How pinot blanc ended up in your glass

Over the years I’ve heard different stories about a certain field of grapevines in Cutchogue. Some of the stories are beguiling: that the vines were planted by mistake and were slated to be destroyed and replaced, but somehow evaded the trash bin of agriculture for a white grape version of a red carpet comeback. Some are strange: that the vines, sphinx-like and inscrutable, were reluctant to give up the secrets of their lineage.

The truth, after some investigation, turns out to be less enigmatic and more plausible. During the early generation of Long Island viticulture, farmers and winemakers still had much to discover. In 1983, Steve Mudd, one of the foremost growers on the North Fork, planted 13 acres of vines he had bought from a nursery in Canada. The vines were labeled “chardonnay-pinot,” not a known grape or even one of the many chardonnay clones available. Once fermented, the wines did not seem right for chardonnay.

To unravel the mystery Mudd and the landowners turned to Lucie Morton, a woman with just the knowledge they required. Morton, based in Virginia, is a viticultural expert and a specialist in ampelography—the identification and classification of grapevines based on the shape and color of the vine leaves and berries (or in more recent years, their DNA). As Morton recently explained, “They said the wine had very little varietal character and wondered if I could help them improve the quality. We went to the vineyard, and I said that they were totally correct about the lack of varietal character, as the vines were actually pinot blanc.”

It all proves that while the mystery of wine is generally in the glass—the marvel of how bunches of grapes become an enchanting liquid—there may be whodunits along the way.

The land in question, the 13 acres of pinot blanc, was acquired in 1992 by Mark Lieb, the president and CEO of Spectrum Asset Management, a financial services company. Lieb had first looked for a vineyard in California, but was then introduced to the North Fork—a little more convenient for a man from Connecticut. He now divides his week between his Cutchogue home, surrounded by vineyards, and his Stamford office.

Lieb Family Cellars has expanded by land acquisition to about 50 acres, with plantings that include merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and a few others. The winery currently produces a dozen or so varietals and blends from the newer vineyards, but it remains one of the few producers in the area associated with a specific grape, one that is not the ever-popular merlot.

No other Long Island winery makes a pinot blanc, so it is not even a dark horse in the popularity sweepstakes—at most a pale horse. It is hardly as fashionable as chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, and is often overlooked by consumers, yet it can be a lovely wine. Pinot noir, the exalted grape of Burgundy, is memorable as the basis of some of the world’s greatest red wines. Pinot blanc, on the other hand, does not excite the imagination. It sounds a bit generic, and few examples immediately come to mind. Many people probably do not realize they are drinking pinot blanc in blends or under other names. For example, it is a popular grape in Italy, where it is called, logically enough, pinot bianco.

But the model in many ways is Alsace, where it is considered an everyday sort of grape producing a wine of considerable charm rather than nobility. That might sound like a grudging compliment, but there are times when a wine should be appealing rather than enthralling. Pinot blanc not only has a well-deserved place in the cellars and on the tables of wine lovers, but it can translate into a number of interesting styles depending on the winemaker’s intentions.

And the intentions at Lieb Family Cellars are very much in the Alsace tradition. Lieb’s pinot blanc is fermented entirely in stainless steel (almost certainly a nod to Alsace, where oak is rarely used), so the wine is more about the fruit than the process. The 2008 Reserve Pinot Blanc I tasted had a plump, juicy quality with delicate apple and melon aromas. It sells for $20 (with case discounts) on the Lieb Web site and at their tasting room. The winery recently released a 2007 Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine made exclusively from pinot blanc grapes. It is more similar to Crémant d’Alsace, the highly regarded sparkling wine from that region, than to a wine with the Champagne appellation. (Crémant d’Alsace is primarily pinot blanc, but several grape varieties are permitted under French regulations.)

Rather than comparisons, however, Lieb’s 2007 Blanc de Blancs should be judged on its own qualities—and it is a dry, delightful treat. I think it may be too soon to make the call on how important it might become in the vast world of sparkling wine and the smaller world of Long Island wine, but it is encouraging that the winery is so clearly interested in pursuing the production of a serious sparkler.

All Lieb wines are made at the Premium Wine Group, a custom crush facility in Mattituck, in which Mark Lieb is a partner, and where the Lieb Family Cellars tasting room is located. The crush facility is impressive—the largest on the East Coast, as I learned on a tour with John Morales, the Lieb Family Cellars director of sales. It is used by a number of vineyards on Long Island for a full range of services: crushing and fermenting, winemaking, bottling and storage.

Morales, like other people I have met in the wine trade, is so focused and so ardent about his work, that it is impossible to imagine him satisfied in a job not involving a bottle, a glass and a generous pour. He has managed to get the label into prominent New York restaurants, often for pouring by the glass. It’s smart marketing since once customers experiment with a glass of wine, they are more likely to order bottles off the list or buy them for home consumption. Such notable New York City restaurants as Le Bernardin, Blue Water Grill, Almond, Les Halles, and La Esquina now carry Lieb wines. Asiate, the elegant, high-profile restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel at the Time Warner Center in New York, pours the Blanc de Blancs.

Remarkably, the same 13 acres of vines with their initially uncertain provenance still produce all Lieb’s—and Long Island’s—pinot blanc.

Michael Braverman, editor at large of Hamptons magazine, lives in East Hampton and and writes primarily on wine, food and local history.