Chardonnay. The mere mention of this polarizing grape elicits a response in most any wine drinker — be it cheerful enthusiasm or brooding disdain. To winemakers, ripe chardonnay grapes are akin to a luxurious block of pristine marble — beautiful in its natural state, but at the mercy of the artisan's whim and manipulation.
There are many choices to be made when crafting chardonnay. Stainless steel or barrel fermentation? How much new oak? How long to age in barrel? Allow malolactic fermentation or suppress? These are just a few of the dozens of decisions that quickly move through a winemakers mind.
Charles Massoud, co-owner and winemaker of Paumanok Vineyards
in Aquebogue, treats his grapes in a few different ways, also taking into account the growing and grape conditions of any given year.
Locally, there seems to be a bit of a shift away from overly oaked, "California-style" chardonnay. Instead, either wholly or partially steel-fermented, fresh-tasting wines are becoming more popular and more often made. Tasting three of Charles' chardonnays recently — from three vintages in three styles — two wines reinforce my personal preference for steel-born chardonnay.
That third wine — oh the third wine — is making me reconsider.
The newest and freshest of the trio, Paumanok's 2005 Festival Chardonnay ($13) is raised 100% in stainless steel tanks and malolactic fermentation, which converts tart malic acid (think green apple) into malic acid (think milk), was strictly avoided to preserve fruit flavors and freshness. This wine's nose is crisp and focused with pear, citrus zest and light mineral notes — almost reminiscent of a sauvignon blanc without the herbal character. Light body and gentle acidity join crisp apple and pear flavors on the palate move toward lemony tartness and wet stones on the finish. Many 2005 whites seem over-ripe in the fruit department, but not this lean and refreshing one. At $13, it's an ideal wine to serve this weekend at your Memorial Day party because it will go well with a variety of foods — particularly fish and shellfish where its flavors emulate, or even replace, the lemon juice you squeeze over top.
As its name suggests, Paumanok's 2003 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay ($18), was reared in oak barrels, making it a decidedly different wine in style and flavor. Noticeably darker in the glass, the nose is much less fruity, with toasty oak, hay and light butter mingling with subdued apple and pear. This wine is surprisingly light bodied with flavors of ripe apples and toasted marshmallows — and nice balancing acidity. The finish is medium-long and lemony. Well made and balanced, this is probably a very popular wine but I prefer the Festival bottling.
Fermented in new French oak barrels, Paumanok 2004 Grand Vintage Chardonnay ($30) has me questioning my own chardonnay preferences. In fact, it may be the best North Fork chardonnay I've tasted in years — and it's one that many winemakers in Burgundy should be jealous of.
Charles only makes Grand Vintage bottlings in the best years from the best fruit, and this is only the third GV chardonnay in Paumanok's history (1995 and 2000 were the others). While born and raised in oak like the 2003, the oak is much less obvious here. The nose is ripe with pineapple and mandarin orange aromas accented by toasted coconut. Expertly balanced with medium body and a creamy-yet-fresh mouthfeel, the flavors closely match the nose with an elongated, elegant finish. Relatively young, this 2004 is an outstanding wine that will surely improve as it matures.
There's a valuable lesson to be learned here. Don't blame the tools of winemaking (oak barrels) — blame the artisan.
Looking for something to do this holiday weekend? Several wineries, including The Old Field, Jamesport Vineyards
, Peconic Bay Winery, and Palmer Vineyards
are hosting live music and several other have special things planned.
Both forks of eastern Long Island are beautiful and bountiful places to visit Memorial Day weekend, if you're willing to wade through the crowds. Do so and you'll be rewarded with beautiful scenes, the year's first locally grown produce and, of course, wines of impressive quality and sophistication.