BEHIND THE BOTTLE: Paumanok 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon

Tuthills Lane Vineyard, $60

It was during the rollercoaster ride that marked the end game of the 2005 vintage on Long Island that winemaker Kareem Massoud learned to trust his instincts.

It’s becoming the stuff of local legends, a cinematic tale, rich with all the rising action (Gorgeous weather—what could go wrong?), story conflict (Man v. Mother Nature!) and happy denouement (Eureka! A stellar vintage!) that make any good story worth getting lost in.

For the Massouds of Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue—as for all farmers on Long Island—the summer of ’05 was glorious. Bright, sunny days; lots of uncharacteristically dry weather; and the kind of uninterrupted, über grape-ripening that makes a Northeastern winemaker giddy at the notion of what could be. That is, until it started raining and didn’t let up for eight days straight.

“No one could have forecast all that rain,” says Massoud on his way to the vineyard on a perfect, sunny early September morning, not unlike those that marked most of summer 2005. “During those eight days, we just didn’t know. The gut reaction was to be depressed about it. My father was getting progressively more down, but I was cautiously optimistic because that’s the reason we planted these Bordeaux varieties: Their skins are more rot-resistant and hearty. I knew we had a great year up until then and my instinct was if we can make it through the rain without developing rot, we’d be OK.”

Massoud also realized that, pre-deluge, Paumanok had already gone through the final round of fruit thinning—a pruning technique used to lower the yield in order to give the remaining grapes better opportunity to snatch up nutrients and, it stands to reason, become a higher-quality, more concentrated final product. “When all is said and done, we end up dropping a third to up to half [of the grapes] on the ground.”

The rain finally stopped and Massoud quickly and cautiously began to assess the wicked week’s damage. “We were very lucky as far as the amount of loss we sustained,” he says. “I think it also had a lot to do with the fact that when the rains came, our vineyard was beginning to shut down and wasn’t in a very vegetative state anymore. The vines weren’t taking up a lot of water. Had it occurred a month earlier, at least in our vineyard, there might have been issues of grapes bursting and whatnot. But the cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot were in good shape overall.”

In addition to a general heartiness, another quality that cabernet sauvignon carries is it needs more hang time than the merlots and cabernet francs that also grow in relative abundance on Long Island. Because of that, Massoud had but one fermenting tank open when it came time to harvest the cab, which just happened to be the largest tank at the winery. At 3,000 gallon capacity, the cabernet barely filled half when all was crushed and done.

“It’s our widest tank,” says Massoud, “and the reason that’s significant is the ratio of the surface area to the depth in the fermentation—it was basically wider than it was deep. During red wine fermentation, if you don’t do anything it’s going to form a cap that will rise to the top due to all the CO2 that’s being created. That’s why winemakers employ all these methods to homogenize the skins with the fermenting juice.”

Massoud noticed something different, however, in this particular harvest. “Quite often we have whole berries coming out of the crusher, and in this case a lot of the skins were already separating, and in some cases almost mushy looking—I didn’t quite know what to make of it. It was very exciting, though, because we already had a nice, dark, purplish color, and that’s a good indication if there’s already that much color right out of the crusher. It was a really beautiful fermentation. Every day it was gaining in color and complexity and tannin extraction,” the process by which the lip-puckering natural preservative compounds that dwell in the grape skins, seeds and stems are drawn into the juice.

It was so beautiful, in fact, that he and his father decided that this was the first time in 10 years Paumanok would make an estate-bottled cab from a single, standout block from the Tuthills Lane vineyard—351 cases of it, to be precise.

We sampled it together in the Aquebogue tasting room one recent afternoon. A loud group of tourists filed in; the Massouds were scrambling around trying to ready themselves for a public radio event that evening; Kareem was running experiments with sulfur in the lab—a general buzz of controlled chaos hovered around the winery that day. The wine, though, snapped my senses into steady focus. The Tuthills Lane is lush and full of ripe blackberry and currant, and then something gently minty around the edges. It has a long, pretty finish and, although the tannins are a little racy still (as one, of course, might expect), time will be kind to this wine, allowing it to blossom as the years roll on (in Massoud’s mind, give it five to 10).

“The key thing to understand about Paumanok,” says Massoud, “is, if you look on the map of the East End and look at Aquebogue and Jamesport, we’re further west than the other wineries; we get a little bit greater heat accumulation on average per annum. It’s a little warmer due to our microclimate here, which for cab can make a big difference. The point is, I still believe that cab is king in a great year in Long Island. I’ll be the first one to agree that it’s not as easy as merlot and cab franc, but it’s worth the effort.”