Island Spirits: Island vineyards

REPORTER FILE PHOTO
Island Spirits, a new column by Susan Carey Dempsey, debuts.

Among the many joys of living on our sheltered island, between the North and South Forks, are the fine vineyards that have burgeoned on the East End over the last four decades. Having learned how to take full advantage of our climate for growing grapes, the winemakers have continued to develop products that can stand on their own, not pale imitations of well-known wines from other regions.

At this time of year, I’m thinking of red wines (along with hot meals and a crackling fire). Cabernet Franc is one that has uniquely flourished on the East End, having been transplanted from its roots in France.

The North Fork, being slightly warmer than the South, is more hospitable to red wines than white. Several local vineyards have highly regarded Cabernet Francs.

Wines are described in their own kind of poetry, with a Cabernet Franc, for example, being praised for “a purity of black cherry and plum flavors here, but also meandering veins of animal, earth and herb that feel a bit savage and wild. Crisply composed, it finishes with delicate whispers of anise and cinnamon.”

That’s from a Wine Enthusiast review of Mattituck’s Macari 2014 Cabernet Franc.

These blurbs make the wine sound truly delicious, but what intrigues me more is how our regional wines can be paired with local foods. On a cold February night, what could be better than a meal of venison, which should be in ready supply on the Island, or a hearty beef dish? Happily, most of the region’s Cabernet Francs are recommended for just such pairings.

Preparing venison demands the addition of fruits and herbs to balance its strong flavor. I recall a winter many years ago when the Passionist Fathers still had a monastery here. The priests had been gifted with venison from, I assume, local hunters, and they shared some of their bounty with our family. Intrigued by the challenge, my father came up with a recipe using juniper berries to marinate the meat. The resulting stew had an aroma and flavor I can recall to this day. I took a pot of it back to college with me and savored the taste of Shelter Island venison for several more days.

There are some highly recommended local Cabernet Francs that would complement such a dish, such as the 2016 from Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue, but they can be pricey at about $45 a bottle. That’s fine if you’re a wine aficionado or you want a special gift for a host. There are others priced at about $22, from these and other wineries, but once you have an idea what you’re looking for, you can explore more inexpensive wines with the same qualities. The Lenz Merlot, with dark plum, red cherry and black currant notes, is described as a perfectly balanced everyday red wine at about $20.

While we might enjoy sampling our Long Island wines, there’s no need to ignore the many other options available. With the help of our local merchants, thankfully, you can find other red wines that won’t break the budget. (Remember, we’re going to have heating bills to pay.) A Cotes du Rhone or Valpolicella will work nicely, and there is a wide range of prices within those varieties.

Just remember that you’ll need a substantial red to hold its own with the hearty meat. No delicate whites or fragrant roses will work here. We will, however, be dealing with those in future columns.

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