A cross-section of North Fork soil composition, part of a new display at Bedell Cellars
By Lenn Thompson, Executive Editor
In late 2007, wine writer Alice Feiring said about Long Island wine in a story about the "World's Most Overrated Wines" for Men.Style.com (now a part of GQ.com):
"The strawberries, potatoes, and corn grown out on Long Island are world-class. But grapes? Not so much (though you've got to give local winemakers credit for their perseverance). The fact is, soils are just too shallow on Long Island and the weather's just too humid to make world-class wine, especially from Merlot and Cabernet."
Feiring isn't alone. Other writers and 'experts' have passed judgment -- though not usually in print -- on Long Island's soils. In hushed voices, Long Island soils have been dismissed as too shallow, too uniform. I've even heard that some believe grapes are essentially grown hydroponically on Long Island, implying that there is little -- if any -- terroir on Long Island.
Rich Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell Cellars say that idea is "ridiculous and not supported by the evidence."
To help educate the public Rich, the author of Long Island's three AVAs more than 25 years ago, has created a display simply titled "Soil Profile of the North Fork." With it, he hopes to show how the diversity -- and it really is diverse -- of Long Island terroir manifests itself below the ground. "You can’t see it as easily (here) as you can say, in a district that is hilly and has lots of topography," he said, adding "Although we have only a few official soil 'types,' those soils can differ greatly from place to place -- even within the same vineyard."
Soil depths are far from uniform on the North Fork. Some are indeed shallow with sand and gravel just beneath while others are deep and rich with significant proportions of clay.
"At Bedell’s main vineyard alone we have aroma and flavor variations on the same clone of merlot planted in five different locations within 32 acres. It’s all about terroir. Its nature and nurture working together to create something special. A winemaker who doesn’t believe terroir exists is simply not paying attention."
The display, which can be found in the winery's barrel room, is obviously not to scale -- it would need to be 100' tall or more to be so -- but it still depicts the placement and proportion of the 'average North Fork vineyard' -- if there were such a thing.
The top-most six inches of the display represent the topsoil layer of Haven Loam that is on average 3"-12” deep. Just below that is a subsoil layer that can vary between 12”-36” in depth while the substratum (the sandy-gravelly layer) can begin at 36” and reach as far down as far as 40 feet. The gravelly at the bottom of the display is deep in the ground, anywhere from 50-100 feet deep or more.
"The major soil type Haven is officially a loam -- not a sandy loam but simply a loam as there are more or less equal proportions of sand, silt and clay. Some people have misclassified this soil in the past as a sandy loam," Olsen-Harbich told me.
Olsen-Harbich only joined Bedell Cellars last summer, but he's been intrepid in his desire to learn about and understand the various soils and sites in Bedell's vineyard holdings. His acute interest in soils and other elements of terroir -- I'd even go so far as to call it an obsession -- isn't new, however.
"I actually have been quite interested in the climate and soil of Long Island (for) over 25 years. It’s really quite fascinating to look at and see the data come to life. Early on I think most of us were looking more at climate and weather than at soil -- but I’ve made it a point to better understand what is going on below the surface and truly understand what our soil is and where it came from," he said, adding "I just think it is so important to understand our soil and how it relates to the flavors we taste in our wines -- both for what we are doing today and how we can make better wines in the future."
To better appreciate the intricacies of Bedell's vineyards, Olsen-Harbich fermented many lots separately in 2010 -- upwards of 50 in total, including 11 separate lots of chardonnay and 10 of merlot.
"In every case we don’t have two wines the same. These flavor differences lend themselves to the different wines in our portfolio," he said in an email.
When one is trying to understand a new set of vineyards, it doesn't hurt to work with people who have cared for those vines and made wine from the fruit for years, as Olsen-Harbich does with founding winemaker Kip Bedell and Vineyard Manager Dave Thompson. "It was great to be able to work with Kip and Dave who have been students of the vineyard for 30 years -- hear their thoughts and see them actually play out during the vintage and later on in the tanks and barrels."
When Olsen-Harbich and I tasted through samples of his 2010 lots from tank and barrel, it was easy to taste the difference between and across the various lots. I don't think we tasted all 50, but we tasted most of them, with these wines standing out:
2010 Riesling: Made with fruit from vines planted in 1980. Very floral and forward with peach, saline minerality and a certain chalkiness on the palate.
2010 "Older Vine" Chardonnay: Made with extended skin contact and beach stones in older barrels. There is a distinct, intense ginger note on the nose with pears, roasted apple and pear skin beneath. Full bodied and complex, the acidity is well integrated and lingers on a long finish.
2010 White Co-Ferment: Layers of citrus blossom, tropical and stone fruit dominate with a definite salinity. Beautiful texture with a faint glycerin oiliness. Long and fresh. This is likely to be the base for 2010 Taste White.
2010 Syrah-Viognier Blend: Bright, peppery aromatics with plummy black fruit. Chewy, edgy tannins.
2010 Corey Creek Vineyard Cab Franc: Wow. Explosive nose with intensely ripe blueberry-blackberry fruit, violets, graphite and just a little bay leaf/sage herbaceous quality.
2010 Bedell D Block Merlot: Dark, almost-sweet fruit -- black currant and blueberry -- with a smoky, spicy quality and a hint of sumac.
2010 Cabernet Sauvignon: Dark cassis intensity with blueberry, mint, graphite, spice and huge, well-integrated structure. The long finish shows a stone-mineral quality. Big, but ripe and balanced. Will most likely be the basis for 2010 Musee, but I sure hope Olsen-Harbich bottles some by itself. It's a possible benchmark cabernet.
2010 Syrah: Smoky and bacony (from new oak), but also ripe fruit and loads of varietal spice. Tannins and acidity are well balanced.
We won't see these reds on store shelves for years, but with his upcoming 2010 white releases and the already available rose Olsen-Harbich's influence is already being felt in the bottle. In many ways, he's taking Bedell back to its roots. And doing it by focusing on the soils.
36225 Main Road, RT 25, Cutchogue, NY 11935