A caveat: I do not blame you if your fundamental understanding of Long Island wine begins and ends with rosé. There are a lot of good reasons to drink pink wine on Long Island, especially when cooperative weather is in sight. But for over three decades, the winemakers of Eastern Long Island—technically three A.V.As—have produced thoughtful, terroir-driven wines that have largely flown under the radar. Honing their skills in a region renowned for its fickle weather, these winemakers are among some of the United States’ most talented professionals. Newcomers no more, the winemakers of Long Island are beginning to receive the recognition they have long since deserved. And it’s about time.
A Region with Distinction
Unlike in many other American regions, the Long Island’s three A.V.As – Long Island A.V.A.; North Fork, Long Island A.V.A.; and The Hamptons, Long Island A.V.A. – have no varietal designations. Winemakers can plant what they wish where they wish, and this means autonomy when it comes to the artistry of winemaking. Of course, certain varietals tend to do better (or worse) on the two forks than others, meaning that, while wine lovers will see much diversity in plantings, there still is not an abundance, say, of Pinot Noir, a grape not known for its tolerance of humidity and unpredictable maritime weather patterns. Winemaking practices vary from winery to winery, and the region showcases everything from compelling Méthode Champenoise sparkling wine to concrete-aged Sauvignon Blanc (Shinn Estate’s Sauvignon Blanc, the Concrete Blonde, is a compelling example of the latter). The common theme, when it comes to Long Island practice, is that there is no common theme.
A Tale of Two Forks
The Hamptons, a 209-square mile A.V.A. on Long Island’s South Fork, encompasses the townships of Southampton and East Hampton, as well as Gardiners Island, while the North Fork A.V.A. runs from Riverhead to Greenport, incorporating Robins and Shelter Islands. The fog-prone southern peninsula is influenced by both the Peconic Bay (to the north) and by the Atlantic Ocean (to the south). Fog is a challenging weather factor, bringing with it the threat of fungus and rot, and that may be one reason that only a handful of wineries have taken root on this slice of land, which was granted A.V.A. status in 1984. The Hamptons’ soil is largely silt and loam, though the soils abutting the Peconic Bay are sand and gravel.
On the North Fork, which gained A.V.A. status in 1985 and is now home to over 40 wineries, soils are sandy loam and Haven loam—the latter of which includes clay particulate and makes for exceptional winegrowing. The North Fork is more stable, weather-wise, than its southern sibling, with the moderating effect of a third body of water, the Long Island Sound, contributing to its regulated temperature. The third A.V.A., Long Island A.V.A., is the larger area into which The Hamptons and North Fork fall.
I could probably pen an encyclopedia about the many grapes that have found homes in Long Island vineyards. But, all things being equal, some grapes perform better than others. In The Hamptons, winemaker Christopher Tracy of Channing Daughters has had success with varietals as divergent as Tocai Friulano, Sémillon, Aligoté, Dornfelder, Gewurztraminer, and Muscat, but the key to his wines lies in the blending process (a technique that allows for a lot of creative latitude when it comes to the end result, since winemakers can use whichever grapes over perform in a given vintage).
In truth, the grapes that are most reliable are the ones that show up at the majority of Long Island’s vineyards: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Blending, however, remains a reliable technique of Long Island winemakers in a region where vintage predictability is a challenge. Many of the region’s famous rosés, like the iconic wines of Wölffer Estate Vineyard, are blends. The entry-level 2018 Estate Rosé, for instance, combines Merlot (52%), Chardonnay (20%), Cabernet Franc (13%), Cabernet Sauvignon (11%), Sauvignon Blanc (2%), Riesling (1%) and Pinot Noir (1%), and these percentages change each year, depending on the success of each individual varietal.
Pairing Picks for Long Island Wines
As the old adage goes, what grows together goes together. Luckily, Long Island is home to a diverse field of produce, dairy products, and poultry. Pair native cheeses, like Catapano Dairy Farms’ aged “Sundancer,” or Mecox Bay Dairy’s creamy “Atlantic Mist” with the sturdy 2014 Lenz Pinot Gris. Long Island duck holds up to Merlot, as well as to heartier varietals, like Cabernet Sauvignon and the sometimes-vegetal Cabernet Franc. Split the difference with the 2014 McCall Wines’ “Ben’s Blend” ($54), a Meritage marrying Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot that is only made in exceptional vintages. For the region’s famous Peconic Bay scallops, think rich whites, like the 2016 Kontokosta Anemometer White ($35), a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and aromatic Viognier. The soft, supple, and plummy 2016 Bedell Merlot ($30) pairs perfectly with the pastured chickens from Browder’s Birds or Iacono Farm.
Bottles to Try
Sparkling Pointe Brut, 2016 – The vintage brut is the winery’s entry-level, Méthode Champenoise sparkler, made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes. Aged for 1 ½ years on the lees, it is a bright, ripe-fruited sparkler with a firm backbone. $30.
Saltbird Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2017 – Though fermented in stainless steel, this wine spends extensive time on the lees, giving it unctuousness on the back palate. This is a zesty, refreshing wine that teems with lime and melon. $24.
Channing Daughters L’Enfant Sauvage Chardonnay 2015 – A barrel-aged Chardonnay made from Bridgehampton grapes all grown within The Hamptons A.V.A., this is a creamy, yeasty, and persistent white that pairs well with richer seafood, like Long Island scallops. $38.
Macari Vineyards Horses 2016 – A limited-production, crown-capped sparkling rosé made from 100 percent Cabernet Franc, this wine is a delightful, fun, and luscious wine, with strawberries and ripe cherries on the palate. $24.
Wölffer Estate Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2017– This single-varietal wine is structured and full but not overbearing, benefitting from brilliant acidity and expressive fruit. $24.
Mattebella Vineyards Old World Blend 2013 – A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot, this grippy, intense wine is redolent of rose petals and pomegranate. $65.
Hannah Selinger’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Kitchn, RawStory.com, Edible Long Island, Edible East End, and numerous other regional and national publications. A Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, she writes the monthly wine column for the Southampton Press. Hannah lives with her husband, two sons, and two dogs in East Hampton, NY. Website: http://www.hannahselinger.net; Twitter: @hannahselinger; Instagram: @druishamericanprincess.