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Travelogue – North Fork, New York

Recently I spent a day and a bit up in Long Island touring North Fork’s wine country. The day and time will dictate how long the drive out from Manhattan or JFK airport is, but as the crow flies it is only around 80 miles from the city to North Fork, stretching into a narrow peninsular surrounded by water, with the Long Island Sound to its north and the Peconic Bay to its south, creating an ideal climate for growing grapes.

Not so long ago the region was only known for potato and fruit & vegetable farms but since the late 70’s and 80’s it has become a stellar wine producing region and as we found out a great place to explore some very good wineries, nearly all of whom I had never heard off before.

We were informed that there are around 50 wineries in North Fork, but it seemed more as they lined up next to each other in lush surroundings, with the sea in the air on New York State Route 25, which is not much more than a country single-lane road.

We based ourselves in the Jedediah Hawkins House (below), a painstakingly restored Victorian inn with a well-heeled restaurant and, as you would expect, a well-heeled bar. I don’t think you’d drive out here and not taste wine, but the Jedediah Hawkins was worth the drive on its own.

Each room is individually named and decorated and the grounds deserve exploring (with a glass of course) with it’s gardens, fountains and gazebo. The inn was in Jamesport, a town with a bounty of farms, beaches, vines and charming roadside vegetable stands.

image3We decided against driving, it doesn’t go well with wine tasting in my experience, particularly if you are not going to swell it in your mouth and spit it in a bucket. We found a great service called North Fork Designated Drivers, who drove our car around all day stopping where we wanted, and offering advice and recommendations as needed.

Our first port of call was our driver suggestion of Paumanok Vineyard in the close by Hamlet of Aquebogue. Paumanok is one of the older producers in North Folk establishing itself in 1983. The winery is a renovated turn-of-the-century barn and the roomy tasting room is surrounded by an inviting deck overlooking their vineyards. Here we tasted Merlot, which was not going to be the last time that day, Chardonnay and a very nice dry Riesling. The best was Paumanok’s marquee Chenin Blanc which had a lovely zesty lemon taste.

Next stop and close to the Jedediah was Jamesport Vineyards. This tasting room sat amongst beautiful open spaces. We tried Syrah, a Cabernet Franc, of which was plentiful in this wine country, as was a sparkling Rosé, which was very moorish. My two favourites though were a white blend called ‘Cinq Blanc’ and ‘Jamesport’s Merlot’. A blackboard proclaimed the best flatbreads in North Fork, but sadly they weren’t available the day we were there.

image7Next we drove to the gorgeous little hamlet of Mattituck, squeezed between two water inlets with private docks and beautiful homes. Mattituck also has a heavenly food market (left) and the Love Lane Kitchen, where I would wholeheartedly recommend brunch. Also in Mattituck is Macari Vineyards, where we seemed to lose a couple of hours chatting to the knowledgeable staff, quaffing wine and wandering around the lush green vines.

The views here were stunning, as was some of the Macari families wine. The Cabernet Franc was excellent as was a blend called ‘Sette’, short for Settefrati, a town in Italy where the Macari family is from. The pick of the bunch was the red and white blend called ‘Dos Aguas.’

Dos Aguas represents the ‘two waters’ that surround the vineyard that, so it said on the bottle, creates a unique climate that protects the vineyard and encourages a slow and steady ripening of the grapes. Macari had a real Italian romantic feel to it and was probably, and it was hard to pick, our favourite stop of the day.

image1Encouraged by our driver we finally dragged ourselves out of Macari, encouraged that we were going to get some food other than trodden grapes. The Waters Crest Winery was a boutique little tasting room in Cutchogue, and pleasantly has an agreement with an Italian restaurant across the road called Touch of Venice.

We sat on Waters Crest’s outdoor patio and sipped on Sauvignon Blanc and a red blend called ‘5’ and scoffed what was some awesome Italian food. The veal ricotta meatballs re-energizing our taste buds to drink some more wine!

Nicely full, we moved onto Lieb Cellars for more Merlot, which I have suddenly a revived interest in due to this trip, and Cabernet Franc. The tasting room was rustic and overlooked endless farmlands.

A final stop of the day was at the Lenz Winery in Peconic. We sipped a delightful Merlot and Cab. By this time the sun was going down over North Fork’s vineyards and as we sat outside the winery in their adorable garden and said cheers to the sunset, it closed down a wonderful day.

image6The next day we explored Mattituck a bit and had brunch at the aforementioned Love Lane Kitchen before saying goodbye to the Jedediah Hawkins. But we weren’t done and decided to drive out to the only North Fork vineyard I had previously heard off.

That was Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue. Bedell winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich helped establish the North Fork appellation in 1986. Now, the label’s reds and Rosés regularly win accolades from Wine Spectator and even the White House. Bedell’s 2009 Merlot was served at Obama’s 2013 inauguration.

The modern tasting room was very cool but we sat outside just feet from the grapes and watched as staff prepared for an afternoon wedding. Bedell’s label’s are contemporary works of art, but inside the bottle was liquid art. Again the Merlot was magnificent as was the full bodied ‘Taste’ red and white blends.

We had already decided that we were going to head to the historic seaport of Greenport for lunch. Nonetheless on the way we passed one of my original picks, the Mattebella Vineyards, a small family farm owned by a husband and wife on 22 acres in Southold.

image4A lovely retired lady poured us ‘Old World’ blends and a very nice Rosé in what they called their tasting cottage which was eccentrically decorated and was surrounded by rose bushes and fig trees.

Greenport is a down to earth fishing village that uneasily sits with upscale invasions. Nonethless it is a stunning spot on the very end of Long Island’s left fingertip.

Greenport has plenty of shops and restaurants to grab attention but we were drawn down to the docks, where seafood emporium Claudio’s grabs all the attention. Claudio’s is a small empire with a 143-year history and consists of four different eateries.

We chose one of the two outdoor places, that are separated by water and boats called Crabby Jerry’s, and my did we make the right choice!

Crabby Jerry’s was simply a bar surrounded by outside tables with a pick-up window for steamed lobsters, crab’s legs, peel & eat prawns, scallops, clam’s and pretty much any other crustacean you could think off. It was heavenly and all washed down with a couple of beers from the lively bar, which looked like it would get livelier and livelier as the afternoon wore on.

I loved North Fork’s wine country with it’s wonderful rolling farmlands, cutesy hamlets, and its real simpleness. There really are some beautiful and impressive wine producers here working out of some beautful vineyards and wineries. It hasn’t got the scale of Napa or Sonoma, but this is a very explorable secret, and fun wine country.

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