Great Expectations

“How is the vintage?” “Are the grapes looking good this year?”  “How’s the wine going to be?” As a winemaker, I appreciate getting asked questions like these over the course of the year. The wine culture on the North Fork is still relatively young and years ago, fewer people were as tuned into the local wine scene as they are today. But as many of us know, it’s a difficult question to answer, especially before the harvest is completed. The growing season is long – sometimes well over 200 days - and lots can happen over the course of 5-6 months. To help folks understand this scenario better, I think some analogies might come in handy. For the avid reader, one might say that a vintage is like a thick, well-written novel that has a large cast of characters and a plot that takes many twists and turns before coming to a conclusion. For the sports fan, a vintage can be a lot like a baseball season. It takes place during the same time of year (April – November) and involves a similar wide-range of factors. Trying to determine the quality of a vintage in April or May is sort of like asking who is going to the World Series? As they say in sports – that’s why you play the game.

But unlike baseball, there are always winners in the game of Long Island winemaking. No matter the weather conditions of the vintage, very good wines are made every year on the North Fork. Some will say this is typical winemaker talk –  saying every year is a good year - but I’m here to tell you it’s the pleasant reality of making wine on the North Fork.  And it’s true because of our mild temperate climate and just as important – the diversity of the grape varieties planted in our fields.

When compared to our contemporaries in the EU, the east coast wine industry is one of the most diverse in the entire world. In France, the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée rules closely define which grape varieties can be grown in each of the several hundred geographically defined appellations. For example, Bordeaux is planted predominantly to the varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc while in Burgundy, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are king and queen. Similar rules are found in Germany where Riesling rules and in Spain which is famous for their Tempranillo. Such restrictions have helped to produce some of the best wines in the world and these regions have become models for winemakers around the globe to emulate. The drawback to this system is a lack of varietal diversity - weather conditions in these regions may not always be favorable to the varieties grown there. The result is that many wineries in these districts are not always able to produce their best wines every year, leaving what we call "vintage variation."

Unlike these Old World regions, the North Fork grows a fairly wide range of wine grapes. Our moderate climate can ripen this eclectic mix of varieties and our diversity in this regard allows us to produce wonderful wines every year. In years when rainfall and cool weather dominate, white wines will shine. Hot and dry years will be  best for reds. There are also vintages that fall somewhere in between - where both reds and whites are of extraordinary quality, i.e. 2010.

The bottom line is that every vintage on Long Island will produce delicious wines. It’s a testament to our climate and soil and to the hard working people in our vineyards and cellars who strive to keep pushing the quality of our local wines higher and higher and to whom every year is filled with great expectations…

Next: My thoughts on the 2011 vintage...