The Boston Phoenix October 5 - 12, 2000


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Long Island revisited

Line up here for the Next Big Thing

by David Marglin

Last week, I told you why you should hop in your car and motor down to Long Island: its wineries are showing off the results of their best vintage ever, 1997, and 2000 could be just as spectacular. Here's how and why things got so good.

To begin with, all world-class wine regions need proper climate and proper soil, two basic ingredients of what the French call terroir. Wine grapes need a long growing season when temperatures exceed 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Long Island isn't perfect in this respect. The last frost doesn't occur until some time in April, and in some years the weather doesn't cooperate in September and October either, so the grapes do not get a chance to ripen fully. But this is also true in other world-class wine regions, including Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhine, and parts of Italy. Long Island, on the other hand, is (usually) sunny, which is a plus. What's more, the ocean moderates temperature and makes it more consistent during the summer, and the area gets plenty of wind. That helps stress the vines (grapevines that are stressed yield more concentrated fruit) and exposes the grapes to sun by blowing aside the leaves.

Long Island also has the right kind of soil to stand up to rain -- of which the area gets plenty, even though it's the sunniest part of New York. The soil drains well and has the right depth and the right nutrients, as well as some coarseness and loam. Along with wind, these conditions are conducive to growing grapes and stressing vines.

Besides weather and soil, there are the intangibles. Serious money helps, because making world-class wine is an expensive business and, in the early going, not usually a particularly lucrative one. A community of like-minded folks is also good, because you get support from your peers and it is easier to find good staff. Long Island has had both since the late '80s and early '90s. Now there are more than 20 wineries on the North and South Forks (the latter includes the Hamptons AVA). The money is there, too -- two North Fork wineries changed hands this summer for more than $5 million apiece.

Long Island's wine industry was conceived around 1972, when, on Thanksgiving Day, Louisa and Alex Hargrave stopped at a fruit stand on the North Fork and pronounced the land a "little garden of Eden." They founded a vineyard and released their first wine, a rosé, in 1975. It took two more decades for things to get really serious, but the 1997 vintage, in particular, will be remembered as the one when it all came together for Long Island. The wines from that year are the ones that did so well in the August tasting that pitted offerings from the North Fork's Lenz Winery against French vintages from Pétrus, Château Latour, and Le Montrachet.

Lenz is by no means alone. Yet even though Long Island is now officially on the map, it's still a work in progress, as winemakers try to figure out which varietals work best. Chardonnay and merlot are naturals, because these grapes have high market demand, grow vigorously with high yields, and can withstand cold winters better than others. These were the biggest winners against their heavyweight French counterparts in the recent tasting. The problem with both these grapes, however, is that they are vulnerable in the event of a false spring warming, which induces bud-break, followed by a devastating frost. California, Spain, and Australia do not have to fear this late-winter/early-spring wipe-out.

Cabernet franc, I believe, is going to be the grape of the future. People are gaining a taste for it, it ripens earlier than cabernet sauvignon (which is always in a race against cold fall weather), and it does better in harsh winters. But Long Island is also producing some impressive sparkling wines (the one category in which Lenz fell short of its French counterparts, although only barely), as well as good pinot noirs, pinot gris, gewürztraminers, and rieslings. And Pindar Vineyards just debuted impressive syrah and viognier.

None of these wines are what you'd call cheap -- in fact, some prices are quite steep. But almost all the wines are worth the dollars, and many sell for between $10 and $20. Here are some in that price range that I would consider incredible values.

1997 Pellegrini Merlot North Fork Long Island ($16.99). A bit sharp, but will age really well. Get a lot of air on it and keep it overnight. Has lively, jazzy fruit; it's well-polished, a classic for eating with big steaks and chops.

1998 Pellegrini Cabernet Franc North Fork Long Island ($16.99). Cherries and bacon, sort of fleshy, make this wine nice with roasted pork tenderloin, or any dish with plum or hoisin sauce. Shows the promise of the future.

1997 Palmer Vineyards Merlot North Fork Long Island ($14.99). Smoky and succulent, vibrant, with maybe a hint too much wood. It should mellow some over time. Long finish, easy to pair.

1997 Jamesport Cabernet Franc North Fork Long Island ($17.95). These folks make great wines across the board, and this is an elegant example: supple, well-oaked, fully ripe, pleasant, and approachable. Fine with trout or red meat.

1995 Palmer Vineyards Chardonnay North Fork Long Island ($6.99). Note the price! Some butterscotch, but mainly pear, pretty well-balanced. Great accompaniment to salmon, halibut, or trout. Lingering honeysuckle bouquet makes this more than okay for the price.

1998 Wolffer Estate Chardonnay Reserve The Hamptons, Long Island ($17.99). Loads of minerals and oak. Pear tart, butter, ample character.

1997 Wolffer Estate Merlot the Hamptons, Long Island ($19.49). The future of merlot -- grand and delicious. Full, rich mouthfeel, soft tannins, ripe but not overly heavy blackberry, and a tinge of Bing cherries. It has some cab sauvignon and cab franc as well.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

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