and Baking School, and the interior is a fantastic montage of art, craft and memorabilia dedicated to the appreciation of family, history, food and wine. Next door stands the tasting room with an outdoor seating area at the edge of the vineyard, beside a dilapidated barn.
An intimate and rustic space, the tasting room is where we join Michael for a pre-release taste of their 2009 wines. As a graphic designer, Michael came to Southold hoping to open a studio. It was Larry Perrine at Channing Daughters who encouraged Michael and Paula to buy the surrounding land, with a promise to purchase their grapes. In 2007 the Croteauxs left their good friend Larry in search of fruit, when they decided to produce rosé, with Richard Olsen-Harbich at Raphael as their maker. “The lifestyle here felt like Provence, so rosé seemed a natural choice,” says Michael as he pours us a taste of their unreleased Croteaux Merlot 181 Rosé. Tall, blue-eyed and prone to ventures like wind boarding and heli-skiing, Michael adds, “We didn’t want to challenge the red and white winemakers here. Rosé was a niche.”
Years ago, Michael says, no one was making rosé with merlot. In 2001, he tasted red wines at Raphael that were made with clones from Cornell. And then Michael tasted the fruit. To his surprise it tasted exactly like the wine that it had produced. The distinctness of each clone shines in the simple process of making rosé, because there’s nothing to mask the grape—the winemaker presses, ferments and bottles, before the imbiber sips. And because Croteaux makes only rosé, there is no saignée because they’re not producing red wine.
This vintage, Croteaux released three wines made from specific clones: Merlot 181 from Pomeral, Bordeaux; Merlot 314 from St. Emilion, Bordeaux; and Merlot 3 from UC Davis, California. And since most vines are propagated with cuttings from the best vineyard vines, working with such specific clones is a part of the vintner’s process. In addition to these three, Croteaux also produced 50 cases of Savage, which is made with indigenous yeasts; and 50 cases of Ruby, named for its color, “a red-wine lover’s rosé,” that is made from cabernet franc and left on its skins for 22 hours. For each wine, Michael has designed a different bottle shape, to accentuate each clone’s persona. Merlot 314, the most feminine and sensual of the three, is curvaceous, and the wine is lovely.
Still chasing anomalies, Paula teases with a smile, “Next year, stay tuned for Chloe.”
“The last couple of years, there’s been a heightened awareness for retailers, sommeliers, and winemakers and the perception of rosé will continue to improve,” says Tom Smith, the manager at Union Square Wines. Big fans of Christopher Tracy at Channing Daughters and of Kareem Massoud at Paumanok, USW carries 75 different rosés at the height of the season. And while Smith says that consumers finally understand that rosé is not like pink zinfandel, he adds, “people still overlook the use of rosé at the holiday dinner table, like at Thanksgiving.”
Still seeking more ways in which we can give thanks, we wake on the South Fork, and drive to Channing Daughters, home of the four Rosati. All single varietal wines made from cabernet franc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and refosco (a Northern Italian grape from Friuli), the rosés at Channing Daughters, like all the others, tend to sell out quickly. Like the wines from Croteaux, these are rosés with a purpose. “We’ve been making rosé since 1999, from Bordeaux varietals,” says Christopher Tracy. “I came on board in 2002, and we continued to make the blend from a variety of techniques, and in 2005 we created the Tre Rosati.”
And though Channing Daughters does buy grapes from other vineyards, Channing Daughters does all of the yard work, including hand harvesting. After the grapes are de-stemmed and pressed as whole clusters, they’re given only three to four hours of skin contact, which is followed by a slight crush by foot—something rarely seen in production of port these days, where until the 1960s it was widely practiced. “Our production has tripled in size over the past five years,” adds Tracy. “With red fruit in a cool, wet, maritime district, especially in a cool vintage, we [Long Island winemakers] can make an excellent rosé or a good red it’s a no brainer.”
Before heading back to the city, we stop at Wölffer Estate Vineyard, where they have been making rosé since 1992. “1992 was the worst growing season in Long Island history, so to make rosé out of our very young vines made a lot of sense,” says winemaker Roman Roth, echoing the thoughts of Tracy. However, he adds, “In the ’90s, wineries copied white zinfandels. We used to make the only completely dry rosé with lower alcohol, around 11.5 percent.” This early recognition of rosé’s potential has paid off. Wölffer has fans such as Eric Ripert from Le Bernardin, and Asiate at the Mandarin Hotel carries the wine on its list. A couple of years ago, the Wall Street Journal praised Wölffer’s rosé as one of the best three rosés in the country. In 2005, Roman made the first 200 magnums of Noblesse Oblige, a sparking rosé, and as Roth states—speaking of the wines of Long Island, “ the rest is history.”