Wild Horses: Tasting the Reserve Wines of Wolffer Estate

When I first moved to New York, I assumed – based on knowledge gleamed from Gossip Girl and The Great Gatsby, natch – that eventually someone would invite me to a polo match in the Hamptons. Isn’t that how rich people in the Northeast got their kicks? I have a general disinterest in 90% of domesticated animals (not sorry), but horses are pretty damn incredible.  I would totally drink rosé and watch strapping young gents ride around a yard with croquet mallets, astride their resplendent beasts.

I listened to a lot of the The Sundays’ Wild Horses, but I never got invited to a damn polo match.

My next best hope was to try some of the very exciting wines coming out of Long Island, some of which are fortuitously named after some very excellent horses. This past week I had the pleasure of tasting Wolffer Estate Vineyard‘s reserve “White Horse” wines; to quote Brandy-officiando Solange Knowles, they were the estate’s “deep cuts”. Wolffer’s charming winemaker Roman Roth – dressed in full Sean Connery meets Captain of the Poseidon attire – took us through a flight of six of the estate’s best wines, all of which exemplified the unique terroir of Long Island. Roman’s three greatest concerns when it comes to making wine were respectable if familiar tenets: food friendliness, longevity (admittedly a rare concern for New York wines) and authenticity to the region.

Now, let me preface this review by saying I am a Chablis hoe. When it comes to chardonnay, oaked or unoaked, white Burgundy is what gets me off and I can’t really say any region has quite hit that bar. I grew up in Gisborne, New Zealand’s chardonnay capital, and even there I never formed an affinity for the grape. Meursault, I am in your slave. California chardonnay, sashay away. So understandably, a tasting featuring three chardonnays was always going to be a tough sell. However, after an absolutely delicious palate primer with Wolffer’s “Noblesse Oblidge”, a sparkling rosé drenched in tangerine, clementine and white peach flavors, I was ready to go into Roman’s surprise gift of his 2002 “Estate Selection” chardonnay with open arms.

I am sad to say that while the the 2002 showed remarkable life considering its age and mild oxidation, it was no prized pony. The oaked drama of the first sniff was certainly stunning – this was an aroma with dimension – but the taste yielded a predictable Werthers Original caramel quality, butterscotch, buttered toast, and vanilla but little else. The age pulled a lot of the fruit flavors and acidity from the palate leaving it with the principal oak flavors. Technically impressive, I needed more to spark my interest.

Our next sample was the 2012 “White Mischief” a wild yeast fermented chardonnay with funk. This wine was the winner of the night. I’m a huge advocate for natural winemaking techniques and particularly with the familiar “king” grape varieties like chardonnay, a little funk goes a long way. Oily on first taste, this wine has a crisp finish that is a head turner. The apple/citrus flavor exemplifies the best acid balance you can hope for from a wine of this age. This is a chardonnay you open in May while you are counting down the days until summer. It makes you feel a little naughty but it doesn’t leave you with that post-cake gluttonous shame you get with some rich California whites. This is a real treasure.

The third chardonnay, Roth’s prized “Perle” certainly needed more time to open up. It was a tight little bugger and I couldn’t really get a head around it. Roth explained with Perle the vineyard’s policy of keeping its grapes separated to get maximum sunlight and particularly ripe fruit. These grapes hang for a shockingly long 120.5 days on average, which give them a very expressive flavor in the bottle. Perle might be a chardonnay connoisseur’s cup of tea, but this is certainly one to let sit for a few years and give a rare chardonnay decanting before drinking.

Our last two wines were the Long Island red wine staples of Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Cab Franc does particularly well in New York state – the Finger Lakes have remarkable cab franc  – but sadly Wolffer’s 2012 “Caya” did not provide credible rebuttal to its northern neighbors. The wine had a short finish that felt unsatisfactory, while the flavors – black pepper, black currant and boysenberry – didn’t ignite the senses. It was certainly a quaffable red for the dinner table, but not one to push a jockey on to derby victory. Similarly, the 2012 “Fatalis Fatum” – a blend of Merlot, Cab Sav and Cab Franc – had some promising licorice notes and a very easy-drinking sensibility, but nothing to make California or France quake in fear. This is great wine for modest wine drinkers and certainly one which can spark a little conversation on the happy delights of merlot (an oft maligned grape), but not one I’d laud as a demonstration of New York’s greatest wares.

From Roman’s impassioned and detailed descriptions of his winemaking practice it is clear that grape health and terroir are really on his mind, two things that I hold dear. I certainly think that vintage plays into my feelings about the wines tasted and that Wolffer’s back catalog (as well as its future vintages) have plenty to offer. The team that visited Brooklyn Wine Exchange was extremely accommodating and good-spirited, which only makes me think a visit to the winery and its beautiful cellar door views will elevate the drinking experience.

Wines Tasted:

2012 “Noblesse Oblige” (Rose sparkling wine, extra brut)

2002 “Estate Selection” Chardonnay

2012 “White Mischief” Chardonnay

2013 “Perle” Chardonnay

2012 “Caya” Cabernet Franc

2012 “Fatalis Fatum” (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot)


Header photo courtesy of Gilt City.


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