Island spirits: winter whites

REPORTER FILE PHOTO
This week, Ms. Dempsey, reports on local whites from the front lines of the vineyards.

One of the best treats in these winter months is a visit to one of the many wineries that dot the north and south forks. This time of year, many of them are still open, and not busy with the tours and wedding parties of the summer. The staff can take the time to explain as much or as little as you’d like to know about the wine-making process while providing the opportunity to sample their wines.

I recently stopped by the Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue to sample a white wine I’d heard great things about. Their Chenin Blanc has been praised by New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov: “Year in and year out, this is one of the best American chenin blancs around…delicious on almost any scale you choose.” Their winemaker, Kareem Massoud, describes it as the “lemonade of white wines.”

The Massoud family, which owns Paumanok, has taken over Palmer vineyards this year. While they plan to maintain the Palmer brand, which has a strong following, Mr. Massoud said they will streamline where appropriate, like producing Riesling under one label instead of both. One of Palmer’s top white wines has been the Albarino, which usually sells out. The Massouds had begun planning to plant the Albarino grapes last year, even before acquiring Palmer, so they anticipate being able to add to the production of this popular wine in a few years.

On my visit to Paumanok, I sampled the 2018 Chenin Blanc. It’s delicious: fresh and crisp, with flavors of grapefruit and pineapple, as well as more subtle fruit notes. It’s described as a welcome companion to seafood as well as spicier Asian and Mexican dishes.

And my ears perked up when I was told it’s especially suited to raw oysters – the Paumanok Vineyard serves oysters on weekends from Memorial Day through October to enjoy with their wines. A light snow was falling on the vineyard on the day I visited, but after a few sips of the Chenin Blanc I conjured up a lovely picture of myself enjoying this wine with a plate of Shelter Island’s Peeko oysters on a summer evening on the porch.

By the next morning, the snow had added a patchy layer of white to the monochromatic moonscape that is the Island in winter. My husband uttered a series of groans ranging from “Blah” to “Bleak.” My dream of Peekos on the sun-dappled porch had all but vanished.

I suggested an excursion to Sag Harbor for a hot lunch, after which we made our way down the road to Channing Daughters Winery on Scuttle Hole Road in Bridgehampton. In their tasting room, Anthony Persico was happy to share the backgrounds of some of their wines and offer tastings. I was especially interested in their Tocai Friulano, a white wine originally made in Italy. Channing Daughters is unique in producing this wine in America. Mr. Persico explained that the East End is perfect for this grape, an early ripener that matches the growing environment and length of season here.

A bone-dry wine with high acidity, somewhat similar to Sauvignon Blanc but with more green apple than grapefruit, the Tocai can hold its own with strong food flavors. The winemaker describes it as the “quintessential prosciutto wine” but also says it marries well with all our local clam dishes, from raw to pizza and pasta. Mr. Persico explained that the wine matched – actually, contrasted with – the disparate flavors of prosciutto and clams because there is “continuity of the profile.” By the time I left the vineyard, I had a bottle of Tocai and a plan.

When we got back to the Rock, we picked up some prosciutto and cheese at IGA. We would have them for appetizers, then order linguini and clams from Commander Cody. I introduced Mr. Tocai to Ms. Prosciutto and they made beautiful music together. It was like watching Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper at the Oscars. Later, when we dug into the pasta with clam sauce, I understood what Mr. Persico had explained earlier. Because of the acidic nature of the Tocai, he said, it cleanses the palate of the oily, garlicky clam flavors “so that the next bite of clam is new again.” I didn’t think it was possible to enhance my enjoyment of this meal, which is always great, but the man spoke the truth.

By the next morning, the skies were dumping snow on us again – but hey, we’d made it through one more winter night and I was one day closer to my Peekos on the porch.

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