A Conversation with Kareem Massoud, Winemaker at Palmer Vineyards
Founded in 1983, Palmer Vineyards is one of the oldest and most well known Long Island winemaking producers. Robert Palmer always pledged quality and excellence when it came to his wines saying, "I have to set the standards high. My name is on every bottle." In 2018, Palmer sold to the Massoud family, the owners of Paumanok. Already serving as winemaker at Paumanok, Kareem Massoud became head winemaker at Palmer too. With both wineries in their 40th years of operation, I sat down with Kareem to discuss what he’s doing at Palmer and what’s next for the Long Island region.
Q: With Paumanok and Palmer having the same winemaker, what makes them different?
A: The biggest difference really is the rest of it - the terroir, soil, climate. The climate may not be drastically different between Paumanok and Palmer, but the soils and the sites have variation, especially at Palmer where we have this southward facing slope which is unique for Long Island. There’s only one of two other vineyards that can actually claim they have a slope of any significance.
The other part of the site as far as the vineyards is the DNA. The clone rootstock or the plant material that was first planted - we don’t know what clone it was. For example, it could have DNA that makes it chardonnay but that can vary between the two.
I’m not trying to say “this is Palmer so I must make it different.” We have a winemaking approach where we’re going for a clean, technically correct style. I want the grapes to express as much place and terroir as possible with as little intervention from me as possible.
Q: I saw you were at the International Wine Center recently where you were discussing New York wine and the North Fork AVA in particular. Can you explain what makes this area unique and prime for winemaking?
A: So we’re obviously surrounded by water and part of the reason there’s an AVA on the North Fork is because there’s one on the South Fork in the Hamptons. So they exist in part to differentiate themselves from one another. Let’s start with the Hamptons. They are literally abutting the ocean so there's an automatic pooling effect from that and on top of it you have the fog. I lived in Sagaponack for about six years and commuted every day to Aquebogue and there were days I was driving out of the fog of the South Fork and into the sun of the North Fork. And what we’re talking about can be backed up anecdotally and scientifically. They measure the amount of heat in Aquebogue versus Cutchogue, Sagaponack, Greenport, and so forth.
Riverhead is like the banana belt of the East End and it’s actually the warmest which might not be surprising if you live out here and it makes sense because the rest of the forks stick out. The further out west you go the maritime influence is much more dramatic.
As far as differentiating the Hamptons and the North Fork, the big thing is the soil. In the Hamptons they have a soil type called Bridgehampton loam which doesn’t exist on the North Fork. Bridgehampton loam is like USDA Grade A, the most fertile soil, which for wine grapes it’s debatable whether that’s good or bad. For potatoes, it’s definitely good. But for the same reason potatoes do well, grape vines do well, and that’s because the soils drain extremely well. We wouldn’t be here if the soils didn’t drain as well. That’s why we can get away with flat land.
Q: Some of the best winemaking regions in the world benefit from their slopes, is the drainage of the soil why you think you can make great wine out here?
A: I’m not using that to be hyperbole. That can be backed up by pointing to the characteristics of our subsoil. The subsoils are sandy and gravelly. If you were a soil engineer designing a drainage project that’s exactly what you would want. You would excavate the clay if there was any and replace it with sand and gravel so that it drains better.
Q: I’ve always heard that the North Fork and Long Island wine can compare to the Bordeaux region of France because of where it sits latitude-wise.
A: They aren’t exact but they’re similar enough. Bordeaux is also a maritime district. It’s not far from the Atlantic. And interestingly, Bordeaux is mostly flat for a big, famous prestigious region. It’s an anomaly that they don’t have a lot of these slopes and hillsides of other famous places. And for the same reason, the soil drains really well.
Q: Bordeaux does have the advantage that it stays warmer for longer than Long Island. Because of climate change and where your vineyards are situated, do you possibly see an advantage to growing more red grape varietals, like Cabernet Sauvignon, that Bordeaux is famous for?
A: We definitely think we have an advantage and it’s not conjecture. It’s a fact that we get greater humidity and heat accumulation on average compared to our peers further east. That doesn’t mean they don’t do well with Cabernet, many of them do, but we have an easier time at both Paumanok and Palmer. With climate change it’s good that we have Cabernet Sauvignon planted because as the planet warms, that’s going to benefit our delayed ripening varieties. At Palmer we also have a little bit of Shiraz which will also benefit.
Q: Speaking of the wines you make, Paumanok seems known for their Chenin Blanc. Is there a reason why you haven’t brought that over to Palmer?
A: As far as Palmer is concerned, when we got the property it was already full. There’s simply no room. It’s a 60-acre property with 49 acres of vineyards. It’s maxed out with no more room to plant anything. And if we did, we’d have to rip others out. We have enough Chenin at Paumanok so we don’t need it at Palmer.
But what we do have at Palmer is our Albarino. Palmer was the first on Long Island to produce it and it’s our most popular wine. There are some other varieties planted at Palmer worth checking out too like the Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer, and our plantings of Muscat and Malvasia that go into a wine we call Aromatico.
The Aromatico is best described by Kareem: Fragrances of Asian pear, spice, honey and jasmine with orange and apricot on the palette with gentle acidity.
Their 2019 Cabernet Franc was a win for myself, George, and Brian. We fawned over it at an industry tasting in October. Get your hands on the 2019 today while you still can! But don’t worry if you can't. The 2021 Cabernet Franc will be out soon.