The Grapes of Roth by Wolffer Estate


Long Island Wine: No Longer a Long Shot

When I last reported on the wines of New York State – in issue 165 – it was as someone who had only recently become seriously acquainted with viticultural Long Island. As I made clear then, the quality of the best wines issuing from what might seem like the unpromisingly supine finger that juts far into the Atlantic east of New York City is impressive – and steadily improving. The 2005 vintage – in which, despite autumn rainfall of historic proportions, many of the most conscientious Long Island vintners were eventually able to harvest their finest-ever reds – built confidence in their ranks that the worst nature could throw at them was surmountable. And since most Long Island estates have only been producing wine during the past two decades, it is just in recent years that most of them have been able to revisit their entirely mature wines, an occasion both for critical assessment and in many instances for well-justified satisfaction, perhaps even a bit of amazement at how well the project of Long Island viticulture has fared since its tentative inception little more than three decades ago. (For more about the history of Long Island wine growing, the island's geography, and those aspects of soil and climate that conduce to fine wine, please consult the introduction to my issue 165 report.)

Another boost to the self-confidence and economic security of many Long Island wine growers – at least, to hear them tell it – has been the extent to which only in the last several years have they at last been properly embraced by New York City's restaurant establishment and become by-the-glass as well as wine list staples. The proximity of this huge market as well as the obvious bottom line advantages of cellar door sales have meant that many of the best Long Island wineries make little effort to market to out-of-state distributors, and interested wine lovers who live beyond comfortable driving distance will simply need to put themselves on those wineries' mailing lists and take direct delivery. That said, a few outstanding Long Island wineries such as Channing Daughters are now affiliated with distributors even on the U.S. West Coast and in Canada.

Before it was over, vintage 2006 had engendered flashbacks to the deluge of 2005. But 2006 did not benefit from the hot, dry summer conditions that had accelerated ripeness and toughened skins in 2005. I was thus unsurprised when few growers showed me their 2006s. Yet, Shinn Estate, for one, demonstrated that reds of this vintage from the Bordelaise grapes – while quick to mature in bottle – could be absolutely lovely. The 2007 vintage has proven a great success in both whites and reds, with steady, long ripening enhanced by dry, sunny weather during the critical months of September and October (and with many reds not picked until November). “There was no pressure in 2007,” remarks Wölffer winemaker Roman Roth. “You could wait across the board for full ripeness.” For many Long Island vintners, this vintage – which veteran Charles Massoud of Paumanok Vineyards simply calls “ideal” – now represents the new benchmark. Relatively cool and intermittently rainy growing weather in 2008 has proven ideal for whites of focus and phenolic cut (though they were especially susceptible to a May 1 frost), but the vintage was more challenging for reds, and none of the growers with whom I tasted earlier this year was ready to show those wines, especially since most are currently offering their excellent 2007s, and in many instances 2005s. As for 2009, its almost perpetually wet summer will still be a vivid memory for most residents of the U.S. East Coast, and while early reports and tank samples that reached me indicate that enough late inning sunshine – along with Long Island's ever-important breezes – permitted white grapes at least to do respectably, poor fruit set and the need to rigorously select combined for at times drastic reduction in crop size.

That Long Island viticulture is stylistically in flux is to put things mildly. While the region's most prominent and obvious successes have been with reds from the Bordelaise grape varieties – with which it is possible here to achieve wines of more tender and forward fruit than that of classic Bordeaux, yet with lower alcohol and slighter frame than characterize New World regions like California – recent experiments with Syrah show just how wide-open and unpredictable things remain. Among the Bordelaise black grapes, Merlot and Cabernet Franc remain manifestly Long Island's most successful, with Cabernet Sauvignon a less reliable ripener and where it does prove interesting, usually in a supporting role very different from that which we associate either with Bordeaux or with most of the New World. There is a significant incursion of (generally over-priced) Petit Verdot, but judging by the results this must be driven by fashion and wishful thinking, spurred by the superficial appeal of a grape with potential for deep color and superficial fruitiness. That said, like Malbec, the Petit Verdot may settle into a useful supporting role at some addresses. (I half expect to soon hear about Long Island's first Carménère, 'though I can't imagine that grape doing well here.) Bruce Schneider has already demonstrated the amazingly Northern Rhône-like potential of Syrah in the North Fork's warmest sectors, although he was unfortunately compelled by circumstance to relinquish his rights to the Syrah vineyards with which he had initiated his program. I am still waiting to taste a red Long Island Pinot Noir that was more than merely good (and few are that), whereas striking successes with Pinot-based sparkling wines continue to add up and point to a promising trend.

In the realm of white grapes, Long Island's relatively low volume but diverse and distinctively delicious range conforms to few readily discernable patterns and issues from a wide range of cépages. As Charles Massoud remarked when challenged by me about the eight different varieties – half of them white – that he cultivates, “I am torn in two directions. Reduce the number of varieties to gain greater depth and focus on those that are left, or grow [even] more varieties to satisfy my curiosity as to what else may be possible. Ours is a young region, and we have not yet fully explored what will shine here. I would not know today which variety to discontinue.” Employing whites associated with northern Italy, Channing Daughters in the Hamptons has rendered what I do not hesitate to call among the most interesting and rewarding white wines grown anywhere in North America. Yet, while wine maker Christopher Tracy says, “To have people plant more Sauvignon, more Pinot Grigio, more Tocai, more Muscat would thrill us because we think that year-in, year-out we can make world class white wines on Long Island,” few fellow Long Islanders have given him that satisfaction. On the other hand, impressive if sporadic successes have been scored at other estates with Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, and even Riesling.

The notes that follow were compiled on the basis of collective visits in New York City in January with a subset of Long Island growers as well as on the basis of samples subsequently sent me. (I last revisited Long Island in 2007, a year after filing my issue 165 report, and I published additional tasting notes on its wine values in issue 178.) Regrettably, time did not permit me to canvas the recent releases from several of those estates whose wines I had recommended in issue 165. Prices for Long Island wines have barely budged since my reports in 2006 and 2007. They are generally set on the basis of the ambition behind a given bottling or in inverse relationship to quantity, neither of which approaches have, in my experience, at all consistently correlated with quality. Less ambitious, less expensive cuvées are sometimes the most distinctively delicious, which in a region where growers are still exploring their talents and those of their vineyards is perhaps unsurprising, and which also helps guarantee many wines offering outstanding value.

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