Sign up for our Newsletter

A bottle of Paumanok Vineyards chenin blanc. (Credit: Vera Chinese)

Paumanok Vineyards’ chenin blanc is one of the great mysteries of the North Fork wine world. Why? Because despite all the success the Massoud family — who owns the Aquebogue vineyard —  has had with it, they remain the only Long Island winery to grow or make it.

By all accounts, it’s not tricky to work — at least no more so than any other grape in our sometimes challenging maritime climate. It ripens and performs consistently in the vineyard and doesn’t unique or special treatment or protocols.

Paumanok’s winemakers — first Charles Massoud and now his son Kareem — have been working with the grape long enough to understand how to get the most from it in the cellar, where it also doesn’t necessitate any special techniques or trickery.

Perhaps most importantly, chenin blanc is a big seller for the winery. It used to sell out before the end of every summer, even at $28 per bottle. But with new plantings in 2000, 2005 and 2012, production has risen to more than 2,700 cases in 2014. As a result, it lasts longer.

Still, it maintains near-cult status and sells briskly.

So, why isn’t anyone else growing or making chenin here?

Ask Kareem and he’ll say, “Good question.”

“It could be because chenin does not have the name recognition that other varieties do, like merlot and chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and so on. Otherwise, I’m not sure. We are happy to have a monopoly on it,” he said.

The story of how the Massouds came to grow their now 10 acres of chenin blanc starts in 1989, when Charles and his wife, Ursula, purchased an abandoned vineyard.

Even though the field had been neglected for many years, the vines were viable, though it was still a “gamble” in Charles’ mind.

“We started working on removing trees that had grown in the middle of many rows and it took us a few months to get it ready for the season,” he recalled.

There were 11 varieties growing in that 30-acre vineyard, including some chenin blanc. Charles asked the man who planted the vineyard why he had included the varietal in the first place, back in 1982.

“He told me that because chenin is a more prolific producer than chardonnay, and since under BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) rules [at the time] one could add up to 25 percent chenin blanc to chardonnay and still call it chardonnay,” the elder Massoud said. “That this was his way to cheat cash flow out of chardonnay.”

At that point, the Massouds’ experience with chenin blanc had been limited to jug wines then made in California — wines Charles refers to now as “flabby and totally uninteresting.”

They decided to pull out the chenin blanc, along with pinot noir, zinfandel, gewürztraminer and a bit of merlot. They ran out of time before they had finished ripping the chenin blanc out and decided to take care of the remaining vines that first season — mostly so it wouldn’t get sick and spread disease throughout the vineyard.

Uwe Michelfelder, a Paumanoke intern from Germany who is now a professor at the German oenology school Wiensberg, was managing the vineyard at the time. One day that summer he turned to Charles, pointed to the chenin blanc and said, “You know Charles, these vines look happy here. If I were you, I would give them a chance.”

So they did. The vines grew and the little bit of fruit that was produced that year was discarded.

The following year, Charles made wine from the fuller crop.

“We were stunned by the acidity,” he recalled.

“We started paying more attention and our excitement grew as we learned more about the grape,” he said. “In 1993 we even made a late harvest chenin blanc, and to this day there are people who still ask for it.”

Paumanok Vineyards planted an additional acre of chenin blanc in 2000 and added another four acres in 2005. In 2012 they added even more, planting a new clone of chenin blanc called 982. According to Kareem, it shares a lot of characteristics  with the clone they already grow, but it also “leans a little toward a classic Loire Valley-style chenin with some honey and wool notes.”

Charles calls his family’s singular success with chenin blanc on Long Island “an interesting accident.”

Other grape growers wish they were so lucky.

This story was originally published in the winter 2016 edition of the Long Island Wine Press

Lenn Thompson