TO discover any of America's emerging wine regions, close your eyes in front of a U.S. map and randomly drop your finger on a spot. Madison, Ind.? They've got Pinot Grigio, Zinfandel and Syrah. Prairie du Sac, Wis.? Sangiovese and Riesling. Louisville, Ky.? Chambourcin and Chardonnay.
Wineries have been popping up all over the country (every state of the union now has at least one) and lately have received significant media attention, even those wineries and vineyards in what might seem like the most improbable places -- say, in the shadow of the red rock spires of Sedona, Ariz.
All this talk of wines from places other than the West Coast piqued the interest of the Times Tasting Panel. Arizona's, Texas' and New York's are the most developed -- and critically acclaimed -- of the emerging regions, but we wondered: How good are these wines? So we recently gathered to taste a selection.
New York's a likely place to start, and though it was Merlot that put Long Island on the wine map, the Long Island Cabernet Francs fared best in the tasting. The standout was a softly luscious Cabernet Franc from Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue.
New York's reputation for wine has had its fits and starts, though its Long Island wines still are often overlooked, even by New Yorkers.
"There's a generation of wine drinkers who equated New York wines with kind of a sweet Concord style and never took them seriously," says Rory Callahan, president of Wine & Food Associates, a New York-based consulting firm. "But a new generation not burdened with that history is starting to embrace New York wines." Though even now, he says, "a lot of New Yorkers don't really know they have a wine district in their own backyard."
Most of the New York wines in The Times' tasting were from the North Fork, where Long Island's more than 30 wineries are concentrated. Long Island Sound, the Atlantic Ocean and the Peconic Bay surround the narrow peninsula. ("Lo and behold, it's a rather maritime climate," Callahan says, moderate with an extended growing season.) The most planted grapes are Bordeaux varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
Chardonnay, another of the most widely planted varieties on Long Island, didn't attract many accolades from the panel, the exception being the 2004 Wolffer Estate Reserve Chardonnay. More appealing -- and interesting -- were the Sauvignon Blancs.
The Texas wines offered up a few pleasant surprises -- delicious Texas Viognier -- who knew? Of a handful of winemaking regions in Texas, the most well-regarded is Hill Country, the area west of Austin and north of San Antonio. It's the second-largest viticultural area in the U.S. -- 15,000 square miles that comprise all or part of 22 counties -- where unique microclimates allow for a variety of wines, including Bordeaux blends and Mediterranean varietals such as Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Syrah and Viognier.
"Most people think of Texas as hot and inhospitable to grapes," says Wes Marshall, author of "The Wine Roads of Texas," "but there are areas where the days are cooler than in Napa and nights that are just as cool. On top of that, it's bone dry, so the vineyards can choose their own level of irrigation. There's really good wines being made.... But Pinot Noir and Zin just don't grow here."
A lot of Hill Country wineries are small producers that focus on tourism for most of their sales, but some of the larger wineries are entering the national market.
ARIZONA'S wines have been hailed as up-and-comers, and some interesting examples -- not just the wines of Caduceus Cellars made by the lead singer of rock band Tool -- have garnered a lot of interest.
Although a Syrah from Rancho Rossa Vineyards in the Sonoita area showed promise, the only Arizona wine in the tasting that really shone was a Malvasia Bianca from Page Springs Cellars, one of four wineries in Cornville near Sedona.
The Arizona Wine Growers Assn. says the state has 24 vineyards and 22 bonded wineries. Vineyards traverse the state, mostly along a geographic band of purportedly wine-friendly soils that runs from the southeast corner near the Mexico border up to Kingman in the northwest corner. Wines for the all-American tasting included a couple of Syrahs, a Chardonnay, a couple of Cabernet Sauvignon blends and a Malvasia Bianca.
And the 2005 Caduceus Cellars Nagual de la Naga, a Cabernet Sauvignon-Sangiovese? It wowed us at first -- but fell apart once it opened up.
We'd rather have some of that Texas Viognier.
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We're not in Napa anymore
THE Times Tasting Panel met recently to taste 32 wines from Arizona, New York and Texas. Six were from Arizona, eight came from Texas Hill Country and 18 were from Long Island, N.Y. Joining me on the panel were restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, columnist Russ Parsons, deputy features editor Michalene Busico, food editor Leslie Brenner and staff writer Corie Brown. We chose wines that were from well-established wineries or had been well-reviewed to see how they stood up and what stood out.
It's hard to come by a Texas Viognier or even a New York Cabernet Franc in Los Angeles wine shops and restaurants, much less a Syrah or Chardonnay from Arizona. So unless summer travels take you to one of these regions, you'll have to order them online or by phone directly from the wineries. Prices below do not include shipping charges, which can be steep. (Shipping from wineries in Texas and Arizona can also be spotty, either because they won't ship during the hot summer months or because they don't have permits to ship to California residences. Ask wineries about any shipping restrictions.)
The following wines were our favorites, listed by region in order of preference.
2005 Page Springs Cellars Vino de la Familia Blanca. This Malvasia Bianca was the best by far of the Arizona wines. Delicate and crisp, it offers floral and pineapple aromas, peach and lime flavors, a bit of complexity and a long finish. www.pagespringscellars.com; (928) 639-3004; $20. Shipping resumes Sept. 15.
2006 Becker Vineyards Texas Viognier. Light-bodied and soft, this Viognier has aromas of lemon, honey and vanilla. A little buttery, punctuated by the flavor of tangerine with a hint of bitterness, it has a clean finish. "Crisp and quaffable," Parsons said. www.beckervineyards.com; (830) 644-2681; $15.
2005 Becker Vineyards "Les Trois Dames" Claret. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petite Syrah that comes together nicely, with a lovely deep-plum color and aromas of red fruit, chocolate and spice. Ripe and sweet, it should work well with the char of barbecue. $17.
2004 Flat Creek Estate Super Texan. A very light, ruby-colored Sangiovese with scents of cherry, plum and spice. On the palate there are hints of cedar, cherry and a little chocolate. "Like Chianti light," Virbila said. www.flatcreekestate.com; (512) 267-6310; $20.
2004 Paumanok Vineyards Cabernet Franc. A delicious, soft, easy-to-drink Cabernet Franc. With aromas of flowers and herbs, this wine was the tasting panel's distinguished favorite. It offers flavors of plum, rose petals and a little smoke, and a long, pleasant finish. www.paumanok.com; (631) 722-8800; $24.
2004 Wolffer Estate Vineyards Reserve Merlot. A brick-red Merlot with pinpoint acidity and minerality that give this wine what more than one panelist noted as finesse. It's got "a bolt of cedar that would go great with roast chicken," Virbila said. www.wolffer.com; (631) 537-5106, $18.
2006 Shinn Estate Vineyards "First Fruit." A standout among the New York whites, this medium-bodied, well-balanced Sauvignon Blanc is blended with just a little (4%) Semillon. The aromas are unusual -- guava and basil; pear flavors give way to a slightly bitter, minty finish. www.shinnvineyard.recipesfromhome.com; (631) 804-0367, $23.
2003 Wolffer Estate Vineyards Cabernet Franc. Another point for Long Island Cabernet Francs. Well-balanced, with an elegant mouth-feel and some nice minerality, it has flavors of plums and cherries and a pleasant finish. $40.
2005 Paumanok Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc. A soft-textured Sauvignon Blanc with aromas of pear, lemon and cut grass; bright acidity; and good structure. Fresh and minerally, it's also unexpectedly a little smoky. www.paumanok.com and www.vintagenewyork.com; about $20.
2005 Raphael Cabernet Franc. Fruity and very light, with a pretty plum nose. Its texture is a bit rough, but that's offset by a nice vibrancy in the fruit, with flavors of plum and cherry. www.raphaelwine.com; (631) 765-1100; $18.
2006 Channing Daughters Sauvignon. In this blend, ripe Chardonnay softens the piercing quality of Sauvignon Blanc, with herbal aromas, grassy and stone-fruit flavors, bright acidity, a full mouth-feel and a long finish. www.channingdaughters.com; (631) 537-7224; $24.
2003 Wolffer Estate Reserve Chardonnay. An intriguing nose for a Chardonnay -- more barnyard than classic ripe pear "but not in an unpleasant way," Brenner said. Fermented in oak and stainless steel, it has an understated but metallic edge with a nice texture. From www.wolffer.com, $18.
2005 Jamesport "East End" Sauvignon. This clean and somewhat complex wine has plenty of character. Grapefruit peel and guava aromas give way to a hint of petrol; the bitter-almond finish is bone dry. www.jamesport-vineyards.com; (631) 722-5256; and www.vintagenewyork.com, about $20.
2001 Lenz Winery "Old Vines" Merlot. A big and rich Long Island Merlot from a strong growing season on the North Fork. Red fruit aromas with blackberry and plum flavors. Meaty in the middle, a long finish and serious tannins. "I could drink it with a big beef stew," Virbila said. www.lenzwine.com; (800) 974-9899 and www.vintagenewyork.com, about $55.
2001 Lenz Winery "Old Vines" Cabernet Sauvignon. This Cab, with concentrated aromas of berries, plums and black pepper is dark and intense, with ripe tannins and a velvety texture. From www.lenzwine.com and www.vintagenewyork.com, about $35.