A Long Island Wine Adventure

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures, Wine Reviews | Posted on 02-01-2013

As a sommelier and San Francisco wine bar owner, I try to turn every vacation into a wine trip. Trips to Europe easily fit the bill. On a recent excursion to Vancouver Island, I discovered the shockingly delicious German-style wines produced in the region. Countless journeys down into Mexico’s Guadalupe Valley have introduced me to the underwhelming-but-promising wine industry in Baja.

However, I was a bit hesitant to transform my most recent trip into a wine tasting expedition — I was venturing to Long Island. 

Courtesy of the Long Island Wine Council.

Sure, I’ve read the articles claiming Long Island is an AVA worth taking seriously. Lettie Teague’s pieces in the Wall Street Journal have intrigued me no less than the next adventurous sommelier. I have even poured a Long Island Riesling in my bar — while mostly met with shrugs, there were also a few surprised compliments.

Regardless of these biases and low expectations, I made my way to The Hamptons with enough room in my luggage for at least 12 bottles, just in case.

Here’s a little Long Island history. Wild grapevines have always been a part of the island’s flora. In the mid-1600’s, settlers trained the wild vines up arbors, introducing viticulture to the region quite early. In the late 1700’s, vitis vinifera vines were brought over from Europe to the Prince Nursery Company on the Western tip of the island. Mr. Prince was a pioneer of American viticulture, producing one of the first texts on the subject entitled “Treatise on the Vine.” He studied the soils of Long Island and concluded they were prime for growing grapes.

Viticulture didn’t begin in earnest until the 1970’s. Since then, many wineries have sprung up — sticking mainly to Bordeaux varieties, more due to their sales potential than their appropriateness to the climate and soil. Over time, Merlot and Cabernet Franc were singled out as ideal for the region, as well as Syrah.

Other, more obscure grapes such as Lagrein, Blaufrankish, Refosco, and Dornfelder are making their presence known, but will need a bit more time to show their true colors in the Long Island terroir. As for whites, the ubiquitous Chardonnay is of course omnipresent, but some Gewurztraminer, Riesling, and Pinot Gris can be found here and there.

The Long Island viticultural area today consists of three AVAs: the all-encompassing Long Island AVA, The North Fork of Long Island AVA, and The Hamptons, Long Island AVA.

Larry Perrine of Channing Daughters Winery explains that the North Fork experiences a slightly warmer climate than The Hamptons due to the Atlantic exposure of the South Fork. But in general, the climate for both regions is maritime, with long warm summers coupled with cooling oceanic breezes. These winds keep the fall season temperate and protect the vines from icy winters. Soils here are very complex due to their glacial Ice Age origin. Variations of loam and sand permeate most of the vineyard land, offering good drainage and perfect nutrient levels.

Shinn Estate Vineyards.

Winemakers and vineyard managers are getting experimental in Long Island, testing new trellising methods, different grape varieties, and natural winemaking techniques. The word “wild” can be seen on quite a few labels, referring to fermentation by native yeast (Shinn Estate Vineyards and Channing Daughters both have excellent examples of these wines). Orange wines produced predominantly with Chardonnay and Pinot Gris can be seen on some tasting room shelves next to bone-dry rosés perfect for quaffing on the beaches of The Hamptons. Wölffer Estate maintains an interesting block of vines to study various trellising styles right in front of their impressive tasting room. Not only are delicious wines coming from these AVAs, some excellent research is underway as well.

So how are the wines? I visited a number of wineries and sampled quite a few bottles on my own. These wines are almost Old-World in style with excellent acidity, moderate alcohol (most between 12% and 13% ABV), and piquant aromatics. They far surpassed my meager expectations.

And I was very happy to have left room in my bag for bringing back some samples — I returned to San Francisco with 11 bottles. Below the fold are notes on some wines that really stood out to me.

Review: 2010 Wölffer Estate Chardonnay
USA, New York, Long Island, The Hamptons
From The Hamptons AVA, this crisp and clean Chardonnay surprised me with its precision. I had expected a flabby, uninspiring version for some reason, but this wine got my attention from the start. Delicate aromas of stone fruits with only a hint of rich butter were followed on the palate by a refreshing zing of acidity with mouthwatering lemon and peach accents.

Review: 2010 Channing Daughters Chardonnay L’Enfant Sauvage
USA, New York, Long Island, The Hamptons
A natural ferment from The Hamptons. This Chardonnay is a perfect contrast to the Wölffer Estate example. More bold usage of oak here translates into a bigger, more upfront style. For those who enjoy good white Burgundies, this is the American wine for you.

Review: 2009 Wölffer Cabernet Franc Estate Selection
USA, New York, Long Island, The Hamptons
A beautiful Cab Franc from The Hamptons. Dark berries, a touch of herbal intonations, and the once again refreshing acidity that seems to be characteristic of the region.

Review: 2008 Channing Daughters Sculpture Garden
USA, New York, Long Island, The Hamptons
A Bordeaux-style blend consisting almost entirely of Merlot. This wine is complex, structured, and delicious. Anyone claiming not to like Merlot should taste this wine blind…

Review: 2009 Shinn Estate Vineyards Wild Boar Doe
USA, New York, Long Island, North Fork
A blend of 40% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Malbec, 15% Petit Verdot, and 5% Cabernet Franc, from the North Fork AVA. Cutesy name aside, the Wild Boar Doe is a serious, earthy, spicy Bordeaux-style red. One of my favorite reds I tasted on the island.

So get out there and taste some Long Island wines! If you can’t seem to find any and are in the San Francisco area, we will be pouring a few at The Barrel Room in San Francisco beginning mid-February.

Comments (6)

  1. Very nice to see the North Fork and Long Island getting some love. The North Fork vineyards, especially, have shown real promise. If you are in for a sampling of various NF vineyards you can do a study right from NYC at Red Hook Winery in Brooklyn, which buys fruit from the island and makes a number of vineyard designates, including nine(nine!) skin-fermented whites.

  2. What LI wines will you be getting in The Barrel Room? I’m a recent SF transplant who worked as an assistant winemaker on the North Fork for almost 2 years… great to see the underrated wines of Long Island are making it out west.

  3. So far the Wolffer Estate Cabernet Franc, the Shinn Estate Vineyards Chardonnay, the Channing Daughters ‘Sculpture Garden,’ and the Shinn ‘Wild Boar Doe’ have gotten excellent responses at The Barrel Room. We will probably try to pour these four. Where did you work as an assistant winemaker?

  4. Osprey’s Dominion in Peconic. I’ll have to stop by the Barrel Room soon and reminisce.

  5. Just an addendum to John’s post… the Red Hook Winery was unfortunately destroyed in Hurricane Sandy. It was a great operation and with enough support I hope and believe it will be up and running again one day.

    More here http://northfork.patch.com/articles/tasting-planned-to-help-red-hook-winery-rebuild

  6. Hi Sarah! Not sure if you’ve seen it, but I interviewed Barbara Shinn for the site a while back after visiting Shinn: http://www.terroirist.com/2011/12/weekly-interview-barbara-shinn/

    LI is a fun wine trip!