July 31 2011 issue
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Island Fever Kelly Magyarics
To the uninitiated, Long Island may seem to be merely a series of bedroom communities for New York commuters or a tony summer playground for the rich and famous. But there is more to the long-est and largest island in the contiguous United States than celebrity sightings and stops on the Long Island Railroad (or Expressway). It’s also blessed with the terroir, passion, and know-how to make it a wine region that certainly deserves its spot on the world stage.
New York is the third-largest winegrowing state in America, after California and Washington. Vintners have been making wine here since the 17th century, when the Dutch and Huguenots planted vines in the Hudson Valley. In fact, that area’s Brotherhood Winery is the oldest continuously operating producer in the United States, having turned out wine for more than 350 years. Long Island’s viticultural history may be much shorter, but its maritime climate and well-drained soils, capable of producing high-quality vinifera grapes, have made it the fastest-growing wine region in the state.
DIVIDING THE APPELLATION
The first winery on Long Island, Hargrave Vineyards (known as Castello di Borghese since 1999), was established in 1973. Less than three decades later, more than 50 wineries were producing more than a half-million cases a year. Three American Viticultural Areas have been carved out under the leadership of Richard Olsen-Harbich, currently the winemaker for Bedell Cellars on the North Fork. The Hamptons, Long Island AVA, established in 1985, encompasses the entire South Fork (an arm or peninsula of the island), as well as the townships of Southampton and East Hampton. The North Fork of Long Island AVA, approved in 1986, is located in eastern Suffolk County. The broader Long Island AVA includes both Nassau and Suffolk counties and their small offshore islands. This appellation was created in 2001 for three primary reasons: to allow wines blended from vineyards across the entire region to carry the label “Long Island”; to incorporate vineyards located just beyond the other two AVAs; and to provide consumer protection for the brand, since AVA rules require that at least 85% of the fruit be sourced from the region on the label.
In fact, Long Island is so committed to its name that in 2010, area wineries signed the Joint Declaration to Protect Wine Place & Origin, an international movement aimed at protecting appellations from misuse and miscommunication. According to Chris Baix, past president of the board of directors of the Long Island Wine Council and owner of The Old Field Vineyards, this assures consumers that the region’s wines “can’t be duplicated anywhere in the world—and nothing shapes a wine’s character like its location.”
The briefest glance at a map leaves no doubt that Long Island’s prevailing weather would be maritime, but the climate becomes increasingly so as you travel east on the South Fork. “The South Fork has a greater Atlantic influence, as the ocean is only 3 miles away,” explains James Christopher Tracy, winemaker and partner of Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton, who finds that the South Fork “is more often than not 1º or 2º cooler, and is often one week later in terms of budbreak.” While emphasizing the importance of microclimates at individual vineyard sites, he observes that all Long Island winemakers battle rain and humidity during the growing season—a climatic challenge shared with such regions as Bordeaux, the Loire, and New Zealand.
The three bodies of water surrounding Long Island—the Great Peconic Bay that divides the two forks, the Atlantic Ocean to the south, and the Long Island Sound to the north—provide a moderating effect, which translates into cool temperatures and a long growing season. Roman Roth, winemaker and technical director for Wölffer Estate Vineyard, points out that the cooling breezes from the Atlantic protect vines from fungus by slowing shoot growth, thus ensuring even ripening. “It also allows us longer hang time,” he says, “and expresses itself in fruit-driven wines with wonderful mineral notes and beautiful acidity,” resulting in bottlings that are both food-friendly and ageworthy. That prized minerality, which lends structure and finesse, comes with the tinge of salinity so often found in maritime regions.
Soils are primarily sandy, but far from homogeneous. “The northern border of the North Fork AVA will generally be loamy, gravelly soils, and as you move south toward the Peconic Bay (and across the bay in the Hamptons AVA), the soils contain more sand,” explains Barbara Shinn, co-owner with David Page of Shinn Estate Vineyards. Sandy soils are well draining—an advantage in an area that receives a great deal of summer rain—and are also inhospitable to the phylloxera louse.
FINDING SIGNATURE VARIETIES
Long Island producers have focused on premium vinifera grapes rather than the hybrids found in more continental American regions. The cool climate not only helps Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc retain their mouthwatering acidity, but provides a subtlety of fruit aromas and flavors in the two most widely planted red grapes, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Any oak treatment is applied with a judicious and restrained hand so as to complement rather than overshadow the understated elegance of the fruit.
Pink also has a place on Long Island. “Our biggest seller is the Wölffer Estate Rosé,” Roth reports. “It is a dry, elegant, refreshing rosé that we have been making since 1992, and it has done a lot to help create this recent wave of rosé popularity.” Bedell Cellars’ recently released 2010 Rosé Taste uses whole-cluster pressing to retain its fresh peach and strawberry aromas.
Forward-thinking wineries in this relatively young industry continue to experiment with off-the-beaten-path varieties, selected specifically for individual vineyard sites. Channing Daughters’ plantings, for example, include Tocai Friulano, Malvasia, Blaufränkisch, Dornfelder, and Lagrein. “But we march to a different drum,” Tracy admits. “We believe Long Island’s greatest strength is its diversity. The fact that we can ripen an array of varieties and make a dynamic range of wines means that blended wines may eventually emerge as the signature of the region, as is the case with Bordeaux, Friuli, and Tuscany.”
Roth agrees that blending should be an ongoing focus for Long Island winemakers, predicting that in 10 years, the area will be best known for its Merlot-dominated cuvées. Many Long Island wineries already make liberal use of the versatile Bordeaux variety; for example, though the cépage of Shinn Estate’s Nine Barrel Reserve changes from year to year, the wine is always Merlot-based. “The blend begins with our favorite nine barrels in the cellar each vintage,” says Shinn; the current release incorporates Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.
GOING TO MARKET
Long Island’s total area under vine has grown from 17 acres in 1973 to about 3,000 today, but Tracy acknowledges that the possibilities for expansion are finite: “Long Island is a small region with not a great deal of room to grow. The operations are mostly on an artisanal level, with smaller productions and corresponding prices.” While Long Island will never be a source of cheap wines, Tracy still considers its prices modest compared to those of similar products from around the world.
Because of the limited output, it can be a challenge for sommeliers to get their hands on some of these bottlings. At Channing Daughters, a few labels go mainly to the more than 1,200 members of the wine club, but most of the 12,000-case annual production is split between retail and wholesale. The majority is sold in New York, but additional markets include Connecticut, New Jersey, Kansas, Massachusetts, and California, as well as Canada, China, and Denmark. Bedell Cellars, a 30-year-old, sustainably farmed and family-owned winery, distributes its 10,000 cases a year to a similar list of markets, plus Florida, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Japan. “The majority of placements are in top fine-dining restaurants,” says CEO Trent Preszler.
“We are a boutique region,” Roth declares. “We make more traditionally styled wines; we focus on quality, not quantity; and we have a very different style than California, Australia, Chile, or Argentina.” Of course, being conveniently located just 75 miles from New York City certainly helps, both in sales and exposure. “New Yorkers have become very supportive and appreciative of their ‘local’ wine region,” Roth says, especially in the 10 years since Sept. 11 and the Wall Street crash. Today, “drink local” is as pervasive a theme as “eat local.” Jim Meehan, a managing partner of PDT in Greenwich Village and the Bartender columnist for Sommelier Journal, has featured a Silver Sangaree cocktail that adds Paumanok Vineyards Cabernet Franc to the shaker. “I only serve local still wines and take pride in incorporating at least one still-wine drink into the menu each season,” he notes.
Although some wineries on Long Island already practice sustainable or organic viticulture, Shinn hopes more will follow the lead of Bedell Cellars and her own winery. “Letting go of your ego and respecting the land and the crop by having as little impact on it as possible is a way of gifting back to the land that we are using,” she believes. “We have beautiful soils and a cool climate, which year after year produce well-balanced fruit.”
Tracy accepts that winemaking here is “not for the faint of heart”—land is expensive to buy and to farm—but he predicts a continued rise in appreciation for its output. Roth shares his optimistic outlook: “I think Long Island is, at the moment, the most exciting wine region in the U.S. There is good energy, and I think the future is looking bright.”