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Our Lenn Thompson sampled nearly 40 bottles of Long Island chardonnay for this story. (Credit: Lenn Thompson)

For the last five years of the decade I’ve spent writing about wine, I’ve largely ignored most Long Island chardonnay. Rarely tasted it, let alone drank it. Particularly if it was raised in an oak barrel.

Sure, some unoaked Long island chardonnay made it into my glass — it’s bound to happen with so much of it around — but why bother with those when there are other white wines available that are so much more interesting and dynamic?

I’ve gained a reputation among local wine folks for — among other things, I’m sure — my perceived dislike of this particular varietal.

I say “perceived” because it’s a bit more nuanced than just, “Lenn doesn’t like chardonnay.” While it’s true that I don’t enjoy weighty, buttery, vanilla-soaked, heavy oak footprint chardonnay, I don’t lay that at the feet of the grape itself. That’s the winemaker and what he or she is choosing to do with the grapes once they’re picked. It’s also about how chardonnay is grown, and where.

Some of the most interesting and exciting wine experiences of my life have centered on white Burgundy and Chablis (the real stuff). That’s chardonnay. Heck, when I first started drinking wine regularly in graduate school, it was often cheap Australian chardonnay. Black Opal and Blue Marlin were favorites. I’ve long since moved beyond those mass-produced, soulless industrial wines, but still, I don’t have any innate disdain for the grape.

Instead, I turned my back on Long Island chardonnay because it just wasn’t compelling. Even the undeniably well-made stuff never struck me as distinctive or uniquely Long Island. It lacked expression of terroir.

If you want the hedonistic, over-the-top style, you’ll find better (and often more affordable) versions in California. Prefer the minerally, focused style? The French — again, Burgundy and Chablis — usually do it better.

So, it wasn’t that I hated, or even disliked, chardonnay. I just didn’t care about it.

Then a friend asked (I’m paraphrasing a little): “How can you be the go-to ‘New York wine guy’ if you ignore all of the chardonnay grown and made here?”

He was right, of course, so I decided that in 2016 I’d give local chardonnay another chance — with an open mind and an open palate.

A few weeks ago, I tasted 38 bottles of Long Island chardonnay over the course of four days, all from the 2013 and 2014 vintages. I tasted wines that were fermented in steel, old oak, new oak and combinations of the three. Some underwent malolactic fermentation, the process during which tart-tasting malic acid, naturally present in the grape, is converted to softer-tasting lactic acid. Think of the difference between green apple acidity and the acidity found in milk. I tasted wines where it was strictly avoided. My focus wasn’t so much on finding “the best” wines. Instead, I wanted to investigate what Long Island chardonnay is — the things the wines have in common, how they differ, etc.

I didn’t taste every chardonnay, of course, so maybe my generalized findings aren’t fair in every case, but I did like several of the wines well enough and I was pleasantly surprised by some of what I tasted. As I look back over my notes, five truths bubble to the surface.

Truth #1: Stainless Steel Chardonnay is Simple Picnic Fodder

The little local chardonnay that I’ve been drinking? It’s not really indicative of what Long Island chardonnay can be. Even the really good wines, while brisk and refreshing, are high-strung, narrow and one-dimensional. Make no mistake, they can be great on a hot summer day, with local fish or on the beach, but all except the best lack depth and complexity. Two wines in this category stood out: Macari Vineyards 2013 Estate Chardonnay, which had some floral and gritty pear character to go along with the lemon-lime I found in many of the steel chardonnays, and the Anthony Nappa Wines 2013 Sciardonne, which is fuller bodied — fat, even — and has a spicy, nutty edge.

Truth #2: To Shine Brightest, Long Island Chardonnay Needs Barrel Time

I never thought I’d type that — or even think it — but it’s true. Time in oak barrels allows these wines to relax a bit, unwind and become more mouth-filling, rich and complex. It’s about air transfer, not the oak itself (which we’ll get to in a minute). There are quite a few wines that I want to call out in this category, including both the 2013 and 2014 from Bedell Cellars, Coffee Pot Cellars 2013 Chardonnay, Paumanok 2013 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay, McCall Wines 2013 Reserve Chardonnay, Macari 2013 Reserve Chardonnay, Wölffer Estate Vineyard 2013 Chardonnay and Raphael 2014 First Label Chardonnay. Each of these wines lead us into …

Truth #3: The “Oaky” Long Island Chardonnays are Less Oaky Today

Local winemakers have seemingly scaled way back on their use of new oak — either through shorter periods of time in the oak or only a small percentage of the barrels being new. (After a few years, the barrels no longer impart flavor.) While I tasted a lot of raw wood flavors in the past, those have been replaced by more nuanced notes of nuts, spice and toasty yeast. What do you think pairs better with food — an unfinished pine two-by-four or toasted walnuts? Only one of the wines I tasted was obviously and blatantly over-oaked. That wouldn’t have been true five years ago.

Truth #4: Natural or Not, They Have Great Acidity

Opulent, soft chardonnay is tiring to drink. It feels heavy and lifeless in the mouth and doesn’t work with food at all. Luckily, all but a couple of the local chardonnays I tasted were well balanced with fresh acidity. I suspect that some of that acidity was added during the winemaking process, but better than a flabby end result.

Truth #5: Long Island Chardonnay Has Never Been Better … But 

Chardonnay is an important grape to the local wine industry. It’s the most-planted white wine grape (by a wide margin) and because it’s expensive to rip out productive vines and re-plant with something else that will take three to four years to produce wine, it’s not going anywhere.

That said, no matter how good some of the wines are, Long Island chardonnay is still somewhat hard to get excited about.

It still isn’t a wine I’m going to seek out over some of the other white wines being made here.

But they’ve come a long way. And some are certainly worth reconsidering.

This story was originally featured in the spring 2016 edition of the Long Island Wine Press