The best statement about what to do – and what not to do – to make and promote fine wine in Long Island comes from the LI wines themselves – and it’s a different story than the one that its winemakers are telling.
Before we get into what’s wrong with the current state of Long Island fine wine, we should talk about what’s right about it – which turns out to be quite a bit, based on my experience tasting and talking with several of the area’s best winemakers over the course of two and half days there as part of the first wine bloggers’ TasteCamp East event.
To say that Long Island has the potential to make fine wine is to offer a textbook definition of the phrase “gross understatement.” Long Island’s Maritime climate tempers the harshness of the Summers and Winters that can, at their worst, besiege the inland winemaking areas to the immediate west. It’s best sites are built on top of sandy subsoil, similar to Right Bank Bordeaux, making even nearly imperceptible differences in elevation vitally important in terms of the drainage and aspect needed to develop concentrated, ripe fruit on the vine. In other words, LI has better potential than just about anywhere else on the East Coast to consistently achieve the ripeness that is essential to making fine wine.
Long Island also has Burgundy-like weather variations – as Joe Macari, the North Fork’s tireless promoter of all things organic and biodynamic, told us, “It’s probably just as hard to grow grapes here as it is in Burgundy – harder, even.” This makes ripening grapes maddening in difficult conditions, and also means that, like Burgundy, vintage variations have a larger impact on wine quality than in warmer regions like the Left Coast. It also makes the results in the final wine more rewarding – even if an obscene amount of fruit needs to be rejected in the process.
There’s no question where the muse for Long Island wine originates, and it’s not the lushness of California wines. Just about everyone making wine in LI is looking to the East – specifically, France. The ghost of France is inescapable here, and it haunts most aspects of Long Island winemaking.
“I’m not ashamed to say it,” Richard Pisacano, the amicable and quietly passionate force behind the North Fork’s Roanoke vineyards, told me when I asked him where he looks for his winemaking benchmark. “It’s France, and Bordeaux. I use their clones. I use their barrels. The wines are unfined and unfiltered, with extended maceration.” In other words, he uses their modern techniques as well. After visiting Margaux in 2000 to taste their wines in their natural French habitat, “I just wanted to go home and cry,” he said.
Modeling after the French seems to make sense, given the (burgeoning) terroir in LI, and it permeates the wine-making philosophies of almost all of the wineries in both the North Fork and the Hamptons to the south. The favorite word of Eric Frye (Lenz’s eccentric and un-quietly passionate winemaker), based on my few hours sampling his finished – and his fermenting – wines, is “Burgundian.” In the Hamptons, the warm and approachable German-bron winemaker Roman Roth has clearly modeled Wollfer’s “Premier Cru” ultra-premium Merlot on the high-end Right Bank Bordeaux offerings based on the same variety. Even the Long Island cafe’s have a French flair.
Spending time with Macari. Roth, Piscano, Fry, or the charming folks at the helm of Shinn is a lesson in Long Island terroir and winemaking, all of them being different in terms of detailed approach, but identical in terms of a shared passion to collectively and collaboratively improve Long Island wine. There is mock competition between the North Fork and the Hamptons (in my view, Hamptons is currently in the lead), but there is great camaraderie as well between the producers. Put another way, you are unlikely to find any winemakers in LI who don’t care deeply about their region, and their wines.
What Is Wrong.
Now that we’ve established that the Where, the How, and the Who seem to all be dead-on correct in the world of Long Island wine, we can talk about the What, which might be the only aspect that isn’t right.
Long Island is extremely fond of its Merlot, to the point that they brought together five of the region’s wineries to make a collective offering called Merliance (rhymes with alliance, though Francophilia runs so deep here that some of its members pronounce it as mer-lee-AHNZ, as if it were based in France). But just because you’ve got sandy subsoil, doesn’t make you Pomerol, and it certainly doesn’t mean you should be charging Pomerol-like prices. It might be precisely this Bordeaux Merlot love-affair that is holding Long Island back from its true winemaking destiny.
Russell Hearn, the Australian-born Pellegrini winemaker, described the Merliance initiative like this:
“The goal isn’t to make the best Long Island wine – that was never the goal, nor will it ever be the goal – it’s to make the best representation of what Long Island wine is; not Califronia, not ‘more like Europe,’ but like Long Island.”
The sentiment is dead-on, but the trouble is that it might not be quite true that Merlot is the quintessential Long Island wine offering – at least, the wines themselves are giving a different story about the future of Long Island’s terroir than the one many of its winemakers are telling.
The best reds in Long Island are enchanting, and ridiculously expensive even in poor vintages, where they might better be described as ‘Under/Over’ (Under-ripe & Over-priced). The consistent quality comes from the area’s whites, which can run the gamut from racy and laser-focused, with downright beguiling ripe fruit aromas anchored by svelte minerality and food-worthy acidity, to all-out oaked fruit bombs that dial up the aromas, the acidity, and the structure for long-haul aging. And they don’t need ultra-ripe landmark vintages, like 2007, to achieve high-quality in their whites.
The trouble is not that Merlot doesn’t offer great potential here – it’s that it doesn’t offer the same consistent potential as their racy Chenin Blancs, or their elegant Sauvignon Blancs that combine lemongrass, mild grapefruit, and mouth-watering acids in near-perfect balance. In terms of reds, their superb and spicy Cabernet Francs will likely offer more consistent quality year-on-year than chasing after the sublime ripe red fruits of Right Bank Bordeaux ever will (not that the Hanmptons aren’t coming close). [ Thanks to Lenn Thompson over at Lenndevours.com for rightly pointing out that my snapshot of LI wines was not deep enough to fully support this last statement. ]
In that way, Long Isalnd’s terroir future seems to have more in common with The Loire and Northern Italy than it does Burgundy and Bordeaux. Only Christopher Tracy, the celebrated former chef and now Master of Wine candidate winemaker at Channing’s Daughters Winery, seems to really embrace this.
It’s hard not to like Tracy. He’s energetic, anchored, and at ease when talking about his wines, and despite being a walking fountain of SWE and WSET wine geekdom, he is approachable and down-to-earth. He’s also not chasing after points/ratings (Channing’s itDaughters wines are not sent out for reviews), which means that he has the freedom – and the ability – to experiment. And experimentation is exactly what Long Island needs to find its true terroir expression. A a result, his whites are outstanding.
Tracy’s model? Northern Italy’s Fruili.
It’s not that Fruili, the Loire, and Long Island share the same weather and terroir – they don’t. It’s that their wines, at their best, share the same unique balance of ripe, linear fruit, elegance, and racing acidity. The best wines of LI are telling us something about their highest potential, and they’re not speaking with Bordelaise or Burgundians accents.
If offering very good wine at increasing price-points is Long Island’s ultimate goal, then they need do nothing, and can happily continue their near-obsession with Right Bank Bordeaux wines made via Burgundian viniculture techniques. But if the goal is to offer the best-quality wines possible, with a pure representation of unique place, transferred faithfully from vine to glass, then Long Island may need to stop seeing so much red.