Bordeaux’s Stéphane Toutoundji’s advice to Long Island merlot producers

Stéphane Toutoundji in the Raphael vineyard, Peconic, NY

Stéphane Toutoundji in the Raphael vineyard, Peconic, NY

Stéphane Toutoundji, a Bordeaux-based consulting oenologist says the Long Island winery owners and winemakers he’s met have plenty of passion, interest in producing high quality wines, a good climate and good land. What they lack, he said, is perfectly ripened grapes at harvest.

“The wineries are pretty good on the technical side. Everything is there,’” he said, “The only problem is the weather around the picking time.” Often, he said, winemakers are harvesting too late.

Long Island winemakers “have to concentrate on the picking in the vineyard,” he said. ”The key is to have very ripe fruit.”

In addition, he said, winemakers  “have many things to do in the cellar and the vineyards.” He recommended changing the way they barrel age, the temperature at which they ferment their wines and the amount of oxygen they allow into their wines.  He said he favors micro-oxygenation, a process widely used in Bordeaux to introduce oxygen into wine a controlled manner.

Toutoundji, who spent three days this past week with members of the Merliance trade group, visited their wineries and laboratories and offered feedback and guidance on viniculture and wine making technique

It was the consultants first visit to the region and the first time he has sampled its wines. On Long Island, he mostly sampled wines from 2007, 2010 and 2012 vintages as well as a few older bottles at a dinner, which he said aged well.

He described Long Island merlots and merlot-based bends as “very traditional wines with a bit of oak.” He noted, “The fruit is not the same [as elsewhere], the wood is well integrated. It’s well balanced.” White wines, he added, also “are pretty good.”

An early student of the famous oenologist, Michel Rolland, Toutoundji has been a partner since 2002 in the Gilles Pauquet Laboratory in Libourne, France, now known as Oenoteam. It currently serves 300 wineries worldwide, including 60 Bordeaux châteaux, some of them Grand Cru Classe, many in St. Emilion and Pomerol, where merlot is the predominant grape.

Toutoundji’s itinerary included Clovis Point (Jamesport), McCall Wines  (Cutchogue), Raphael (Peconic), Sherwood House Vineyards  (Jamesport), T’Jara Vineyards (Mattituck) and Wölffer Estate Vineyard (Sagaponack).

Among his concerns he said is the sandy soil of Long Island vineyards, which allow rain at harvest time to accumulate near the roots of the vines, causing berries to swell. “If you drain the soil, you get rid of a lot of water,” he explained.

Russ McCall, president of Merliance and owner of McCall Wines, said of the consultant’s visit “was an eye opener” and showed the necessity for the region’s winemakers to communicate more with their colleagues around the world. “We’re a bit insolated on Long Island.”

McCall said Toutoundji’s technical guidance was better suited to the winemakers than winery owners.  And the winemakers were happy to have it.

“It’s always great when a consultant comes in,” said Roman Roth, executive vice president of Merliance and winemaker and partner of Wölffer. He said consultants like Toutoundji challenge winemakers about what they have been doing in their wineries.

As for Toutoundji’s views on drainage, Roth said drainage is trendy topic in France and that Bordeaux oenologist and winemaker Jacque Lurton, who consulted with the Merliance members a year ago, offered similar advice.

Roth said while improving drainage in the vineyards is worthwhile because it more flavorful fruit at harvest, it’s a big capital expense and better suited to new plantings.

Nevertheless, Toutoundji was optimistic for Long Island winemakers growing merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot. “This climate is right to grow Bordeaux cepages. It’s good land to grow wine for sure,” he said. “This area will have a very good future for the wine business.”

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