There’s a certain plasticity to grape varieties: They become different things in different parts of the world. Cabernet in California is an ocean and a continent away from cabernet on the left bank of the Garonne River in Bordeaux. The sauvignon blanc from Marlborough in New Zealand might as well come halfway around the world from the sauvignon blanc grown and produced just south of that cabernet in Bordeaux.
(Wait, it is a half a world away.)
In a newish region like Long Island, the trick is to honor what the grapes can do here while paying homage to what has been successful in other parts of the world, to get around that anxiety of influence, except in this case one can drink the poetry.
Gary Madden of Lieb Family Cellars feels little anxiety about the winery’s new release: the 2010 Pinot Blanc in the style of Alsace, where the grape is one of the region’s four noble varieties.
Lieb is the only producer on the East End that bottles a single varietal pinot blanc; it’s become their signature, and so far they’ve done it in an all-dry style—during fermentation all the sugar in the grape must is turned into CO2 and alcohol—and as a sparkling wine.
In the Alsace region of France, low rainfall and south-facing slopes result in reliably ripe grapes. Reliable and ripe are not two words we can use together on Long Island, but in 2010 everyone could. It was a beautiful growing season and Madden saw the opportunity to make a pinot blanc like one finds in Alsace, higher in alcohol and a bit sweet: not all the sugar is converted into alcohol, a little is left to give the wine a bigger mouthfeel. Thus the wine goes better with cool weather dishes (not much red is grown in the region).
Lieb makes their wine at Premium Wine Group in Mattituck, where Mark Lieb is a partner with Russell Hearn, who serves as the consulting winemaker for all their wines. Madden is the general manager.
Lieb and his wife, Kathy, bought their vineyards in 1992, and up until 1999 sold their grapes to other wineries. In 2000 the first wines were released under their own label. The 2010 10th Anniversary Pinot Blanc commemorates that. The wine is sold in a fluted bottle, like the ones found in Alsace, with the added modernity of a screw cap. A pale straw color, the wine is bright and clear; it smells like super-ripe pear with candied pineapple and white pepper. The wine is spicy and lively in the mouth with tropical fruits and the pleasant heaviness one gets from residual sugar. The wine, however, has enough acid that it doesn’t directly come across as sweet. It’s balanced.
Madden fell in love with the style on a trip through Alsace years ago. A longtime fan and owner of Terverun shepherds, named after a town in Belgium, he couldn’t complete his trip, which started in Paris, without visiting Alsace. “I was a red wine drinker before that,” he says. “It made me re-evaluate. It changed my palate.”
Unfortunately, due to the short, wet growing season of 2011, Madden doesn’t see a pinot blanc in this style coming out next year. But there are 2010s still at the tasting room in Mattituck. Get them for the winter stews, oyster pan roasts and chowders that are best eaten in front of a fire.