Today’s wine review is brought to you by the letter “W,” the umlaut, and the Supreme Court of the United States. The ban on direct shipping from and to New York has been overturned, and there’s a lot of talk about whether it really did any good, but today I bring you proof: a hefty cardboard box of wines on my doorstep from Wölffer Estate Vineyards in Long Island, New York. Just a few short months ago, this box might have resulted in New York jail time, or at the very least some significant fines and yanking of licenses. Can you believe it?
Anyhow, this article is not about the idiocy of the former New York state shipping laws, it is about my first experience with wines from New York state. Or, rather, the first time that I’m paying attention. I took a vacation to New York about 8 years ago and had some wines from the Finger Lakes region, but didn’t take any notes, and subsequently I don’t remember a thing about them. The wines that I’m reviewing here, though, are certainly my first taste of wines from Long Island, and are even more exciting for that reason.
Wölffer Estate may not lay claim to having the first vineyards in the prime winegrowing region of Long Island (somewhere between – the same latitude as Naples and Madrid), but when its owner and founder Christian Wölffer planted 16 acres of vines in 1987 and built a winery a few years later, he was certainly the first major commercial winery. Wölffer is a serial entrepreneur that for years has had an estate near Sagaponack, which before he had ever imagined having a winery was focused on his other major love: thoroughbred horses. It’s not clear how exactly Wölffer got the idea in his head to start a winery, other than being a wine lover himself, but one day, it happened. Wölffer describes his start in the business as mostly a lark: “I had no goal, no exit strategy, and I didn’t know anything about making wine, I just liked to drink it.” At the time he began the project, Long Island was “unproven” as a wine area, which is to say that people knew you could grow grapes there, and some tiny amounts of wine was being made, but for the most part only the folks on Long Island really knew anything about it.
In some respects, you could say not a lot has changed in the intervening 18 years. For the most part, the broader wine drinking public still has not heard much of Long Island wines. Those who are serious consumers of wine and wine media, however, will have seen a rise in visibility, quality, and attention for these wines in the last decade. Certainly, there are a lot more wineries now on Long Island, and many of the wines are winning awards at a state and regional level, as well as being featured in the press.
Wölffer Estate can proudly say that it paved the way for much of this growth. The estate now covers 55 acres and has a fancy visitors facility and large winemaking operation that bottles approximately 14,000 cases of wine per year.
A year or two after the first vines were ready for harvest, Wölffer enlisted the help of German winemaker Roman Roth. Roth, who started studying winemaking in Germany at the young age of 16, came to Wölffer after stints at Saintsbury in California, Rosemount in Australia, and Winzerkeller Wiesloch in Germany. In 1992, when Roth arrived, the winery was still known as Sagpond Vineyards, and was making a single Chardonnay. Under Roth’s capable hand, the winery has gone from start-up to a finely tuned operation that has borne the Wölffer name for more than a decade.
Roth’s style is decidedly European in tendency, and the whole operation is influenced by this, from the vertical trellising of the vines, to the varietals the winery produces, to the choice of oak and taste profiles of the wines. The winery has become extremely well known for its Burgundian style Chardonnays and its Bordeaux-like Merlot and Cabernet Franc, especially the Premier Cru Merlot, which at $125 is Long Island’s most expensive wine.
Despite being one of the larger operations in the area, Wölffer continues very high quality winemaking practices, including reduced yields, always hand-picking and sorting the fruit, and smaller lot fermentations of its higher end wines. Some wines are also bottled without fining or filtration.
2003 Wölffer Estate “La Ferme Martin” Chardonnay
Light green-gold in the glass this wine has a fruity nose of cooked golden apples, candied lemon rind, and buttercups or some other light flower, all underscored with light hints of wood. In the mouth the wine is rather innocuous, with a light body and primary flavors of pears, lemon, and oak, which are pleasant enough, but somewhat flat in their expression. Score: 7.5. Cost: $13.50. Where to Buy?
2002 Wölffer Estate Reserve Chardonnay
A light golden green color in the glass, this wine has a surprisingly Burgundian nose of pastry cream, minerals, and hints of citrus. In the mouth it is smooth and balanced (though with a little less acid than I would like) and has a nice minerality that is often lacking in American Chardonnay. Its primary flavors are of lemon and grapefruit zest with hints of unripe apples. The wine could have more complexity and depth, but is pleasurable nonetheless. Score: 8.5. Cost: $20. Where to Buy?
2001 Wölffer Estate “Estate Selection” Chardonnay
Unfortunately I am unable to provide tasting notes for this wine as it suffered from an awful case of cork taint. Score: N/A. Cost: $27. Where to Buy?
2004 Wölffer Estate Rosé
A lovely perfect rose color in the glass, this wine has a very mineral rich nose with light hints of red fruit and wet wool aromas. In the mouth it has the tart flavors of rosehips with decent acidity (thankfully no sweetness) and a nice austere character that few American rosés manage to achieve. There is a slightly bitter quality to the finish. Score: 8.5. Cost: $13.50. Where to Buy?
2001 Wölffer Estate “La Ferme Martin” Merlot
Unfortunately I am unable to provide tasting notes for this wine as it suffered from an awful case of cork taint. Score: N/A. Cost: $13.50. Where to Buy?
2002 Wölffer Estate Reserve Merlot
A medium blood red in the glass, this wine has a nose of cherry, oak, and pencil lead aromas. In the mouth it is nicely balanced with fine tannins and primary flavors of bing cherries, earth and teak, with a bit of oak. The wine finishes somewhat flat and with slightly green tannins. Overall a well made wine, but lacking in some depth and complexity. Score: 8/8.5. Cost: $22. Where to Buy?
2001 Wölffer Estate “Estate Select” Reserve Merlot
Deep ruby in color with a good deal of crystalline sediment, this wine has a hearty nose of bing cherries, sawdust, saddle leather, and a hint of barnyard funk which dissipated over the course of about 20 minutes. In the mouth it is lush and rich with astonishingly Bordeaux-like characteristics. The primary flavors are of earth, tea, leather, graphite, redcurrant, plum, and cherries. The wine has a very fine tannic structure, and very restrained fruit that blossoms in a substantial finish. Very much NOT a California Merlot in every way, so if you like your wines fruity, this ain’t the one to drink, but excellent nonetheless. Clearly doing well with some bottle age on it, and I would expect that to continue. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $35. Where to Buy?
2004 Wölffer Estate Late Harvest Chardonnay Dessert Wine
Light green-gold in the glass with moderate viscosity, this wine has a very tropical nose of pineapple and papaya aromas. In the mouth it has a surprising amount of acidity (though not quite enough for my taste) and fairly linear flavors of pineapple and honey that taper into a moderate finish. A pleasant, if not very complex wine, and one that could easily have become syrupy in the wrong hands. Score: 8.5. Cost: $35 (375ml). Where to Buy?
In addition to the above wines, the estate makes a Cabernet Franc, the aforementioned limited edition Merlot, a Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, a sparkling wine, and an apple wine.
Full disclosure: These wines were sent to me as press samples, no doubt at the kind urging of Lenndevours.