By Lenn Thompson
In the 40-plus years since Alex and Louisa Hargrave planted and founded Long Island’s first commercial vineyard and winery in 1973, the region has fought hard, vintage by vintage, to earn its reputation for producing some of the best wine in the East, almost exclusively from classic French varieties like Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Macari Vineyard, photo by Lenn Thompson
At its best, Long Island wine is unlike wine from any other region. That should be the goal of any region — to make delicious wine that cannot be made anywhere else. Long Island wines are ripe, but not too ripe, with well-integrated, natural acidity and layers of flavors that move well beyond mere berries, citrus and tree fruits. Long Island Merlot, the region’s most-planted red grape, is decidedly unlike merlot from California and Washington — but it’s not Bordeaux either, even if you’ll still occasionally read that on websites or in brochures. Similarly, Sauvignon Blanc, the white grape that shines brightest there, straddles the line between the fruit-forwardness of California examples, the minerality of those from the Loire and the grassy edge most often found in New Zealand.
Vineyard techniques have been honed to razor precision to ripen grapes fully, while also mitigating the risks of humidity-related vineyard maladies. Winemakers have also dialed back the manipulation. You’ll find less new oak today than even five years ago.
You can more consistently taste what makes Long Island wines distinctive and delicious, now. It’s about the fruit grown in well drained sandy loam soils over the course of what is typically a long growing season.
That Long Island wine has gotten here so quickly is a testament to the passion and investment put into it. Long Island wine has earned its place in the top tier of American wine.
Unfortunately, an over-reliance by some producers on agritourism and wine festival-style tasting rooms where “good enough” wine is well, good enough, has earned the region notoriety of an entirely different kind.
“Agritainment is just not profitable,” says winemaker Anthony Nappa. “The analogy here is to fast food. It’s all about quantity over quality. Getting as many people through the door and then out, as fast as possible. This is no way to build a wine brand.”
Still, the diametrically opposing business models have created a divide in the industry — those focused on making the absolute best wine possible and those for which good enough wine is good enough as long as throngs of day-trippers will come and (often over) indulge in the tasting room.
Despite those distractions, Long Island at its core has as much potential for fine wine as any region on the East Coast, with a number of winemakers experimenting and pushing the boundaries of what is possible there.
“I think the difference is being happy with a good product versus striving for greatness. For me. I am always looking to push for greatness, although there is no finish line. We want to just keep moving the goalposts back,” says Nappa.
Both at Raphael and with ANW, he favors food-friendliness and freshness over over-extracted and over-wrought styles. Raphael is first and foremost a Merlot house, and its “First Label” bottling is always one of the best and most age-worthy examples available.
With ANW, Nappa is probably best known for his white Pinot Noir, but his unoaked “Bordo” Cabernet Franc was a trailblazer for the style and remains the benchmark for the category in the region. And his time making wine in New Zealand is obvious when you taste any Sauvignon Blanc he touches. They are always bright and balanced.
Nappa came to Long Island more than a decade ago now, but his best wines are ahead of him. He’s going to help define what Long Island wine is going forward.
Rich Olsen-Harbich, photo courtesy Bedell Cellars
Bedell Cellars’ winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich wasn’t Long Island’s first winemaker — but he wasn’t far behind, coming to the region in the early 1980s. He is the author of all three of Long Island’s American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) and works at one of the North Fork’s premier wineries.
Cliche or not, he’s seen it all in his 30-plus years making wine on Long Island. He’s also had a front-row seat for the region’s steady march to prominence.
“One of — if not the most — important developments has been the understanding and planting of new clone/rootstock combinations in the vineyard,” he says, adding “We know a lot more about these now and also where to plant them. The original plantings on Long Island were not always the best clones or rootstocks. This development along with more finesse in the cellar have led to the uptick in quality.”
Olsen-Harbich was one of the first Long Island winemakers to eschew commercial yeasts and scale back on the heavy use of new oak. His wines have never been better — and they’ve never expressed their Long Island-ness more.
“Our wines are grown in a cool maritime climate on the East Coast of the United States. That’s a pretty unique situation and a huge accomplishment. We don’t have to add sugar or acid or change anything about our grapes in order for them to make delicious wines. That’s something that not too many New World wine regions can claim. Our wines reflect where we are – they’re low in alcohol, crisp and aromatic. They’re a direct reflection of the people who live on the east coast – slightly rustic but elegant, approachable and friendly yet a little edgy,” he says.
German-born winemaker Roman Roth started at Wolffer Estate in 1992 and remains one of Long Island most-respected, most-important winemakers.
“20 years ago we did not practice the rigorous leaf removal around the cluster zone so those early reds had a high amount of pyrazines,” he says looking back to the early 1990s. “Now we do very early and thorough leaf removals and the resulting wines are much riper and lusher yet still elegant and vibrant. Climate change has pushed harvest dates forward by 2 to 3 weeks. This has generally resulted in harvesting riper grapes.”
The release of Wolffer’s Rose lineup — Roth makes up to five different ones each year — signals the start of summer in the Hamptons, but he’s at his best working with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay — Long Island staples that he makes with an Old World edge while still showing off what Long Island wine can be.
“(We) make the most balanced and food friendly wines in the United States,” he boasts “Our unique climate and location, with its moderating sea breezes and abundant sun is ideal for making ripe yet elegant wines. With the right focus, commitment and investment one can grow concentrated fruit with great balance, great intensity and character. Totally different from hot climates!”
Olsen-Harbich and Roth are both members of the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing certification organization, a group that strives to conserve Long Island’s delicate maritime and estuary ecosystems by protecting ground and surface waters from leaching and runoff while maintaining healthy soil. Members must be certified every year and must employ safer and less toxic materials, limit nitrogen fertilization and minimize the use of herbicides.
Long Island wines have never been better for a variety of reasons, but the LISW group’s efforts are as important as any.
Other wineries to know:
- Channing Daughters Winery
- Lenz Winery
- Macari Vineyards
- McCall Wines
- Paumanok Vineyards
- Roanoke Vineyards
This article is just one of our exclusive “In Pursuit of Excellence” series that highlights the champions of wine quality in Eastern U.S. wine industry who are impacting the reputation of the entire region. In Pursuit of Excellence is also the theme for the 2018 U.S. Wine & Beverage Exposition & Conference scheduled for February 21st & 22nd in Washington, D.C.