Ask any vintner on the North Fork — or really, any region grapes are grown — about what makes a great wine and they’ll likely gaze out, gesture toward the vines and opine some iteration of ‘great wine starts in the vineyard.’
It sounds like a humble deflection, but it’s true. A cool maritime climate, with hot summer afternoons countered by gentle sea breezes blanketing the landscape, sandy glacial soils and biodynamic farming techniques all contribute to our region’s terroir.
At any given winery, you can taste your way through different varietal wines that showcase North Fork character. Take merlot for example, the most widely planted red grape in the region.
“[It] should taste different from this vineyard to that vineyard to that vineyard because the soil itself can be quite different,” explained Nico Bossey, an assistant winemaker at RG|NY in Riverhead.
“We’re minimal intervention, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not working on it, trying to perfect the wine and bring out those flavors as best as possible.”
The single variety can yield a multitude of different wines, from a 100% varietal merlot to a rosé, a sparkling wine or white merlot, which uses the deep purple grape in the style of a white wine with no skin contact.
Merlot also happens to be the primary grape in RG|NY’s Tinto, a signature balanced blend of red berries, dark chocolate and spice.
Red blends are somewhat of a puzzling category. In most wine shops, you may have noticed a growing selection of mass-marketed, miscellaneous blends that you can find on the cheap.
On the other hand, some of the finest (and priciest) Bordeaux wines are also blends of primarily merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc with malbec and petit verdot. New World wine labels are a bit more transparent, not reliant on consumers to associate geographic regions with what’s inside each bottle.
Blends also vary from year to year.
“Each year, a certain grape is going to do a little bit better than another. By blending, you’re able to highlight that grape and show off what did best that year in your vineyard,” Nico said.
My interest was piqued, as someone whose go-to Friday night plans include a pizza and bottle of a red blend. So I jumped at the chance to learn about blending — and create my very own — during an experiential session offered at RG|NY.
I met Nico on an unseasonably warm, mid-May afternoon under a canopy on the tasting field at the Riverhead winery. We were joined by Brianna, who has been working in the tasting room since July and is eager to learn more about wine, along with her friends Kelly and Christian.
Nico began the session with an overview of the sprawling property, which, like virtually every Long Island vineyard, was first a potato farm. It was eventually purchased by the Entenmann family, who raised Thoroughbreds there and planted the first vines as Martha Clara Vineyards in 1996.
The vineyard and estate were acquired by the Rivero-González family, an acclaimed Mexican winemaking family that produces in Parras, Coahuila, in 2018. The winery reopened as RG|NY the following year.
His foray into wine is also an interesting journey. The 24-year-old grew up just around the block, first working as a busboy at the property when it was still Martha Clara.
During summers home from SUNY Albany, where he studied anthropology, he returned to work there, over time moving up to work in the tasting room as a server.
How does a busboy become the assistant winemaker?
“Lots of luck — and saying ‘yes,’” Nico explained, recalling how former winemaker Lilia Pérez and commercial manager Paulo Hernandez de Toledo encouraged him along the way.
Since then, he’s been enamored by the process both in a technical sense and, like a true anthropologist, at the intricacies and complexities of wine in the context of history, culture and society.
After a brief history and introductions, it was time for us wannabe winemakers to get to work.
We each took our place at the table marked by a paper placemat and four small glasses, a pencil and space for note taking. Nico guided us through a tasting of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and malbec that would eventually become part of our blends.
He urged us to consider whether the wines were soft and supple, complex or bold.
I described the merlot as “velvety” with a hint of tart cherry, while the cabernet franc had light, jammy fruit. The cabernet sauvignon had a note of oaky vanilla and the malbec both floral and spicy aromas.
It’s no surprise that I was drawn to the cabernet franc. It is, after all, my favorite grape, which I discovered while working in a tasting room for several seasons before finally putting my journalism degree to use.
Nico then invited us to begin blending, asking us to consider what qualities we liked or didn’t about each wine as he handed us each a 250 mL beaker that instantly transported me back to high school chemistry lab.
There were a few moments of silence as someone remarked that it felt almost illegal to be mixing the wines together — like we were seven years old again, being scolded by our mothers for mixing “potions” out of soaps and shampoos in the bathroom.
Soon enough, we were each pouring, pondering, swirling. It may have felt like a science experiment at the beginning, but there wasn’t one method or result we were confined to in order to get high marks. That’s the beauty, I suppose. It’s all subjective.
After pouring a base of 150mL cabernet franc, I added another 50 merlot, 25 mL of cabernet sauvignon and 25 mL of malbec.
We wrote down the numbers, looked at each other, clinked our beakers together and took a sip.
As we did, Nico cautioned that people seldom enjoy their first creation.
Judging by my sour face, he was right.
We began adjusting our blends to enhance certain flavors, aromas; like recipe testing for the perfect batch of chocolate chip cookies, adjusting the amount of cinnamon in banana bread, or adding salt to finish a dish.
“A lot of these grapes have really different flavors, but they’re relatively complementary,” Nico said. “They all work together to develop their own unique flavor.”
After much trial and error, I settled on a blend of 50% merlot, followed by 25% cabernet franc, 17% cabernet sauvignon and just 8% malbec, balancing the lush, soft fruit with a darker, smoky cacao note.
Brianna favored the malbec, using 75% in her blend, Kelly went for a 75% merlot, 25% cabernet blend — surprising, she said, since merlot wasn’t her favorite of the individual ingredients — and Christian’s blend of 50% merlot and 50% cabernet sauvignon was appropriately titled: ‘Split Decision.’
We handed in our notes to Nico, who descended into the wine cellar. He emerged minutes later with each of our blends captured in a bottle and ready for us to pencil in the name, date and percentages.
I ultimately settled on ‘el encanto,’ the charm in Spanish — no, not after the hit Disney movie, but a nod to the third time being the charm for this blend.
As our session ended, the four of us contemplated whether this is how winemakers actually feel as they blend, bottle and ultimately release on the market. We were left with a new appreciation for the art form.
Experiences, from blending, guided tastings, winemaker tours, stomping and harvest sessions have become a central part of RG|NY’s mission.
“You’re going to have a good time, drinking with your friends, no matter what,” Nico said. “But we also want you to learn a thing or two. I want people to realize how much goes into wine, but at the same time how approachable it can be. Anyone can learn to taste wine and learn what to look for.”
Since his first experience assisting with winemaking in 2019, Nico has since started an online winemaker certificate through UC Davis. But he too once knew nothing about wine and credits Lilia in large part for instilling her wisdom on him. “There was never a gatekeeping of knowledge,” Nico said. “Every new thing she found, she wanted to share.”
Since delving into winemaking, Nico said he’s found that it’s a way to express creativity, especially when blending. “It’s an interesting blend of science and art,” he said.
The writer in me also knows this to be true: blends are a form of storytelling.
When I worked in wine, I most looked forward to the annual field blend our winemaker would craft; each year varied based on vineyard yields, weather and other factors.
After class ends, I admire the landscape for a moment. The tasting room, which was abuzz with activity on the weekday afternoon I visited, was now hushed.
Behind me in the vineyard, the buds have just started to “burst,” unfurling from their winter dormancy and signaling the sudden beginning of a new life cycle.
I sip the last of my concoction and think about what stories the 2022 vintage will tell; the one I’ll tell when I eventually uncork my own bottle about how it came to be.
Venture beyond the tasting room on your next trip to North Fork wine country with these immersive winery experiences:
THE BLENDING EXPERIENCE
Be your own winemaker during the 90-minute blending session at RG|NY, which includes tastings and artisanal snacks. Includes a custom bottle of wine. Reservations can be made at RG|NYwine.com and the experience is also available to-go, with activity mats, samples and a bottle of their Scielo Tinto.
Terra Vite North Fork Winery & Vineyard
Education is at the heart of experiences offered at this Manor Lane vineyard. They host a variety of classes that cover the basics of tasting and pairing wine and other fermented delights like craft beer. There are also regular events like Brine & Wine, which teaches you the ins and outs of how to shuck oysters.
A full calendar of classes and events is available at terravitevineyard.com.
Peconic Bay Vineyards
You can ride through the vines in style in an electric, open-air Moke vehicle as you explore the vineyards. The experience includes an educational overview of the process and a tasting of wines including viognier, chardonnay and riesling at their corresponding vineyard blocks.
VIP BLENDING SESSION
This immersive experience provides a behind the scenes look at the winemaking process hosted by Anthony Sannino. The course begins with a full tour of the vineyard, wine production facility and barrel cellar. Throughout the tour, you’ll taste through their current wine lineup, enjoy a light lunch and learn how to blend a custom bottle of red wine to take home. Reservations for the class, which runs approximately three hours, can be made at sanninovineyard.com.
Castello di Borghese
Arrange for a private tour and tasting hosted by owner Giovanni Borghese. You’ll begin in the vineyard with a lesson on what stage of life the vines are in, tour their private wine cellar and barrel hall and enjoy the picturesque grounds. A maximum of six people are permitted per tour and advanced reservations are required. Bookings and inquiries can be made by calling 631-734-5111.