New York was the third-largest wine-producing state in the U.S. in 2017. But while one of the state’s key wine regions, the Finger Lakes, has cultivated a strong identity based on the Riesling grape, it’s difficult for many wine professionals to easily define and describe the key wines of Long Island, a region just two hours from the bustling wine hotspot of New York City.
Although Long Island has established a strong enotourism industry since the first modern vineyards were planted in 1973, its recognition as a high-quality wine region by the trade has been lagging. This may be because Long Island has embraced a wide range of wines or because many sommeliers don’t have the opportunity to taste the region’s best offerings, but Long Island produces a significant number of standout wines—from offbeat, experimental options to long-lived classics—and wine professionals are starting to take notice.
While the Long Island AVA is made up of the island’s Nassau and Suffolk counties—excluding Kings County (Brooklyn) and Queens County (Queens), which are boroughs of New York City—the winemaking industry is centered on its eastern reaches, or East End. Most wineries are located in the North Fork of Long Island AVA, which borders the Long Island Sound, while a handful are situated along the Atlantic Ocean, in The Hamptons, Long Island AVA. Though Long Island has abundant sunshine, the influence of the surrounding ocean gives the region a cool, maritime climate.
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While there are slight differences between the North Fork and the Hamptons AVAs—the latter has higher levels of silt and clay soils, with more cooling ocean influence, while the former is slightly warmer, with sandier, readily draining soils—these two small regions are largely similar. Together, the North Fork and the Hamptons have 2,200 planted vineyard acres and 52 wineries.
The combination of loamy soils, plentiful sun, and cool temperatures makes Long Island a suitable spot for a wide variety of grapes. “On Long Island we truly are in a sweet spot, where dozens of varieties fall into our range,” says Kareem Massoud, the winemaker for the North Fork wineries Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue and Palmer Vineyards in Riverhead. That extensive range, however, may be the reason that sommeliers and buyers have trouble pinpointing the essence of Long Island winemaking. Rather than hitching their wagons to a single signature variety, Long Island vintners have embraced many.
Based in Bridgehampton, the Channing Daughters winery, which also sources grapes from the North Fork, is perhaps most emblematic of the region’s experimental energy. It works with varieties like Blaufränkisch and Tocai Friulano and experiments with skin contact and the ancestral method of making sparkling wine. But even Hamptons label Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack—widely known for its consumer-friendly rosés and dry ciders—releases small batches of offbeat varieties like Trebbiano and Sémillon to satisfy the curiosity of frequent tasting-room visitors.
The lagging trade recognition may also stem from the fact that Long Island’s most popular variety has lost cachet in recent years. Initially planted around 1975 by the island’s first modern commercial winery, Hargrave Vineyard (now Castello di Borghese in Cutchogue), Merlot became a dependable favorite of producers. Ripening is difficult in cool, wet Long Island, so this early-ripening, heavy soil-loving grape worked well. But after local winemakers went all in with Merlot, the grape fell out of fashion, partially due to a certain 2004 film.
The decrease in demand for Merlot “certainly put a damper on marketability,” says Roman Roth, a partner at Wölffer Estate and its winemaker. “It also undermined the confidence of the consumer in believing in this great variety.” Roth thinks that Long Island’s Merlot can compete with the best Merlots in the world, due to the cool temperatures and long hang time. Indeed, Long Island Merlots have remarkable concentration and complexity without jammy fruit or high alcohol, and are strung together by fine, focused acidity. The grape is often the core component of the region’s common red blends, alongside other Bordeaux grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon.
While Roth notes that Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc will likely always be staple varieties on Long Island, due to familiarity as well as climate suitability, Malbec is becoming more popular in the region as well. North Fork winery Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue began working with the grape over a decade ago after reviewing viticultural research from the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.
“Malbec is disease resistant and has thick skin, and we can get it to ripen,” says Whitney Beaman, the director of brand strategy for Bedell Cellars. “It produces a more European style of Malbec, with crisp acidity and fresh fruit.” Anthony Nappa, the winemaker for Raphael in Peconic on the North Fork, is currently grafting over six acres of vineyards to Malbec as well. The only problem with Malbec, he notes, is that although it ripens earlier than Merlot, it isn’t very winter hardy, but that may be less of a problem as annual temperatures rise.
What’s Ahead for Long Island
As modern winemaking on Long Island nears its 50-year anniversary, leading producers are looking at ways to take the industry to the next level, in terms of both quality and longevity. Organic and biodynamic viticulture is difficult on Long Island because of humidity and heavy rainfall—after 18 inches of rain this past autumn, the fruit from the island’s only organic vineyard was essentially wiped out. Roth considers organic grape growing an especially tricky proposition because any perceived flaw in a wine could set Long Island’s reputation back as a whole.
“The organic standard is national,” says Nappa, who also makes wine for his own label, Anthony Nappa Wines in Mattituck, “and doesn’t take into account specific conditions throughout the country.” That’s why producers launched Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing (LISW) in 2012, a program that outlines best practices for environmentally friendly, quality grape growing specifically on Long Island. “Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing,” says Massoud, “more fully encompases the standards and techniques that are applicable to this region specifically.”
Currently, LISW has 22 members, and more than 1,000 acres of vineyards have been certified sustainable under the program—roughly half of the East End’s vineyards. The idea, as many wineries move into their second generation of ownership, is to promote longevity. “LISW Sustainable Certification guarantees that there is a devoted farm winery behind every bottle,” says Beaman, who is also LISW’s program manager. “We don’t want just one good vintage. We strive to be environmental stewards for the great vintages to come.”
While the goal of LISW is environmental and economic sustainability, the program may also be an indicator of wine quality. “I do believe all of the people in the initiative certainly [represent] the best wineries out there,” says Michael Faircloth, the owner and buyer for Vinyl Wine in Manhattan, who visited Long Island wineries last year and offers labels like Bridge Lane and Bedell in the shop. “I’m not aware of any of the top people who are not a part of it.” Paying attention to the land is a key component in the next phase of Long Island wine. Homing in on site specificities and matching the right varieties to the right vineyards are next goals for the winemakers that Long Island to be recognized internationally for quality wines. “That’s the next step, the next level,” says Gabriella Macari, the director of sales and marketing for Macari Vineyards in Mattituck on the North Fork. “That’s where we go from here.”
Perhaps the biggest obstacle standing between the Long Island wine industry and the greater community of wine professionals is the size of the region. Not only is production small, but the thirsty tourism market typically consumes or purchases these wines directly in tasting rooms. Many of the wines are only distributed to New York City, if at all, and it’s far more profitable to sell locally. Until a more comprehensive array of Long Island wines enter major wine markets, buyers will have to do some footwork to discover the quality of these wines.
“I think more somms just need to travel out there,” says Faircloth. “Because the more we support the wine region, the better it will be.”
Courtney Schiessl Magrini is a Brooklyn-based wine journalist, educator, and consultant who has held sommelier positions at some of New York’s top restaurants, including Marta, Dirty French, and Terroir. She is currently the senior editor for SevenFifty Daily, and her work has appeared in Wine Enthusiast, GuildSomm, Forbes.com, VinePair, EatingWell Magazine, and more. She holds the WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits. Follow her Champagne-fueled adventures on Instagram at @takeittocourt.