Wine Column: Tasting new wines before their time

Every winter, I look forward to visiting some of my winemaking friends’ cellars to taste the most recent vintage. In January or February, the wines that were harvested in September and October have evolved to the point that they are beginning to show some personality. The yeasty froth of fermentation has settled and, while the wines may be raw on the palate and subdued on the nose, they begin to show some of the quirks that will distinguish them as they age.

The snows of 2011 may be payback for what was an unprecedentedly warm growing season in 2010. Budbreak came two weeks early and the vines ripened in fast-forward. Harvest began earlier than ever, putting an intensive workload on the cellar crews, since all the fruit was ready at once. Because it was very ripe, winemakers had to alter their thinking about how to conduct the fermentations. White wines that would normally undergo a malolactic fermentation to reduce acidity no longer needed that; reds that were usually light quaffers became candidates for serious aging.

Although it’s impractical for wineries to taste these unfinished wines out with the general public, Lenz Winery in Peconic makes an exception. On Saturdays in February and March, Lenz winemaker Eric Fry will lead small groups on a cellar tour (free to subscribers; $25 to general public, by reservation).

With Lenz since the mid-’80s, Fry is one of Long Island’s most experienced winemakers. Trained as a microbiologist, with winemaking jobs in California, France and the Finger Lakes, he now makes wine more intuitively than analytically.

To say that Lenz is a no-frills winery would be putting it mildly; the old barn where the wines are fermented is a minimal shell of a building, and it’s a good thing that Fry spent his youth spelunking, because the place is as dark as a cave. Despite the gloom, Fry can identify the nuances of every barrel of wine. For him, attention to the wines themselves, rather than technological manipulation, is the route to complex, interesting wines.

When I spent a recent afternoon tasting out the Lenz 2010 wines with Fry, all primary fermentations were complete, but the small cuvées that would eventually be blended were still separate, which made for an interesting view of wine components.

First, we tried a sauvignon blanc, one of the custom crush wines made at Lenz for grower-clients. I was impressed by its in-your-face peach aroma, though its body was leaner than I expected from such a warm year. Lenz’s gewürtztraminer, for which Fry has a dedicated following, was wildly appealing, with an unusual cardamom spiciness that Fry predicted would evolve to rose petal aromas. The pinot noir cuvée, a base for sparkling wine, still showed some pink color that will disappear during its second fermentation in bottle. It had a huge amount of acidity, as is proper for sparkling wine, but the body of the wine was downright rich. With a hint of white cherry aromas, it was like a fresh taste of cherries in snow.

For me, tasting the chardonnay was a reunion with an old friend. Fry told me that, for the low-priced White Label, the fruit was riper than he wanted it to be. “It lacks lemon,” he said.

I said, “Yum.”

The rest of the chards were bright and vivacious. Although they will see some oak, Fry is backing off the use of wood, preferring his white wines to be fresh and fruit-driven.

When it comes to red wine, oak still plays a role at Lenz, though again, in a vintage with superior fruit like 2010, oak takes a back seat. As I tasted through some excellent cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, I had to laugh. Fry, an ardent fan of merlot, was miffed when I made a case for bottling the others as single varietal wines.

“They’re getting blended,” he said firmly. “They need each other.”

The Lenz barrel tasting experience is a rare opportunity to learn about wine, but if you prefer a more sybaritic excursion that requires nothing more than sitting and sipping, the next month is a prime time to visit Long Island’s wineries. Through March 20, Long Island Wine Council, East End Arts Council and the Long Island Convention and Visitors Bureau offer Winterfest: Jazz on the Vine. Visit liwinterfest.com for details of concerts and special events to keep the doldrums from your door.

In January, I wrote a critique of wine companies (specifically J Vineyards) whose PR boasts of terroir while the wines, to me, appear to reflect the skill of the winemaker more than the dirt under his feet. The column was picked up by winebusiness.com and went a bit viral. I am happy to report that J’s marketing director, George Rose, though chagrined, was most gracious about it. After reading my memoir (“The Vineyard”), he suggested (and I agreed) that I was the original terroirist, daring to plant grapes on Long Island.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.