By Contributing Columnist Richard Olsen-Harbich
Much has been written and debated lately about the style and direction of Long Island wines -- most notoriously, a recent Op-Ed piece in the Long Island section of the NY Times implied that L.I. wine producers needed to spend more energy on experimentation and crafting out our own identity. I would argue that this is exactly what L.I. winemakers have been doing for the past 30-plus years.
Most people take it for granted now, but back in the early 70s, the general consensus from Cornell University and many other “experts” on the East Coast was that the European grape species Vitis vinifera could not be grown successfully on a commercial basis on the eastern seaboard. It was only after the success of both the Hargrave and Mudd’s Vineyard plantings in the mid 1970s that the viticultural chorus in NY began to chime in on vinifera.
In terms of acreage, Long Island today is still the largest producer of European grapes on the East Coast. Think about that for second. We have become so successful at growing these varieties that it’s sometimes easy to forget just how difficult the task of managing wine grapes can be and how unique our region truly is. In many ways, we are still participating in one giant experiment.
Those of us involved in winemaking “back in the day” remember the lack of good, solid information on growing and making wines in our environment. We quickly learned that much of the information available in English was almost always out of California. Needless to say, we soon found this information to be inapplicable to our conditions.
We found viticultural congruence across the ocean where, for centuries, grapes were grown in the temperate conditions of four seasons, humidity and rain. Trying to learn about the production of European wine grapes without studying the vineyards and wineries of Europe would be a fool’s errand. Likewise would be to try and replicate, note for note, the principles and practices of our overseas forefathers.
With every succeeding vintage year, we began a process of working evolution -- planting more of the varieties that survived and succeeded and ripping out vines that didn’t. Winemakers spent less time checking their global winemaking “cheat sheets” and began to go with what worked -- and most importantly -- tasted the best. That’s how it is in all places that make wine. The secret is in the doctrine of “less is more” for what can you tell of a wine that has been made to conform to a recipe? Sounds simple, but this kind of winemaking is only a small percentage of the world’s production and is commonly found in most Long Island wine cellars.
Today we see the results of this evolution of style in what I believe to be Long Island’s strengths. Our most successful white wines are highly aromatic, thirst quenching and crisp made with little or no oak. The best example is exhibited in our sauvignon blancs. Our most successful reds are just the opposite -- supple, elegant and soft, moderate in alcohol and density yet with enough tannin to make them decidedly age-worthy. These will most often be merlot based with cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc lending a hand in good years. Cabernet franc has also shown to be sublime when made without oak, leading to what I believe to be the finest expression of this variety in our terroir. All of these could be mistaken for “Old World” wines, however I believe over time these characteristics will make us stand out on our own.
Our wines should be what they are. With the overabundance of industrial-made, mass-produced products and with the “West Coast” genre exhibiting consumer fatigue, Long Island wines can be a breath of fresh air for the marketplace. As in any region, some wines will stand out and be award winners; others may be no more than casual supper potations. In the end, they should just be enjoyed for what they are. As an industry, we need to remain resolute in what we believe in and confident that our wines can hold up with their unique style intact.