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When Jamesport Vineyards winemaker Dean Babiar arrived in 2014 as harvest was winding down — everything was picked except for riesling for late harvest dessert wine — it was, of course, news. Any winemaker change is news in a relatively small region like Long Island. Looking back, it probably should have been bigger news. 

In a region with more than 50 wineries/labels but only roughly a couple dozen winemakers the last time I counted, new winemaking talent coming to the region is important and all too rare.

Babiar’s impact on the wines has been significant and intentional. He has worked and continues to work closely with owner-grower Ron Goerler Jr. to change things both in the vineyard and in the cellar. It absolutely shows in the wines.

“I’m pushing for brighter wines. A focus on aromatics,” he told me as we tasted through barrels and tanks of in-progress wines, some of which will be bottled soon.

To get there, Babiar is working to revamp his barrel program to move away from new, small oak barrels toward using larger, older wood vessels. The result is fewer overt oak flavors and fresher, more pure expression of North Fork terroir.

Fresher doesn’t mean lighter, though. Not at all. They’ve reduced yields in the vineyard as well.

“That’s the number one thing to look at for quality,” Babiar told me. The 2017 red wines are dark and concentrated — thanks in part to extended time on the grape skins — and well structured without being heavy or tiresome.

Dean Babiar at Jamesport Vineyards in 2015. (Credit: Vera Chinese)

Jamesport is also experimenting with new varieties. They’ve had success with albariño already and are planting new varieties in the spring and moving forward. He mentioned Italian white varieties like vermentino as well as Italian reds like lagrein and teroldego, which he’s already working with, purchasing it from a local vineyard.

All of the red wines are now made with ambient yeasts, meaning that Babiar doesn’t add commercially propagated strains. He also air-dried some of that lagrein fruit in 2017, resulting in an amarone-style wine that is admittedly powerful and probably higher in alcohol than almost any red wine ever made on Long Island, but it’s also expressive, unique and delicious. It won’t be released for at least another year, but it will be a wine worth seeking out.

So, too, will a 2018 orange wine, a white wine made like a red wine — with extended time on the skins — made from an estate riesling block. The riesling clone comes from Georgia — the country, not the state. Orange wines are common in Georgia, so it just makes sense. Babiar told me that the lees (the spent yeast particles in the bottom of a barrel or tank) “taste like an orange Creamsicle.” The wine itself, which is sitting in a large barrel right now, has the marmalade, floral and dried-apricot qualities many orange wines have, without being too earthy or funky. Think of it as an orange wine for people who haven’t had one before.

I tasted a lot of wine with Babiar over the course of the few hours we spent together. Everything was at least good, but many of the wines were great. Again, the 2017 reds — across the board — impressed. Two different 2017 cabernet franc lots, one from vines that don’t exist anymore, both showed concentration while remaining lithe with fine tannins and subtle herbal qualities. I loved a 2017 petit verdot that is spicy and dark and is already showing greater length and complexity than most local examples. A blend of petit verdot and teroldego from 2017 may have been the best wine I put in my mouth all day.

You may have read — maybe even in this column — about the challenges of the 2018 vintage. I didn’t taste any 2018 reds, so I can’t offer any thoughts on those, but if Jamesport’s 2018 whites are an indicator for how the rest of the region fares, I’m less worried than I was before. The sauvignon blanc is perhaps a little leaner than typical, but it’s got plenty of ripe tropical and citrus fruits and ends with juicy peach and a nice bit of acidity. Acid hounds — like me — will love the 2018 albariño for its huge aromas, tropical fruit flavors and edgy acidity.

Of the currently available wines, I thought the newly released 2017 riesling pet-nat, the 2015 Thimeo blend of merlot and cabernet franc and the 2014 Late Harvest Riesling — the first wine Babiar made from start to finish at Jamesport — were the standouts.

Jamesport Vineyards is back on the “must visit” tasting room list and things appear to only be getting better.

Lenn Thompson has been writing about American wine — with a focus on New York — for nearly 15 years. After running for 12 years, he launched in 2016 and The Cork Report Podcast soon after. He lives in Miller Place with his wife and two children.