Long Island has always been known for its glitterati, but usually this refers to the socialites and celebrities hanging out in the Hamptons and sipping champagne. But today, the East End glitters with sparkling wines, many of them making headlines at international wine competitions. While all that glitters is not champagne — only wines from the Champagne region of France can rightly be called champagne — that’s just as well because these Long Island sparklers are making a name for themselves all on their own.
After toasting their first date with a glass of bubbly, Sparkling Pointe owners Tom and Cynthia Rosicki fell in love with champagne. Their choice to focus exclusively on sparkling wines and to grow all three of the traditional champagne grape varieties — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier — was a natural outgrowth of that love. When their first wines debuted in 2008, Sparkling Pointe hit the ground running, making news in 2009 when its Brut Seduction took Best of Class as Sparkling Sweepstakes winner in the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. In 2010, the winery’s Brut was a gold medal winner and its Topaz Imperial Rosé placed with silver. Concurrent with this success, the Rosickis opened their spacious French manor house-style tasting room and winery on Route 48 in Southold in November 2009.
Sparkling Pointe’s winemaker, Gilles Martin, is no stranger to champagne either, hailing from Meaux, France, just outside the Champagne region. Before making his home on the North Fork, he served as assistant winemaker at California’s Roederer Estate and Louis Roederer’s Champagne house in Reims, France. Bringing this experience with him, Gilles first made a North Fork sparkling wine in 1997 at Macari Vineyards. He has also produced sparkling wines for Martha Clara and Sherwood House vineyards.
Following the same labor-intensive process as that used in Champagne, Gilles stresses that this traditional method of production “brings a lot of quality to the resulting wine.” Such sparkling wines undergo fermentation not just once, but twice, the second to harness the power of fizzy carbon dioxide created by the yeast as it “eats” the sugar and converts it into alcohol. After completing this task, the yeast dies off and eventually breaks down and settles within the bottle, providing yeasty, bready and toasty characteristics to the finished wine.
These characteristics are more pronounced the longer the wine is aged on the lees (yeast cells). And all of this happens within the same bottle in which the wine will ultimately be sold. The yeast cells are removed from the bottle through a process called disgorging and then topped up with wine and some sugar (known as the dosage), depending upon the level of sweetness desired.
When asked about Sparkling Pointe’s recent success, Gilles admitted, “You don’t ever expect to be No. 1 in the country, but I’m very happy. My belief that we can create quality wine on Long Island was confirmed by the competition in California. It was a pleasant surprise and a confirmation.”
Another “go to” guy for Long Island’s sparkling wines is Eric Fry, winemaker at the Lenz Winery. Eric has been a fixture on the North Fork since 1989, producing high-quality sparkling and still wines since his arrival. He observes that, “Some winemakers are afraid of making sparkling wine; it’s scary.” He’s referring to the need to rely on the yeast to do its work, while the winemaker waits a long time to see the results. However, Eric truly enjoys making sparkling wine and loves drinking it. He says the bright, fresh and crisp notes of sparkling wines are a great combination with local shellfish and seafood.
At Lenz, Eric crafts Cuvée, a sparkling wine produced from 100% Pinot Noir, which is aged on the lees for over five years, with the current vintage being 2004. With each release, the winery holds back 60 to 70 cases for an additional eight years of aging before disgorging the wine and selling it as Cuvée RD (Recently Disgorged). In addition to his Lenz sparklers, Eric works with Ros and Chris Baiz at The Old Field Vineyards to create a Blanc de Noirs, made from 100% Pinot Noir, which has received rave reviews from numerous wine professionals.
Eric makes a third Long Island sparkling wine with Lieb Cellars, where he produces a Blanc de Blanc from 100% Pinot Blanc grapes. Eric explained that Pinot Blanc is a nice, clean, fresh wine that makes a good bubbly, one that is pretty and delicate. This wine is aged for three years before disgorging and has garnered significant praise, having been hailed as the top American sparkling wine by Wine Spectator magazine and winning at the L.A .International Wine Competition. Even more telling, all 285 cases of the 2005 vintage have been sold.
While all of these sparkling wines have much in common, they remain unique from one another. As Eric explains, “What’s coming from the vineyard is all that matters.” He tastes the grapes and responds to the vineyard when creating his sparkling wines. “Each wine is totally different,” he says, “but, using the same process, you tweak it based upon what it tastes like.”
Miguel Martin, winemaker for Palmer Vineyards, is also a fan of sparkling wine. He previously produced sparklers at Gloria Ferrer in Sonoma, Calif., as well as cava, the sparkling wine of Spain. At Palmer, Miguel makes Sparkling Brut from 100% Chardonnay grapes. As with most traditional-method sparklers, the grapes are handpicked and whole-cluster pressed before being fermented cold. His wine spends two years on the lees prior to disgorging and has no residual sugar. Miguel feels that Long Island is a great place to make sparkling wines, noting that “the light alcohol, unique fruit flavors, lees contact and natural acidity blend nicely to create a really nice, well-balanced wine.” He admits to drinking sparkling wines throughout the year agrees with Eric that they are truly food wines.
Several other East End wineries produce sparkling wines; you’ll find current releases on the Wine List in this issue. Whichever Long Island sparkler you choose, it’s sure to glitter brightly in the glass.
Wine writer Tracy Ellen Kamens, Ed.D., DWS, CWE, holds a Certified Wine Educator credential from the Society of Wine Educators and a Diploma of Wine and Spirits, with merit, from Wine & Spirits Education Trust. She also holds the International Bordeaux Instructor title from L’Ecole du Vin de Bordeaux, and has completed both the Napa Valley Vintners’ Wine Educators Academy and Wine Australia USA AusWISE programs. With her husband, Jared Skolnick, Ms. Kamens runs Grand Cru Classes (GrandCruClasses.com), based in Mattituck.