The Flavors of a Place


A common wine style begins to emerge on Long Island.

In August of 2008, when Eric Fry, the iconoclastic veteran winemaker at Lenz Winery in Peconic, took the stage at the international wine symposium at the Stony Brook Southampton campus, and declared that he doesn’t like the term terroir, he inspired some rueful laughs from friends in the auditorium. After all, this was an event devoted to the discussion of terroir—that elegant, but slippery French term for the factors in a given place on the planet that result in unique wine.

“Here’s all you need to know about our terroir,” said Fry, based on nearly three decades of handling grapes from East End soil. “You can’t get very far from the surrounding water. In the spring time, the water is cold and it retards vine growth, so bud break is late enough we don’t get frost. In the summer, we do get rain and humidity, but we also get a sea breeze, what the sailors call the four o’clock hurricane, which helps dry the vines. And, finally, the fall water is as warm as it’s going to get, so we have a really mild fall to Thanksgiving, which slowly ripens our fruit flavors and develops tannins.”

It’s that gradual ripening process, Fry suggested, that is the basis for the style of wine that the East End produces best. The late start in spring produces a shorter, more compact early growing season while the long fall lets risk-taking winemakers hold some grapes on the vines to achieve fuller ripeness and bring out increasingly complex nuances. In contrast, hot, dry Mediterranean climates with unrelenting sun produce heavier wines with more alcohol and weight. The East End produces “full flavored” and “balanced” wines, Fry concluded, perfect with a range of foods and expressive of the particular grape variety.

Few Long Island vintners would debate this shorthand description of the maritime climate’s dominant influence on our region’s terroir. If years of tradition have codified what winemakers can do in many old-world wine regions, Long Island’s relative youth leaves much to interpretation. And when it comes to selling wine, things get even more complicated. While winemakers from Riverhead to Orient may share a similar terroir, the differences between their growing conditions, passion, levels of education and training, economic flexibility and even ethnic background mean that, given the same exact ton of grapes they would all make different wines. Alongside nature, man and woman are an essential part of terroir. “I’d rather be a region that is not rigid and accepts experimentation,” said Fry. “I think this is more fun.”

Slow and steady

The Oxford Companion to Wine calls terroir “the much-discussed term for the total natural environment of any viticultural site.” Beyond soil (the word comes from the French terre, for “earth” or “soil”), advocates count temperature, rainfall, sunlight, topography and hydrology as ingredients in terroir. While regional classifications of European vineyards have been largely based on the historical quality of wines from different terroirs, The Oxford Companion also notes that new-world viticulturists sometimes dismiss terroir as “a product of mysticism and established commercial interest.” It should be noted, however, that “new-world” viticulturists (other than in New Zealand) work primarily in warm, dry Mediterranean climates where the nearly limitless sun (and lack of rainfall during the growing season) eliminates the interaction of rain, soil type and topography that influences grape ripening and wine quality in France.

In the early days of Long Island’s East End wine region, a mere three decades ago, its terroir with mild temperatures and ample growing season rainfall was compared to that of Bordeaux in France and more recently with that of Fruili in northeastern Italy. Few draw direct comparison today, for most Long Island wines reflect, by definition, a unique terroir, precisely like only itself, evolving its expression through various wines from numerous grape varieties, the way handcrafted wines always have. After all, the first commercial production in Bordeaux was recorded in 1160 AD. Louisa and Alex Hargrave cofounded the first vineyard here over 800 years later, in 1972, choosing the North Fork with its fields of potatoes, apples and cauliflower for its terroir alone.

What growers of those crops know as well as any Long Island wine grape grower is that this piece of land that juts out into the Gulf Stream is of consistently moderate fertility. Yes, the three dominant soil types-Riverhead Sandy Loam, Haven Loam and Bridgehampton Silt Loam-may differ in their exact ratios of sand and silt and clay, but they are all lighter, well-drained soils compared with ultra-rich land in the Midwest, for instance.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t differences worth noting. In fact, winemakers that blend grape juice from different parts of the East End take advantage of such variations. “Here in Riverhead, where we are further from ocean or bay, the weather is slightly more continental,” says Alice Wise, viticulturist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. “It tends to be warmer here. As we go east to Cutchogue and Southold on the North Fork, it gets cooler, and it’s definitely cooler on the South Fork.  They’re not growing cabernet sauvignon on the South Fork,” says Wise, who spends much of her time planting new varieties and determining how they might perform in East End conditions.

According to Steve Mudd of Mudd Vineyards, a custom planting operation, seemingly small differences in the sandiness of the soil or the depth of the topsoil will mean, for instance, the “Dijon 96 clone of chardonnay on 101-14 Mgt. rootstock” grown at Mudd Vineyard in Southold will yield grapes that are distinct from fruit coming off the same clone planted at Raphael and Lenz in Peconic, Pindar and Bedell in Cutchogue, and elsewhere. “Each expression of that same grape in wine will be a little bit different and some will be very different,” says Mudd, who has tasted his share of grapes from different East End farms. “Is the soil gravelly and sandy, promoting good water drainage and allowing plants to get a bit water-stressed to concentrate the flavor in grapes, or is the topsoil deeper, promoting more vine growth?”

The combination of daily temperatures moderated by proximity to the ocean or bay, several well-drained soil types, breezes from every direction and people willing to plant vines, actually represent a cluster of related but different terroirs-some slightly warmer, some with slightly drier soils, some nearer the Atlantic Ocean and cooler.  But any particular point on the North and South Forks shares the blessing of a protracted growing season that in some years will turn winemakers giddy as it stretches into fall.

“A slow and steady ripening curve is what defines us,” says Roman Roth, “giving us the flintiness, the minerality, also the acidity in our wines. During fall, the breeze gives us cooler nights, and a beautiful, vibrant acidity with an esprit, elegance, finesse.”

Roth said this way back in 2007, a special year in our vintage-driven region, where weather can differ dramatically from year to year; a perfectly dry fall allowed farmers to wait for the optimal time to harvest, revealing the grape’s ripest expression. (Other years local winemakers recall for the particularly exceptional growing conditions were 2005, 2002, 1995 and 1988.) He was tasting just-harvested pinot gris grapes, which were sweet-scoring very high, 22.9 on a winemaker’s Brix measure of sweetness.  But underneath, there was a teasing complexity and acidity, the trademark of Long Island’s terroir, according to Roth: “Our wines taste very different from manufactured, squeaky-clean, sterile filtered wines.”

Not surprisingly, another unifying aspect of the region may be the widespread desire to distance Long Island from our brasher new-world cousins. “What holds everyone together here,” says Christopher Tracy, winemaker and partner at Channing Daughters in Bridgehampton, “even winemakers that use modern techniques to make a more intentional style, is they don’t want their wine to taste like wine from California.”

In contrast to Mediterranean growing regions in California and Australia, where the weather varies primarily in the amount of heat from year to year, the East End’s signature is more clearly marked by annual variations in rainfall, as are most wine districts in France, Germany and northeastern Italy.

In fact, in most years-and particularly in drier vintages-East End winemakers work on the edge of vine water stress during the droughty summer spells, but have a long mild fall to bring out a complexity and genuine cool climate flavors in their wines.  “When a vine is stressed it wants to reproduce, and your fruit is going to ripen sooner and taste better,” says Barbara Shinn of Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck.

“We really have little in common compared to other domestic wines from the West Coast,” says Richard Olsen-Harbich of Raphael.  “Our reds tend to be more elegant and probably have better structure for pairing with foods. They are lower in alcohol, higher in natural acidity and are more finely aromatic because they are ripening in cooler conditions.”

Olsen-Harbich is part of a group of East End vintners organized as the Long Island Merlot Alliance for the purpose of researching and promoting Long Island merlot. Several years ago they began identifying marketable regional character in their merlots, a wine that accounts for 40 percent of the region’s production.  Regularly, member wineries meet to taste and analyze eight to 10 merlot wines.

“Initially, we’ve identified 20 aromatic descriptors, including cherry, red raspberry, blackberry, violets and herbal tones of chamomile and thyme” continues Olsen-Harbich. At the Southampton symposium, Olsen-Harbich acknowledged that winemakers from other, more established maritime wine regions could shed some light on Long Island’s unique flavors and how to coax that out of the vineyard and retain it in the cellar. “But you can’t translate everything,” he adds. “That’s kind of the message. To some extent we are on our own, and that is what local terroir means.”

Selling the uniqueness

If there are philosophical tugs of war about Long Island’s terroir, it’s over whether the region should throw its promotional focus behind one wine (like merlot, for instance) or market its wine diversity or even continue exploring new varieties.

Diversity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. First, it encourages experimentation and is bound to lead to some wines not presently in the U.S. market mainstream, like Paumanok’s Chenin Blanc, Lieb’s Pinot Blanc, Channing Daughters’s Tocai Friulano and the dozen Long Island wineries producing non-varietal blended white wines. Second, it seems to be working from a business perspective, since Long Island wine country continues to add new grape acreage and new wineries every year.

“We are selling,” says Massoud. “Not just Paumanok, but everybody I know, they are selling everything they are producing to consumers who seem to enjoy comparisons and diversity. One could say they (wine critics and some producers) would prefer more unity.  There are some people who want to put you in a small box. I say, what’s the point?” says Massoud, who notes that the East End is growing at least 30 different varieties. His own vineyard has eight.  “In all eight we have, I could give you a taste and you would think each is the one to go after.” In fact, at the Southampton symposium, attendees from the East End, the Finger Lakes of New York, Germany, Italy, Spain, California and other cool climates debated the potential merits of narrowing the range of grape varietals planted on the Island from the region’s current diversity of grapes.

Along with Atlantic and Peconic Bay breezes tempering the sunlight of Madrid, the human element is the part of the terroir that will shape future wines here. One veteran East End winemaker says, “If I had unlimited funds and could do some things over, I know where I would plant what varieties.” Presently some appropriate combinations are in place, he says. “In other vineyards, mistakes have been made and the potential remains untapped.” Over time, these misplaced vines may get torn out and replaced. But the terroir remains.

“Is it too soon to expect a singular flavor from the East End?” asks Larry Perrine, partner and CEO of Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton. As a Cornell graduate student in the early 1980s, Perrine helped make the original Bordeaux connection and then years later the Friuli connection based on their shared mild summer temperatures and rainy growing seasons. “A young district can evolve more rapidly because we know more technically–for good or ill–than we did 50 years ago. But consensus is more about an evolution of style and its gradual recognition over time.”

Getting winemakers in a region to agree about what grape varieties do best in their terroir can be like herding cats. But there’s the separate task of educating the rest of the world. Lettie Teague, wine editor of Food & Wine Magazine, says “in five years, there will be a number of wines that are significant in the region,” feels Long Island vintners who are turning out some exciting wines should do more to get these wines out there rather than be content to sell them to a captive audience, to get wines sold beyond Manhattan.  “Winemakers say they don’t have funds to promote. But for them to do everything to get in the race and then stop 10 yards from finish line,” Teague sighs. Still, Teague, who recently moved to the North Fork, is excited by what surrounds her, noting that experimentation with varieties and techniques bodes well for the region.

“Establishing an East End wine identity is a great challenge in itself,” writes Juliette Pope, wine director at New York City’s Gramercy Tavern, in the Fall/Winter 2009 TavernGram. “Napa screams cabernet sauvignon, the Willamette Valley pinot noir, the Mosel Valley riesling. And Long Island?” While East End vineyards don’t yield the “extremely ripe, high-alcohol, powerful, heavily oaked wines” that dominate in California, Pope says the consistent thread throughout the best wines coming out of Long Island “is a more traditional European one: restrained tannins and alcohol, palate-refreshing acidity, ripe-yet-modest fruit and judicious oaking.  They are wines for the table, to pair with food, not necessarily wines crafted to knock scores out of the park.”

For Pope, Long Island’s wine identity seems to be more about a wine style than it is any particular grape variety. And, less important than centuries of history is the fact that hard work in the region is now attracting interest, feedback and support from the metropolis 70 short miles to the west, what Pope calls “the most dynamic wine market in the country.”

In fact, the Long Island Wine Council, in conjunction with the New York Wine and Grape Foundation and New York State, has recently launched perhaps the most systematic promotion effort in the region’s history. It includes advertising and promotion, with targeted tastings at Brooklyn wine shops, Manhattan greenmarkets and other places where the wine drinkers of tomorrow may need a bit of prodding to get to know this neighboring region.

Several years ago, on a wine list at Hearth on the Lower East Side, owner and wine director Paul Grieco offered three cabernet francs from Schneider Vineyards, one of the westernmost vineyards on the North Fork. (A connoisseur of unique terroirs, Grieco once poured only rieslings by the glass at his wine bar, Terroir, in an attempt to further educate patrons about place-based differences.) “I’ve decided that everyone should drink wines from Long Island,” Grieco wrote on the wine list, describing the North Fork as “a go to place for perfectly balanced cabernet francs and merlots,” and the Schneider wines as “proof that the North Fork of Long Island is capable of greatness and purity in winemaking.”

Which seems to be the ultimate measure of success, regardless of how you define the region’s terroir. This may not sway those traditionalists who suggest mimicking the great wine regions of the world. But it seems to resonate with colleagues from elsewhere that have also struggled to define a flavor for new-world wine. “We must realize and celebrate the uniqueness of where we are and not just emulate the benchmarks,” says Steve Clifton, a Santa Barbara County winemaker who spoke at the Southampton symposium in 2008. Expressing a certain solidarity with other lesser-known wine regions, he suggests: “We have to look at our place, and what God gives us, and what nature gives us. And be proud of that and show that to the world.”

Brian Halweil is the editor of Edible East End. Geraldine Pluenneke contributed reporting to this story.