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Asked his opinion of Long Island as a winemaking region, renowned French oenologist Stéphane Toutoundji said he believes the area shows a lot of promise. 

“It will be interesting to keep an eye on this part of the United States,” Mr. Toutoundji said in an interview last Wednesday morning. “The winemaking style is very traditional, with a bit of oak – not too much.”

Mr. Toutoundji is in a good position to know. He started making wine in 1988 and became a partner at the Gilles Pauquet Laboratory in Libourne, France, in 2002. The lab, now called Oenteam, provides wine analysis services for 250 to 300 wine estates, and Mr. Toutoundji offers advice to 55 chateaus across Bordeaux.

Last week, the North Fork had the chance to receive some of Mr. Toutoundji’s touted expertise. Having been approached by the Cutchogue organization Merliance (formerly the Long Island Merlot Alliance), Mr. Toutoundji spent three days consulting with the six East End wineries that make up the group, founded in 2005 to improve the quality of local merlots.

Of those wineries, five are on the North Fork: Clovis Point and Sherwood House Vineyards, both in Jamesport; T’Jara, in Mattituck; McCall Wines, in Cutchogue; and Raphael, in Peconic. The sixth, Wölffer Estates, is in Sagaponack.

“This is the second year Merliance has brought a consultant in to meet with their members,” said executive director Donnell Stires. “It’s a benefit to our members to be able to consult with someone from a similar growing region.”

So, how are North Fork vineyards and wineries doing? Mr. Toutoundji shared his thoughts and offered some helpful advice.

On local vineyards: “The vineyards are in good shape, but compared to Bordeaux, they’re very young so sometimes you have a lack of fruit.”

On tasting rooms: “I’m very impressed by them. In France there are no tasting rooms or shops. Nobody cares about who comes.”

On comparing red wines from Bordeaux with those from the East End:  “The fruit flavor is not the same [as Bordeaux], but the style is there. The wood is well integrated in the wine. It’s well balanced. It’s very traditional.”

On the best way to enjoy a bottle of red wine: “If you want to appreciate the wine when it’s young, the best thing to do is put it in a carafe to let it breathe. It will make it more flowery and more drinkable.”

On eating and drinking: “Don’t have heavy red wines with food – it won’t be balanced. Drink it by itself.”

On corks versus twist-off caps: “Twist-off caps are very good for whites, rosés and easy drinking reds, but not for aging [red] wine in your cellar. Corks keep the oxygen in and produce a nice bouquet.”

On what makes a good bottle of wine: “The key is to have very ripe fruit.”

On the weather: “Weather is one of the biggest issues of winemaking. The best thing is to have a bit of rain in July and August and then nothing because it lets the grapes mature and grow.”

On merlot, Long Island’s ‘signature grape’: “For the main wines here I think merlot is very interesting. I think it’s the most important.”

On other grapes he thinks will thrive on the North Fork: “I think it’s a good area for petit verdot and cabernet franc. By itself petit verdot is doing very well because it’s on the peppery side, is very smooth and soft and has a very dark color.”

On local winemakers and vineyard managers: “What is very surprising here is the passion of the owners and the winemakers to make the best quality wines.”

RACHEL YOUNG PHOTO | Oenologist Stéphane Toutoundji in front of the vineyards at Raphael in Peconic.
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