Long Island’s Wine Scene Has Few Rules and Incredible Potential

An aerial image of a beach at sunset, Kontokosta Winery beyond the dunes
Kontokosta Winery on Long Island's North Fork/Photo by Bridget Elkin for Long Island Wine Council

New York’s Long Island is a small wine region with a broad scope and surprisingly short history. Though the area has been agricultural for years, wine production didn’t begin until the early 1970s. In the 1980s, producers lobbied for the region to be formally recognized.

Over the past five decades, the region’s wine has increased in both volume and quality. A range of grape varieties now grows in Long Island’s three appellations, which also incorporates a multitude of production methods and styles. Today, it produces world-class wine that appears in some of the country’s best restaurants and has a presence on the international stage.

Looking down a lush vineyard row on Long Island
A Long Island Vineyard/Photo by Bridget Elkin for Long Island Wine Council

The Appellations of Long Island

A 118-mile island directly east of Manhattan, Long Island consists of four counties: New York City’s Kings (Brooklyn) and Queens counties, Nassau County and Suffolk County. Eastern Suffolk County splits into two peninsulas separated by Peconic Bay, Shelter Island and Gardiners Bay. The top peninsula, which runs along the Long Island Sound, is called the North Fork, while the bottom part, which faces the Atlantic Ocean, is known as the South Fork.

Long Island has three American Viticultural Areas (AVAs): Long Island, North Fork of Long Island and The Hamptons, Long Island.

There are only a few specific rules that govern wine production in these appellations, which affords winemakers relative autonomy. The primary stipulation is that 85% of the fruit used in a given wine must be grown within the borders of its AVA.

The Long Island AVA stretches from the Nassau County/New York City border to Fishers Island in the Block Island Sound. Established in 2001, well after The Hamptons and North Fork formed, it encompasses the other two AVAs.

Established in 1984, The Hamptons, Long Island AVA, a 209-square-mile appellation on the South Fork of Long Island, includes the townships of Southampton and East Hampton, as well as Gardiners Island.

A few notable wineries from The Hamptons are Wölffer Estate in Sagaponack, which has produced wine (including its benchmark rosé) since 1988, and Bridgehampton’s Channing Daughters, which also has plantings on the North Fork. The appellation was founded as a way to ensure wine quality.

Aerial image of Old Field Vineyard with Long Island Sound in background
The Old Field Vineyards on the North Fork/Photo by Bridget Elkin for Long Island Wine Council

Sandwiched between the Long Island Sound to the north and the Peconic Bay to the south, the North Fork of Long Island AVA is home to the majority of wineries in the region. It covers 158 square miles, which includes the peninsula from Riverhead to Orient Point, Robins and Shelter Islands. There are around 60 wineries within this appellation.

Broad styles of wine are produced on the North Fork like traditional-method sparklers, concrete-aged whites, oak-aged reds and dessert bottlings. With nearly 500 acres under vine, this is a comprehensive wine region.

The North Fork AVA was established in 1985 by Lyle Greenfield and Richard Olsen-Harbich, both of whom worked at Bridgehampton Winery at the time.

“We had a critical mass of growers, and that’s one of the things you have to have to have an AVA approved,” says Olsen-Harbich, who is now the winemaker at Bedell Cellars. “Back when I was at Cornell, studying oenology and viticulture, the region hadn’t taken off yet. [It] was basically one region in the late ’70s.”

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The first vineyard on Long Island was planted well before this designation. Castello di Borghese Vineyard, which still produces wine today in Cutchogue, was established in 1973 by Louisa and Alex Hargrave, both of whom ran it as Hargrave Vineyard. Lenz Winery in Peconic also dates to the 1970s, while Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue and Palmer Vineyards in Riverhead opened their doors in 1983.

Later, as winemaker culture began to take off, Olsen-Harbich found himself in the very middle of it. The region, he notes, is still in its infancy, though it has made tremendous progress.

“The region continues to evolve, like a lot of regions do,” he says. “I think, early on, there wasn’t any information about how to make wine here, how to grow grapes here. We sort of had to write our own textbook and live it.”

Olsen-Harbich now defines the wines of Long Island, broadly, as wines with low alcohol, profound aromatics, and a surge of elegance.

“I think, early on, there wasn’t any information about how to make wine here, how to grow grapes here. We sort of had to write our own textbook and live it.” –Richard Olsen-Harbich, winemaker, Bedell Cellars

The Climate and Soil of Long Island

Long Island is known for fickle, unpredictable maritime weather. Yet, the climate differs between the northern and southern AVAs. On the southern peninsula, influences from the Peconic Bay and the Atlantic Ocean result in frequent fog. As a result, fungus and rot are bigger problems for South Fork winemakers. On the North Fork, the weather is more stable.

As for soil, The Hamptons consists of silt, loam, sand and gravel, while on the North Fork, sandy loam and haven loam dominate. Well-draining loam, on the North Fork, provides an added bonus for winemakers.

Man pouring red wine at Jamesport Vineyards on Long Island
Dean Babiar of Jamesport Vineyards in the cellar/Photo by Bridget Elkin for Long Island Wine Council

The Grapes of Long Island

While the mandate that 85% of a wine’s grapes come from within the bounds of a given AVA in the region, the types of grapes used are left up to winemakers. Unlike regions that define what grapes can be grown, Long Island wines can be made from a multitude of grapes. Winemakers can decide for themselves what to vinify, and the flexibility means a wide diversity of styles, varieties and types of wine are produced.

The maritime climate suits Bordeaux grapes like Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Carmenère, Petit Verdot and Sauvignon Blanc. These are among the 25-plus varieties planted on Long Island, which includes Chardonnay, Albariño, Tocai Friulano, Lemberger and Gewürztraminer.

Single-variety bottlings of Merlot and Cabernet Franc are commonplace, but many wineries also produce Bordeaux-style red blends which utilize the different attributes of each grape to yield a more cohesive, complete result. In general, these wines tend to be rounded and rich in feel, with lots of ripe berry and plum flavors supported by oak-derived tones of cocoa, pepper and coffee.

Already faced with challenging growing conditions, winemakers on the South Fork must be creative. As such, blending remains a reliable technique to reduce risk. Many of the region’s famous rosés, like the wines from Wölffer Estate, are blends.

Winemaking practices vary from winery to winery. Sparkling Pointe, on the North Fork, is known for its high-caliber traditional-method sparkling wines from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Shinn Estate Vineyards, also on the North Fork, was established in 1998 by winemaking pioneer Barbara Shinn. Its Sauvignon Blanc aged in concrete egg, Concrete Blonde, pushes the boundaries of how a Long Island wine can taste.

It’s a fitting release from this evolving region. With its varying styles and winemaking practices, Long Island remains dedicated to the practice of making great wine.

Published on January 31, 2020
Topics: Wine Basics