When people think of wine in the United States, their initial thoughts turn to California. Of course, California’s winemaking history goes back more than two hundred years, with international recognition booming in the 70s and 80s, and the branding of Napa Valley now firmly secured. This history and popularity of California wine has left a mark on the minds and palates of most Americans, even to the point of foreign wine producers aiming for a more “American”-style of wine. And as much as I love these wines myself, there is great beauty in diversity. Luckily, there are still a great deal of wine-producing regions in the United States that are not trying to just make another Californian style of wine, and the first that comes to my mind is Long Island.
Long Island consists of three AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). They are: Long Island, The North Fork of Long Island and The Hamptons, Long Island. From these three, the North Fork stands out with more than 30 wineries and a list of varietals that are being successfully turned from vine to wine. The most popular varietals on the North Fork are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. However, from my tasting, it is apparent that Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc are truly starting to shine, with Chardonnay trailing not too far behind.
The majority of Merlot I tasted on this trip was from 2005 and 2007, with both vintages considered to be excellent. The 2005s showed a balanced evolution of structure and fruit. Most are able to start drinking now, but many have the potential to age in your cellars. Another positive development in the region is how many wineries are starting to hold these bottles, so that the consumer can buy a wine ready to drink (such as 2005). That's not to say that the 2007s are structured beasts with unyielding pleasure – quite the opposite. Most of the 2007s I tasted were stylistically different, going for a riper style that remained fresh and vibrant on the palate. It's truly exciting to think where this is all going, but one thing's for certain; Merlot is here to stay on the North Fork.
However, Long Island doesn't begin and end with red wine. In fact, the white wines of Long Island have long been a strong point of the area, and the 2010 vintage really knocked it out of the park. These wines were perfectly ripe, but with lots of acidity and secondary aromas and flavors. Sauvignon Blanc, in particular, seems to have really come to age; most were very good and some were simply excellent. Many vintners continue to make a number of Chardonnay bottlings. Chardonnay has gained the reputation of being a blank canvas in which a winemaker can build upon. And if that's the case, then I have to say that most of the Long Island winemakers I visited with are doing a fine job at it from simple sippers that would be great at poolside, to big, layered barrel-fermented giants that can be enjoyed with or without a meal. Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention the handful of seriously good Gewürztraminer tasted on my trip.
2010 in general was an excellent vintage that played right into the hands of most winemakers. The question wasn't whether the fruit would achieve ripeness early enough to pick. The question was, how soon should we pick to avoid overripe grapes? Kareem Massoud of Paumanok Vineyards stated, "Some wineries were picking Champagne grapes as early as August." For the whites, it was a race to the finish. However, for the reds, it was the leisure of picking when winemakers wanted to. The 2010 reds, from what I tasted from barrel at Lenz, were voluptuous, with broad structure, intense focused fruit and truly seductive.
It's very exciting to think about where Long Island is going as a wine region, and I can tell you that it's been placed firmly on my map.