July 2006

Time in a Bottle

One day perhaps, Christopher Tracy, the winemaker at Channing Daughters, will take the easier road and make larger quantities of fewer wines. Until then however we can all enjoy the results of Mr. Tracy’s restless and passionate quest to produce small quantities of wine from unusual grapes or small quantities of wines that are unconventional expressions of more common grapes. 

For several reasons, this seemed the perfect time to take a critical look at Mr. Tracy’s current work with white wines. To begin, Mr. Tracy has earned a reputation over the past for years for illustrating what Long Island is capable of doing with white wine grapes. Second, the harvest of 2005 was arguable the best we’ve had on Long Island. Local wineries, including Channing Daughters are now releasing white wines from this vintage. 

Sylvanus is the name of a field at Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton and also the name of a wine. Instead of emphasizing the traits of a varietal or even a method of winemaking, Mr. Tracy’s focus is on terroir, the representation of time and place in a taste of wine. The three components of Sylvanus (muscat ottanel, pinot grigio, and pinot Bianco) are grown, harvested and vinified tog tether. 

It’s a blend that begins in the earth, and continues to the glass. The idea is captivating, and so is the result; harmonious, smooth, serene, almost pastoral in its composure. No one element jumps out. Nothing ruffles the silky balance of this well-bred wine. There were 208 cases of Sylvanus produced; it sells for $24 at the winery. 

The Friuli region of Northeast Italy has been a major influence on Mr. Tracy’s winemaking, and the simply named Vino Bianco ($29) is perhaps his most highly developed and subtle interpretation. A blend of four white varieties, medium-bodied and complex, this is a wine with a rhythmical, quickening edge to it. The name suggests country charm but the taste is urbane and sophisticated. 

Tocai is a grape of Friuli, hardly grown elsewhere, but Mr. Tracy has made it one of his signature tastes. It’s an easy wine to like-wait, make that love. I go back to it each year as it is released. Very aromatic, with citrus, floral and pear scents, intricate, sensual and excellent with many foods. Channing’s 2005 Tocai Friulano is exceptional-not merely by its rarity but also by its quality. 

The 146 cases were bottled, as Mr. Tracy points out, on Cinco de Mayo. I might add that at $24 per bottle it is numero uno for value and pleasure. 

Other new 2005 white wine releases from Channing Daughters include: Cuvee Tropical chardonnay ($17); Pinot Grigio ($18, now sold out); Sauvignon, 76 percent sauvignon Blanc, 24 percent chardonnay ($24); Scuttlehole Chardonnay, reliable, delicious and only $14. 

The raw material of the 2005 harvest was almost ideal. Excellence had to be the challenge for the winemaker on Long Island, and Mr. Tracy has taken that challenge seriously and produced a group of outstanding white wines.

New York State: Baby You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet

Channing Daughters, under the direction of co-owner and Long Island viticultural veteran Larry Perrine and husband-wife winemaking team Christopher Tracy and Alison Dubin, is bottling some of the most intriguing and delightful wines on Long Island, utilizing fruit from closely affiliated North Fork growers as well as from Walter and Molly Channing's South Fork "Home Farm." Like many of the best wines from Long Island, in addition to being well worth consumers' attention solely on their gustatory merits, these are also capable of raising the temperature in a blind tasting. "We really feel that Long Island is a spectacular white wine district year in and year out," says Christopher Tracy, "whereas red wines are more difficult," and for the latter the team here envisions blends incorporating such exotics as Blaufrankisch, Dornfelder and Refosco. Tracy characterizes his methodology as "between low tech and no tech," and even those wines that are lightly filtered are still moved entirely by gravity. Production of the whites here so far rarely exceeds 200 cases per bottling, so interested parties should get on the winery's mailing list. 

Climatic similarities along with inspiration at the hands of some of that region's foremost viticulturi prompted planting of Friulian grapes at Channing Daughters which end up in a wide range of wines, several of which were memorable. The 2004 Sylvanus, from 60% Muscat Ottanel, 20% Pinot Grigio and 20% Pinot Bianco grown and vinified together and aged briefly in older French and Slovenian barrels is predictably (given the ways of that variety) dominated by apricot and peach aromas of Muscat Ottonel. On the palate, the wine offers a lovely exchange of creaminess, hints of barrel, and juicy pit fruit and melon flavors, finishing with brown spices and a hit of apricot kernel bitterness that add lingering complexity. An aromatic surge of sage, passion fruit, and lemon worthy of Marlborough announces the newly-bottled 2005 Sauvignon Blanc, sourced from 30-year-old vines in Mudd Vinyeard on the North Fork. In the mouth, this wine - vinified in stainless steel save for one small barrel component - offers juicy citricity, a waxy texture, and underlying hints of chalk dust, all leading to a bright, persistent finish. The 2005 Pinot Grigio from the Channing estate is vinified in stainless steel "barrels" - 55-gallon vessels ideal for enhancing lees contact - as well as in one new Slovenian hogshead. Aromas of peaches, nutmeg, wood smoke, and chamomile lead to a creamy, subtly oily palate with hints of fruit pit bitterness playing against notions of honey and rich peach and pear nectar. An evocatively fruit- and spice-filled finish completes the picture of what will certainly be an outstanding value among its type. (This wine was assembled but not yet bottled at the time I tasted it.) A 2004 Tocai Friulano, vinified in older barriques, smells of flowers, pungent toasted grain, honey, almonds, and lanolin. In the mouth, fresh lime, honey and a faintly bitter hint of quinine are wreathed with floral and smoky pungent nuances that truly put one in mind of "the original Tokaj" (i.e. Furmint). A balance of brightness and textural richness is comparable to that of a number of other wines from Channing Daughters, but in this instance, yet more striking. Flowers, resin, citrus, honey, and lanolin really stick to the gums. "Tocai has been a thrill," says Tracy. 

"It isn't easy to grow and it doesn't behave so well in the cellar - it's a little nuts. But the wine can have such a great character." In fact, this grape is so sensitive to its environment that the team here has to pick their small parcel in three blocks in order to try to capture the fruit at optimum flavor. They certainly seem to have succeeded in this instance. 

The 2004 Meditazione, a wine inspired by Jasko Gravner (don't be surprised to see amphora here next!), unites Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Pinot Grigio, Tocai Friulano, Malvasia Bianca, and Muscat Ottonel. Toasted almond, apricot jam, caraway, sweet herbs, and a slightly stinky yet intriguing, narcissus-like floral aroma rise from the glass. An oily, rich palate features distilled herbal essences, pit fruits, brown spices, and a resinous hint of (a single new Slovenian) oak. A pungent pit fruit, spice and herb finish reinforces the impression of outstanding concentration and of a welter of flavors that may simply need a bit more time to organize themselves.