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For Long Island Wines, White Might be Right
By Ed McCarthy
Sep 15, 2009
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When Alex and Louisa Hargrave founded Long Island’s first commercial winery on the North Fork in 1973, after an extensive national search for the “right” vineyard location for planting vinifera varieties, they really were thinking more about making red wines than white.  After all, the Finger Lakes in western New York had already been established as a cool-climate region suitable for growing white wine grapes.  But New York State really lacked a top region for red wines made from vinifera grapes.

Time has not proven the Hargraves’ vision for red wines on Long Island, thanks to its variable maritime climate.  In many vintages since the 1970s, red grapes have just not ripened enough.  The late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, ripens only in the warmest vintages on the Island.  Many Long Island wineries have given up on this variety, and now concentrate on the earlier-ripening Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  Merlot, in fact, is Long Island’s largest-production red wine--although I personally prefer the Island’s Cabernet Francs.

Over 36 years, as Long Island’s wineries grew from a mere handful in 1980 to over 60 wineries today, quite a few Long Island wine producers have come to the conclusion that white wine production, and lately, also sparkling wines, are more suited for Long Island’s climate than are red wines.  I have tasted some good reds from Long Island, particularly Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Cabernet blends, in some vintages.  But I have to conclude, from my tasting experience over the years, that Long Island’s best wines are their white wines; their sparkling wines are also quite fine--but have limited production. 

In fact, Long Island has been experiencing something of a white wine boom lately.  Chardonnay had long been established as a staple for Long Island producers.  But Sauvignon Blanc also is doing extremely well in Long Island’s vineyards.  The Finger Lakes region is rather cool for Sauvignon Blanc--and it has made its Riesling a star instead. Conversely, too many California regions apparently are too warm for Sauvignon Blanc, judging from the many ripe, high-alcohol Sauvignons I’ve tasted from that state over the years (of course, there are fine exceptions, as I detail in my recent book, California Wine For Dummies).  But the climate and soil on Long Island seems to be particularly suited for Sauvignon Blanc. 

A visit to Long Island’s wine region is well worthwhile.  Located just 75 miles from New York City, Long Island’s two forks are an hour and a half’s drive from the City (except on summer weekends!).  If you’re not familiar with Long Island, its eastern end divides into two forks, separated by the Peconic Bay.  Long Island actually has three AVAs (American Viticultural Areas): the North Fork, the Hamptons (on the South Fork), and Long Island.  Almost all of the wineries are located on the North Fork, the oldest region, with four wineries in the Hamptons, and just one, Old Brookville Estate of Banfi, in Nassau County, with the general Long Island AVA (but many wineries which blend grapes from North Fork and South Fork vineyards for some of their wines must use the Long Island AVA for these wines).

Long Island is still a relatively small wine region, producing less than 10 million bottles annually (to put that figure into perspective, a lot less than Moët & Chandon’s or Veuve Clicquot’s annual production).  What’s more, Long Island’s proximity to New York City means that its wineries sell about half of their wines directly to its more than one million visitors each year.  And yet all but the smallest Long Island wineries do manage to sell their wines to a few other states outside of New York.

The great thing about visiting Long Island’s wineries, especially in the summer, is enjoying all the fresh fish and seafood, found in Long Island’s waters, accompanied by the local white wines.  Oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops are specialties of Long Island.

On a recent tour of Long Island wineries, I was more impressed with the Sauvignon Blancs, as a group, than any other wines I tasted.  Long Island Sauvignon Blancs remind me a great deal of the Loire Valley’s Sancerres and Pouilly-Fumés, with their bracing acidity and relatively low (12.5 to 13%) alcohol content.

Besides Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, the other major white wines being produced on Long Island these days include Riesling, Viognier, Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and various blended white wines.  Of this group, the wine that impressed me the most was Pinot Grigio (some Long Island wineries call it by its French name, Pinot Gris).  I think that Long Island Pinot Grigio/Pinot  Gris wines compare favorably in quality with Oregon Pinot Gris (although stylistically, they are generally dryer), and are considerably better than most of the mass-produced Italian Pinot Grigios or California Pinot Grigios.  

The wine scene has been changing rapidly over the years on Long Island.  Some of the early wineries have gone; Hargrave Vineyards sold its winery in 1999, for example (the winery now at that location is Castello di Borghese Vineyard). Two other early pioneers, Bidwell Vineyards and Gristina Vineyards, also closed.  But they have been replaced by a host of fresh, new wineries, many of whom are doing really well.

To bring you up-to-date on the Long Island wine scene, I list in alphabetical order some of my favorite Long Island wineries, large and small (“large” being a relative term; no Long Island winery is really large) with a capsule description of each, including their leading wines:

Bedell Cellars/Corey Creek Vineyards - Bedell Cellars, one of largest and oldest wineries on Long Island’s North Fork; is best-known for its Merlot and its Chardonnay.  Its separate winery, the smaller Corey Creek Vineyards, produces a good Gewürztraminer.

Bouké - A new brand (founded in 2007), the small Bouké (pronounced bouquet) is owned by a career-changer, Lisa Donneson, who has hired Giles Martin, one of Long Island’s top winemakers, as Consulting Winemaker.  Bouké’s specialties are an excellent value-white, red, and rosé.  Worth seeking out.

Channing Daughters Winery - One of Long Island’s most exciting wineries, now 12 years old, and producing some of the Island’s best whites, including outstanding Sauvignon Blancs, both oaked and unoaked (I prefer the less expensive unoaked); an excellent Pinot Grigio; a fine Chardonnay; and Long Island’s only Tocai Friulano.  The CEO here is veteran Long Island winemaker Larry Perrine, and the winemaker is a rising star, Christopher Tracy.  In Bridgehampton, on the South Fork; Channing Daughters is one of the two top Hamptons AVA wineries, along with Wölffer Estate.

The Lenz Winery - One of the oldest wineries on Long Island, and still one of the best, and one of the most respected.  Under the guidance of veteran winemaker Eric Fry, Lenz produces arguably Long Island’s best Gewürztraminer and some excellent Chardonnays.

Macari Vineyards - Founded in 1995, Macari Vineyards quickly established itself as one of Long Island’s finest wineries.  Macari’s specialties are its excellent white wines, especially its Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay; and its dessert wines.  Run by the charming husband and wife team, Joe Macari, Jr. and Alexandra Macari.

Martha Clara Vineyards - Founded by the original owners of a Brooklyn and Long Island institution, Entenmann’s Bakery (how I loved their chocolate-covered doughnuts!), Martha Clara is run today by Robert  Entenmann.  One of the North Fork’s larger and prettier wineries, Martha Clara specializes in white wines and excellent sparkling wines.

Paumanok Vineyards - Always one of my favorite Long Island wineries.  Paumanok produces an excellent Cabernet Franc, a fine blended red called Assemblage, and some of Long Island’s best white wines.  Paumanok’s wines are well-distributed throughout the U.S.

Peconic Bay Winery - One of the North Fork’s oldest wineries (1979), Peconic Bay continues to perform at a high level.  Its most renowned wines are its Chardonnay and its Merlot.

Pellegrini Vineyards - Under the direction of the renowned winemaker, Russell Hearn, Pellegrini is one of Long Island’s finest red wine producers, and is especially known for its Cabernet Franc, its Merlot, and its Cabernet Sauvignon.

Raphael - A fairly small but superb winery, Raphael has achieved a reputation for excellence since its inception in 1996.  Raphael makes top-quality red and white wines. Its best reds are its Cabernet Sauvignon, its Malbec, and its Merlot.  Raphael also produces exceptional Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs.  On my recent trip, I chose to drink Raphael’s Chardonnay with lunch as the best of a group of about 20 Long Island Chardonnays available.

Shinn Estate Vineyards - Barbara Shinn and her husband David Page are not only producing fine wines, but they will also provide you with an inn right on their property, Shinn Estate Farmhouse, when you visit them.  Excellent Sauvignon Blanc and sparkling brut, along with a fine Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Sparkling Pointe - It had to come, a Long Island winery specializing in sparkling wines!  Using the three Champagne varieties (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier), winemaker Gilles Martin is producing arguably Long Island’s finest sparkling wines.  I prefer the Brut, but others loved its Topaz Imperial Rosé.

Wölffer Estate - The German-born winemaker Roman Roth has established Wölffer Estate as one of New York State’s finest wineries.  Wölffer Estate’s white wines are particularly exceptional; its 2007 Chardonnay, Perle, is a standout, and its 2008 Pinot Gris is also exceptional.  Wölffer Estate also is making outstanding sparkling bruts, especially its Blanc de Blancs.