12/12/19 6:00am

“Sparkling doesn’t have to be a celebratory wine… It should be drunk more often,” said Russell Hearn. (Credit: David Benthal)

Few things — with apologies to the Times Square ball — signal the start of a new year quite like the pop of a cork and the fizz of bubbles in your glass.

Sparkling wine, as it’s referred to when produced outside France’s Champagne region, is a great celebratory wine everywhere — not just here on the North Fork, where it’s poured at vineyard weddings, restaurant dinners and in tasting flights at wineries.

The wine’s stranglehold on the holidays — let’s face it, we’re just as likely to pour it at Christmas dinner as we are on New Year’s Eve — has a lot to do with how quickly it needs to be consumed, according to Lieb Cellars winemaker Russell Hearn.

“It lends its self to sharing over a meal with friends,” he said, noting that, unlike other wines, you can’t just store it in the refrigerator after opening.

Even if its shelf life is shorter than other wines, there’s still a great degree of care that goes into creating your favorite local bottle of bubbly, winemakers explained.

Several methods are used to produce sparkling wines, all of them requiring a second fermentation. The Charmat Method, in which the second fermentation occurs in a tank, is the less costly way. Some still wines are even directly injected with carbon dioxide to create the bubbles.

Méthode Champenoise, on the other hand, involves a secondary fermentation in the bottle and is the method preferred by most local winemakers. It is a years-long process that, as the name suggests, mimics the Champagne region’s traditional style. The catalysis of the secondary fermentation is the addition of a sugar and yeast mixture to still wine, which is then capped with a bottle cap similar to the ones found on old-fashioned soda bottles (the cork comes later). the yeast consumes the sugar, resulting in carbon dioxide becoming trapped inside the bottle, which gives the wine its effervescence.

(Credit: David Benthal)

“Méthode Champenoise means quality,” said sparkling pointe’s French-born winemaker Gilles Martin, who employs this method exclusively to create all of the Southold winery’s products. “It retains carbonation in the wine longer than the Charmat Method or directly injected carbonation methods. Méthode Champenoise wine develops a lot of character and toastiness from the time spent in the bottle.”

Méthode Champenoise is ideally suited to the North Fork’s cooler climate, Hearn noted. Grapes used in sparkling wines are hand-harvested first and are deliberately underripe to ensure low sugar and high acid content. The sugar level is purposefully kept lower than for regular still wines because the second fermentation requires added sugars that in turn drive up ABV. The still wines used as a starter for the sparkling are roughly 10% ABV. By the time Méthode Champenoise is complete, the wines are in the desirable 12% range.

“Sparkling wines need cool climates because you don’t want the grapes to be too sweet and you want to retain acidity,” said Hearn, who also uses the Méthode Champenoise to create the Cutchogue winery’s sparkling Pinot Blanc and Sparkling Rosé. “If you are harvesting on a 90-degree day, you’d lose the acidity too quickly as well as having too much sugar. We harvest when it’s 70 degrees.”

The second fermentation lasts only a couple of weeks, said Paumanok vineyards winemaker Kareem Massoud, who also uses Méthode Champenoise for his Aquebogue winery’s Chardonnay-based Blanc de Blancs. The wine’s character is built from its time spent in the bottle, fermenting “on the lees,” the sediment of dead yeast that collects after consuming the sugar. Massoud leaves his sparkling on the lees for a minimum of 36 months, but that timeline is subject to a winemaker’s preference. Martin, for example, ages Sparkling Pointe’s wines for anywhere from 18 months to eight years. Hearn, who prefers a delicate sparkling, opts for no more than 24 months.

(Credit: David Benthal)

“When you age on the lees, over time you gain more of the characteristics of the yeast,” Massoud said. “When people talk about champagne or sparkling wine, you might hear the word ‘autolytic’ as a descriptor. Autolytic refers to the breakdown of the yeast cells … Instead of using the word autolytic, you could use the term brioche, [evoking] toast or any type of baked bread.”

The final step before the bottle is ready is disgorging the lees to clarify the wine. Over the course of several weeks, the bottles are continuously rotated on an angle to bring the sediment to the neck of the bottle, which is then frozen. The frozen block pops out from the pressure and the traditional cork and wire frame cap you’re accustomed to popping are secured on the bottle. Just don’t keep it in your cellar for too long.

“Sparkling will maybe last three years,” Hearn said. “It is not advantageous to put away for 10 years because it is not going to get any better with time after disgorging.”

The North Fork is a great place to drink bubbly year round. Its dry effervescence pairs well with lighter seafood fare, such as local oysters or bay scallops, and everything from cheese dishes and antipasto, to just about anything served at your next holiday soirée … not that you need a reason to pop one open.

“Sparkling doesn’t have to be a celebratory wine,” Hearn said. “It should be drunk more often.”

(Credit: David Benthal)

The proper way to uncork sparkling wine
Uncorking a sparkling wine or champagne improperly is the fastest way to dampen a party. There is a good amount of pressure behind the cork and it can be harmful when accidentally launched in the wrong direction, Massoud noted. His advice? Towel or cloth napkin in hand, keep your thumb or palm over the cork when releasing the wire frame. If the cork doesn’t naturally dislodge after the wire frame is removed, gently twist the cork and bottle to create counterpressure to slowly uncork the bottle. The towel will not only prevent the contents of the bottle from wastefully spraying across the room, but it will also give you a firm grip. The celebratory “pop” may be fun, but in fine dining settings, the slow, quiet release of gas from the bottle is the audible sign the cork has been properly released.

10/01/18 6:00am

Sam McCullough at Lenz Winery in Peconic.(Credit: David Benthal)

Before the wine is uncorked at special tasting dinners and winemakers stand up to explain the complex notes comprising the vintage, tireless hours are spent in the fields to cultivate the pour in the glass. 

The ripeness and health of the grapes delivered to the crush pad each fall are the responsibility of the less heralded — but equally crucial — influencer of the harvest: the vineyard manager.  (more…)

08/22/18 6:10am

Chef Stephan Bogardus in the kitchen at North Fork Table & Inn.(Credit: David Benthal)

The end of summer vacation means it’s time to start thinking about the next vacation. And for those who fancy themselves foodies or oenophiles (or both), planning a great escape to a land known for palatable plates and fine wine can be a perfect way to stave off end-of-summer blues. Craving an edible adventure, I asked North Fork chefs, restaurateurs and winemakers for recommendations. Their answers came from far, wide and down under. Consider these some of the world’s most delicious destinations. (more…)

11/21/17 5:59am
Gibson Campbell, Regan Meador and author Lenn Thompson. (Credit: David Benthal)

Gibson Campbell, Caleb Barber, Regan Meador and author Lenn Thompson enjoy a pre-Thanksgiving dinner with plenty of wine. (Credit: David Benthal)

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in November 2015

When considering your Thanksgiving wine choices, here’s the only advice you need: Drink good wine.

Don’t complicate it any more than that.

OK. You probably want to know why it’s that simple, and I’m happy to explain it. I’ve written Thanksgiving-related stories for at least a decade, just like every other wine writer — from local guys like me to national columnists in the big, glossy magazines. Some feel compelled to do so, but often we’re told to write these stories because they’re apparently popular, though I don’t actually understand why. None of my friends or family members stress about what wines they’re going to pour with their turkey dinner. You shouldn’t either.  (more…)

10/29/16 6:00am

If you were to compare the 2016 Long Island vintage to a bottle of wine, it might be the kind you’d serve at a dinner party for friends — but perhaps not the special occasion reserve you were saving for your 25th wedding anniversary.

Harvest reports from across the East End are rolling in, and the prognosis is that 2016 is shaping up to be a challenging but manageable year. It will likely be remembered as a perfectly respectable vintage. (more…)

05/05/16 6:05am
From left: Kelli Urbanik Koch, Anthony Nappa, Regan Meador and Kareem Massoud. (Credit: Northforker file photos)

From left: Kelly Urbanik Koch, Anthony Nappa, Regan Meador and Kareem Massoud. (Credit: Northforker file photos)

Four of Long Island’s most respected young winemakers were highlighted in a recent Wine Enthusiast article about the future of the local industry.

Kelly Urbanik Koch of Macari Vineyards, Anthony Nappa of Raphael and Anthony Nappa Wines, Regan Meador of Southold Farm + Cellar and Kareem Massoud of Paumanok Vineyards are featured in the magazine’s June 2016 issue in an article called “Long Island & The Big Dreamer’s Out East.” (more…)

02/10/16 3:34pm
Paumanok Vineyards 2013 barrel fermented charddonay. (Credit: Lenn Thompson)

Paumanok Vineyards’ 2013 barrel fermented charddonay. (Credit: Lenn Thompson)

Paumanok Vineyards winemaker Kareem Massoud gets a lot of attention for his aversion to natural cork. All of his white wines are bottled under screwcaps, along with all but the most high-end of his reds (which are available under screwcaps as well as corks). (more…)