Long Island Wine Country

Observing the Long Island wine industry very closely for the past 20 years I have seen plenty of evolution. As with every wine region, it takes time to find the right groove and mix of vines and styles and to develop cohesiveness in the community. Sometimes the grapes first planted fit perfectly, other times it takes years.

The wine market is also fickle. Malbec, pinot noir and rosé are the current darlings, but this too shall likely pass. Malbec, for instance, enjoyed popularity cycles in the 1100s and the late 1300s when French royalty sought it out, but until recently it has been a mere afterthought as a blending grape in Bordeaux.

Long Island’s forks have seen some shifting of wine styles, quality and grapes over their relatively short history, too. Similar to Bordeaux, both the North and South forks are heavily influenced by Atlantic weather patterns and the Gulf stream; both regions also have important estuaries. These similarities have led our winemakers to seek advice from Bordeaux and consultants from that area have contributed to local blending and aging styles with their own traditions.

Interestingly, the more a grape struggles—the more its environment teeters on the edge of the fruit’s ideal climate—the more complex the resulting wines. In the 1970s and 1980s, when Long Island vineyards were first being planted, the wine world was much smaller and focused on a limited selection of grapes: Chardonnay, merlot, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon. Since then, all sorts of varieties have been tested, but the Long Island Wine Council and Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing Organization both still list merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay as the region’s main grapes. Many others are being experimented with as well. Some have surprised us, while others have missed the mark. (One planting of pinot blanc was believed to be chardonnay for many years.) This process of growth and reduction, success and failure, is a cycle as old as winemaking itself: Plant, harvest, ferment, age, drink, then carry on or try something new. That trend—and the region’s evolution—continue today.

The leading red grapes today are merlot and cabernet franc. A majority of Long Island producers are making fine examples of each on their own and in blends. The argument can be made for each being the region’s signature red grape. However I believe the recent attention cabernet franc is attracting locally and internationally shows that grape to be on the rise.

Merlot and cabernet franc have achieved fame on the Atlantic Ocean; merlot in Bordeaux and cabernet franc in both Bordeaux and the Loire Valley in France. Some local producers vehemently argue for the superiority of merlot, one of our Island’s main grapes, and there is plenty of evidence to back their claims. Lenz in Peconic is known for its Old Vines line of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. The merlot has been favorably compared to some of the world’s finest for the past two decades. While that may be a good producer to start with, don’t miss the merlots from their neighbors including Pellegrini and Bedell in Cutchogue, Palmer, Paumanok, Jamesport and Macari a bit closer to Riverhead.

Cabernet franc has gotten the market’s attention in the past decade and Long Island can become well known for wines made from this versatile grape. Many local wineries are producing lovely wines from cabernet franc and many are also using it in blends like Paumanok’s Assemblage or Macari’s Sette. Blending the two cabernets (sauvignon and franc) with merlot and others has produced stunning wines in many of the world’s top regions. Long Island is no exception.

Cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and malbec are all classic Bordeaux varieties that are planted locally and can make fine wines. I do not however, find them as consistent as merlot and cabernet franc. This is due to the climate here, which is not quite warm enough to ripen cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot every year. (When it does the results can be striking, as in Lenz Old Vines or Paumanok Tuthills Lane.) Also, the older the vines become the better the results tend to be. Seeking single vineyard wines from the warmest vintages will give consumers the best versions. Vintages such as 2005, 2007 and 2010 were all excellent.

Malbec is fairly new to being anything but a blending grape, but early results from Bedell and Macari are proving worth the effort and should continue.

There is a long list of other grapes that have been tried here with varying levels of success. These include syrah, sangiovese, lemberger, lagrein, blaufränkisch and pinot noir. So far syrah seems to have had the most success, while pinot noir seems best suited to making Champagne-style sparkling wines. Don’t miss the great versions of sparkling wines that are blends of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier from Lenz, Sparkling Pointe, The Old Field and Wölffer. Channing Daughter’s in Bridgehampton is known for having a diverse portfolio of wines from lesser-known grapes such as blaufränkisch, refosco and lagrein.

Chardonnay is an important grape in most regions and is heavily planted locally. The best vintages are crisp, clean and have very little oak influence. Many Long Island producers make a good or even very good wine from chardonnay.

Like cabernet franc, sauvignon blanc is being embraced by more North and South fork producers and their fans with every vintage. The Macari sauvignon blanc was one of the first to get national recognition, but is not the only one that shines. The greatest issue with the sauvignon blanc market for our local producers is that there are very few from any region that demand high prices, especially when compared to chardonnay. California, France and Italy have all been able to produce chardonnay that critics and consumers feel is worth more than $100, sauvignon blanc is only rarely priced that high. Keep an eye on this grape locally as there are many excellent versions produced here.

There are many white grapes being experimented with on Long Island: Pinot blanc, pinot gris, sémillon, viognier, riesling, chenin blanc and even albariño are planted and bottled with varying success and consistency. Chenin blanc deserves more attention, as it is very successful in the Loire Valley in France—another region similar to Long Island. The problem with chenin blanc here (or anywhere, really) is not the quality of wine produced but the lack of respect the wines get in the marketplace.

Paumanok in Aquebogue has consistently produced a quality chenin blanc and has increased production. The main problem with many of these “other white” grapes is that the places that are renowned for them often produce wines that are pretty good value, making it tough for a new region to compete. Unfortunately, this is the case for a lovely albariño produced by Palmer Vineyards in Riverhead. Albariño is the most important grape of the Rías Baixas region of northwestern Spain, where top wines are priced less than $25. The pinot gris grape suffers from a reputation built on pinot grigio from Italy, it deserve more respect and is getting some from Channing Daughter’s on the South Fork.