McCall Wines

Driving along Route 25 on Long Island’s North Fork isn’t much like motoring up Napa Valley’s Route 29.  Yes, there are wineries on both sides, but the California version is much grander.  There are a few wineries in Long Island with architecture that’s impressive, such as Raphael and Pellegrini, but most are understated.  Architecturally speaking, McCall is understated to the point of a whisper.  As you drive up to the winery, it seems like it could be farmhouse or a stable.

The tasting room at McCall Wines.

Well, it was a stable.  The owner, Russell McCall, is a horseman.  The tasting room has retained its equine charm, with a décor of saddles, farm implements  pictures of Mr. McCall playing polo.  Two of the stalls have been retained and you can taste your wine in them, if that’s your wish.   There is a small bar but tasting is done as table service, outside in the summer.

The site has historic interest.  It was once a meeting place of local Native Americans, known hundreds of years ago as Fort Corchaug.  The vineyard at the winery (they have another nearby) is still known as the Corchaug.  In good weather, we prefer to leave the stable behind us and sit at a picnic table on an expansive lawn overlooking that vineyard.

Tasting by the vines.

McCall also raises cattle on the property.  One of the popular attractions at the winery is Burger nights on seasonable Thursdays and Fridays, with the main attraction made from their own Charolais beef.  It may be a little unsettling to know that what you’re eating once lived just over there, but we recommend you wash down your concern with some wine.

We were first attracted to McCall by their Pinot Noirs, of which there are four.  It’s not a grape that is generally found on the North Fork, where Bordeaux grapes are more commonly grown.  These wines are not Burgundies, nor are they much like Pinot Noirs from Russian River.  They have their own local character.  You’ll have to judge for yourself how Long Island terroir plus maritime breezes work for these wines.

There are also Chardonnays and Rosés to sample.  But the star of the show, to our tastes, is a Bordeaux Blend they call Ben’s Blend, named for their founding winemaker.  McCall ages these wines – the youngest available for sale in 2022 is the 2014 vintage – and we find it more Californian in character and quality than any other red wine we have tasted from a Long Island winery.

One thing we appreciated when we last visited was that the winemaker, Miguel Martin, walked around to each table and had a few words with the patrons.  Mr. Martin is a Napa Valley veteran, transplanted to the East Coast.  We were quite impressed with the experience of wine tasting at McCall and urge visitors to the North Fork to include it on their itineraries.

Red Dessert

Often when we visit a winery and have tasted what was on the list for that day, we’ll sort of nonchalantly ask, “Do you make dessert wine?”.  Sometimes the answer is “no” and sometimes it’s “yes, but it’s not available”.  But quite often the server will reach below the bar and bring out a small slender bottle that’s full of nectar.

Wineries very rarely advertise their dessert wines for tasting for a few reasons.  These wines are usually made in low volume.  They may not be made every year.  And they tend to be rather expensive.  But they are a distinctive wine category and wine tasters should get to know them and recognize that they’re not all the same.  One obvious distinction is that some are red and some are white.  In this issue we’ll focus on the red ones.

First of all, red dessert wines are NOT just red table wines with sugar added, even if they are sometimes made from the same grapes.  The winemakers stop the fermentation before all the sugar is eaten up by yeasts, so the residual natural sugar is quite high.

Photo courtesy of Porto Running Tours.

The most famous red dessert wines are Ports.  To our way of thinking, if it doesn’t come from Portugal, it isn’t Port, no matter that some American wineries make dessert wines from Zinfandel or Pinot Noir and call it Port.  The real thing is made from grapes uniquely found in the Douro Valley, such as Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz.  It is distinctive and highly alcoholic, because it is fortified with neutral spirits.  There are many varieties of Port including from ruby, tawny, late bottled vintage (LBV) and best (and most expensive) of all vintage Port.  Take a trip to Porto and you can taste them all.  Oddly, the Portuguese don’t drink it much, but it is beloved by British academics and anyone with a sweet tooth on a wintry night.

There’s a style of red dessert wine not often found in the United States.  In France it’s called vin doux naturel or naturally sweet wine; there is no equivalent English term.  Almost all of it comes from the south of France, in Provence and Languedoc, usually from Grenache grapes.  You may be most familiar with wines known as Banyuls.  Of course, all grapes are naturally sweet, but they aren’t all processed the way these wines are.  Fermentation is stopped by the addition of some eau de vie, which stops the fermentation.  There’s less alcohol than in Port, but it still has a kick.

Finally, there are some specialty wines with long and unique histories.  For example, Recioto is made in Italy’s Valpolicella region.  It’s Amarone that’s been stopped before it’s finished.  The people of that region like dessert too, and you’d better sample it there because it’s not found that often on American wine store shelves.  Another is the Greek Mavrodaphne, which you may find in some Greek restaurants and neighborhoods, and is another fortified wine.  It may remind you of Port.


How to Order from Unfamiliar Wine Lists

When we go wine tasting, we are almost always tasting wines we’ve never tasted before.  Even if we’re at a familiar winery, we’re going to sample a new vintage.  Often, the tasting room will put some bottlings on their menu for the day that we’ve never heard of, much less tasted.  If we’re visiting a winery we’ve never been to before, especially when we travel abroad, we’re in the dark.

This is all great preparation for ordering wine off a restaurant’s list, where we know nothing (or almost nothing).  What to choose?  This is where our experience with wine tasting trips comes to our aid.  A few tips might help you, too.

  • You could ask your waiter. These days, your waiter may not be old enough to drink, much less to develop expertise in wine! The best you can hope for is that he or she can tell you what’s the most popular.  In fairness, the type of establishment that has inexperienced wait staff often has a less-than-inspiring wine list, sometimes consisting of two choices: red or white.

Photo courtesy of Sommeliers Choice Awards

  • Or a sommelier. At the other extreme, restaurants that do have quality wine lists may also have someone trained to help you choose, i.e., a sommelier.  But there are problems here as well.  The sommelier is an employee of the house and has an incentive to direct you to the more expensive items on the list.  A good one will ask you what types of wine you like and the characteristics you prefer, such as robustness, acidity or intensity.  And definitely what your price range is.  Even then, you’re going to be offered what he or she thinks meets your tastes, which may or may not work out.
  • Go with a wine that’s from a familiar region. If we’re dealing with wines from California, France or Italy, for example, we know enough to say “We don’t know these wines, but we know that a Bordeaux usually pleases us”.  But if we’re at a Hungarian or an Argentine restaurant, for instance, that’s not going to help.  And when we’re overseas, our best hope is to try our luck.
  • Choose on the basis of price. Think about your overall restaurant experience with wine.  How much do you usually pay for wine as a percentage of the overall meal.  A third?  A half? More?  Less?  Use that as your guide.

Or go at it the other way round.  How much do you want to spend on a bottle that night?  Probably less on a random Tuesday, more on a weekend and even more for a special occasion.  Let’s say you’re ready to spend $75.  Look for a number in the $65 to $85 range on the right side of the list.  If the restaurant is knowledgeable and honest, you’ll get a bottle that satisfies you.  This isn’t a perfect rule, but it has worked out pretty well for us.

Visiting Beaune

If you are a true wine lover, then at some point in your life you have to go wine tasting in Burgundy.  Now, Burgundy is a big place and it includes winemaking areas such as Chablis, Beaujolais and Mercurey, all sources for very fine wine.  But when people think of Burgundy what they really have in mind is the fabled Côte d’Or, French for the Gold Coast.  That’s where the Grand Cru Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs come from.  It runs from Dijon (of mustard fame) in the north to a cluster of villages on the road to Chalons to the south.

And smack in the middle is the town of Beaune.

Anyone who goes wine tasting in the Côte d’Or will pass through or around Beaune.  For many visitors, Beaune is simply a starting point for going somewhere else.  Mostly they’re going to villages that equate to wines, like Nuit St. Georges, Gevrey-Chambertin, Volnay, Pommard or Montrachet.  We would like to recommend that you stop a while in Beaune itself.

The Place Carnot in Beaune.  Photo courtesy of Beaune Tourism.

The center of town is the Place Carnot, named after 19th century President of France who had the ill luck to be assassinated.  There is a small carousel in the middle of that, that in its way says this is pleasant square is in a pleasant town where visitors are always welcome.

Cheeses at the shop of Alain Hess.  Photo courtesy of Wine Keller.

The square is ringed by shops and cafes.  One shop kept bringing us back time after time: Alain Hess, Maitre Fromager (Master Cheesemonger).  Charles DeGaulle once questioned how anyone could manage a country with 500 types of cheese.  We never counted, but we think you can find all 500 of them at M. Hess’ shop.  And of course he can sell you the wine and some charcuterie to go with the pique-nique you’ll have next to a vineyard.

There are lots of interesting things to do while you’re in Beaune.  In a previous edition, we’ve described the Hospices de Beaune, which is a treasure not to be missed whatever else you do in the region.  You can do some in-town tasting at Louis Jadot or at numerous oenothèques.  There’s the Musée de Vin, which is installed at the former palace of the Dukes of Burgundy.  And here’s a special tip: We’re not sure it still exists, but if you walk down the Rue du Faubourg Madeleine, away from the Place Carnot, on your right there’s a nondescript tabac with the best chocolate ice cream we’ve ever eaten.

There are many restaurants in the Côte d’Or where you can dine on French haute cuisine, and a few of them are in Beaune itself.  But if you want to feel French while you dine, go to a little café in Beaune where you can order a meal made from the fine Burgundian farms.  Start with escargot, drowning in garlic butter.  Then it’s either a boeuf bourguignon made from local Charolais beef or a roast poulet de Bresse, considered the finest chicken in France.  There will be local cheese before dessert, such as the bleu from the aforementioned Bresse.    You will soon realize that you’ve spent an afternoon indulging yourself, all the while pretending that you’re a local.