The Long Island wine region is not generally on the must-do list of wine regions to explore. While it is not at the top of our list, we were in the area plus we had previously enjoyed some Long Island wines. We decided it was time to get reacquainted.
The Long Island wine region consists of two areas: the North Fork and the South Fork. We spent most of our time in the North Fork where most of the wine tasting rooms reside.
Long Island North Fork Wineries
Long Island’s North Fork runs from Riverhead to Orient Point, Robins, and Shelter Islands. It was primarily a laidback agricultural area covered by potatoes but has undergone a fundamental transition since the Hargraves planted the first vineyards in 1973. Vineyards and hops (to supply the growing number of craft breweries) have increasingly taken over the potato fields–especially over the past 20 years. The area is increasingly drawing tourists to visit winery tasting rooms and to pick up fresh and increasingly organic fruits and vegetables from farm stands.
The North Fork has roughly 80 wineries, with 2,000 acres of planted grapes and producing 6,000 tons of grapes. This is largely due to the fork’s slightly warmer temperatures and its deeper level of fertile topsoil, which was, ironically, carried from the South Fork to the north by the retreating glaciers of the last ice age. The North Fork, therefore, got the wine while the South Fork got the Hamptons.
Long Island is best known for its Bordeaux varietals, especially Merlot (the region’s most prominent grape) and Cabernet Franc (the third largest planted grape) behind Chardonnay. Alsatian and German varietals including Riesling and Gewürztraminer follow, as well as a few native American (Vitus Labarusca) grapes (especially Concord). The relatively short, cool growing season (from bud break in early April through August and early September harvests for whites and October for reds) typically reduces sugar levels. The result is wines with lower alcohol and less concentrated colors and tastes. Still, the Fork does indeed produce a number of high-quality wines. We stopped at a number of wineries.
- Lenz Winery planted its first vineyard on a former potato farm in the mid-1970s and still uses the 120-year-old potato barn as its winery. Lenz is the island’s second oldest and the longest continually operating of the island’s wineries. It grows all Bordeaux varietals along with Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir (which it uses only for sparkling wines). We enjoyed its crisp, 2021 stainless steel Chardonnay, the red cherry of its 2019 Estate Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, and especially two of its longer-aged, 2015 Old Vine reds: Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon (the red cherry of the wine that includes small percentages of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec) and the black cherry and long finish of the Old Vine Merlot. We finished with a wonderful apricot-like 2010 Late Harvest Chardonnay dessert wine which underwent partial botrytis and was finished by freezing.
- Beddle Cellars has many more wonderful fuller-bodied whites and reds than we found at most other stops. Among our favorites were: a light, refreshing, Beaujolais-style 2020 First Crush (79% Merlot and 21% Cabernet Franc) that is produced with carbonic maceration; a light, crisp 2021 Rose (50:50 Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon); 2020 Sauvignon Blanc (a soft, grassy French-style with a hint of pineapple); a soft 2020 100% Chardonnay aged in an amphora container; and a light 2020 Malbec; a 2015 Musee (a blend of 47% Petite Verdot, 30% Merlot and 23% Cabernet Sauvignon made from the best, hand-selected and picked grapes and which spends 15-18 months in mostly neutral French oak).
- Pindar Vineyards produces 70,000-80,000 cases per year from its 350-acre vineyard and focuses primarily on Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. We mostly enjoyed its light, tropical-flavored 2020 Viognier (with partial oak aging and light malolactic fermentation); the crisp, slightly oaky 2020 Sunflower Chardonnay; the light, but promising 2019 Mythology Bordeaux blend (Merlot- and Cabernet Franc-dominant plus three other Bordeaux varietals); and two dessert wines (a floral, apricot and honey-ish 2020 Riesling with 8.9% residual sugar and a fruity, 2017 Gewürztraminer). Less interesting, although more unique, was its Tannat (2017), which they claim to be the only one on the island.
- Lieb Cellars produces a nice crisp green apple 2019 Lieb Estate Sparkling Pinot Blanc and a 2020 Lieb Estate Cabernet Franc. We also enjoyed its late-harvest dessert wine simply named White Dessert Wine which is an artificially frozen blend of Pinot Blanc, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc. We were less impressed by its highly unusual White Merlot.
- Pelligrini Vineyards had a nice 2019 Gewürztraminer, a 2017 Cabernet Franc, a slightly acidic 2015 Merlot, and a honey-like VP Finale Bin 3311 dessert wine.
- Macari Vineyards produces several wines that we enjoyed: 2020 Sparkling Horses méthode champenoise sparkling wine; 2019 Chardonnay Reserve; and a crisp, Merlot/Malbec-based 2020 Rose. Macari. On a previous trip we also enjoyed its Merlot Reserve, a Cabernet Franc, and a Dos Aquas (70% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Sauvignon plus Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot).
- Palmer Vineyards has a nice crisp, citrusy, stainless steel-aged 2019 Chardonnay, a slightly lemony off-dry 2021 Gewürztraminer, a 2015 Old Roots tart Merlot that tastes of cranberry, a light but pleasant Reserve, and an Old Roots blend of 73% Cabernet Franc and 27% Merlot. And we found yet another great dessert wine: a 2021 late harvest Gewürztraminer. We give it an honorable mention also for a dry 2021 Albarino, one of the island’s few of this grape varietal.
- Paumanomk Vineyards is a large winery that owns Palmer and other Long Island wineries. It is the island’s largest producer with an annual production of about 55,000 cases. We preferred the 2021 Sauvignon Blanc, a 2021 Chenin Blanc (which they said is the only one on the island), and two reds: 2019 Cabernet Franc and 2018 its light Merlot which was nice considering we are used to heavier California Merlots.
- Castillo de Borghese is the oldest winery on Long Island with plantings in 1973. Although we didn’t stop here this time, in the past we have enjoyed a number of the reserve estate wines, especially its Meritage.
- On a previous trip, we also found nice wines at Martha Clara, Harbes Family, Peconic Bay and Osprey Dominion. Unfortunately, our time did not permit stopping on this trip.
South Fork Wineries
Growing grapes in Long Island South Fork is more challenging. The frequent fog often results in rot and fungus. Still, three wineries make South Fork their home (although they may also grow grapes in the North Fork). We visited 2 of them.
Channing Daughters Winery started in the early 1980s. Although it has its own estate vineyard on the South Fork, it also has a long-term contract with the North Fork’s Mudd vineyard for red grapes especially. We particularly enjoyed several wines here: the mineral, but slightly sweet 2019 Petillant Naturel Sylvanus sparkling wine (50% Pinot Grigio, 40% Muscat and 10% Pinot Bianco); a dry, fruity 2020 Syrah Rose (Rosato Syrah); the light, fruity 2018 Vino Bianco (a Northern Italian blend of grapes, especially Tocai Friulano and Pinot Grigio); the pleasant, low-oak 2016 Brick Kiln Chardonnay; and one South Fork red, the 2017 Blaufrankisch Sylvanus Vineyard (80% Blaufrankisch and 20% Dornfelder).
Wolffer Estates Vineyards is a very large (135,000 cases per year), very popular (a full house on a pre-season Tuesday mid-afternoon) winery. It grows most of its grapes on its 50 planted acre-South Fork vineyard and the rest (especially Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec) on its North Shore vineyard. Winemaker Roman Roth guided us through a tasting of about a dozen of the wines which he believed to be most representative of the winery, including a few 2019 reds which he contended was the best year in a decade. While we normally do not like Roses, we did enjoy 3 of them. These 3 wines are overwhelmingly customer favorites and largest sellers, accounting for about two-thirds of its total production. The 2021 Summer in a Bottle Rose is an easy-drinking wine made of 50% Merlot plus four other grapes. The 2021 Estate Rose consists of 9 varietals and is more complex. And the top-of-the-line 2018 Noblesse Oblige Sparkling Rose (54% Pinot Noir, 46% Chardonnay) has a nice smooth complexity.
The winning streak continued through the winery’s still whites and reds. We enjoyed the 2020 Estate Chardonnay which is aged in stainless steel tanks with no malolactic fermentation. The delicious 2020 Antonov Sauvignon Blanc is aged five months, all on the lees primarily in stainless tanks with 16% in large, 500-liter puncheons. For the reds, we enjoyed the full-bodied, dark fruit and spice of the 2019 Caya Cabernet Franc, the big, black fruit and spice of the 2018 Grapes of Rolm Merlot, and the full-bodied, very high alcohol (17.5%) 2010 Lorena Amarone Style Merlot whose dried, highly concentrated grapes, even with the high alcohol, retained a touch of sweetness. And speaking of sweetness, what type of tasting would it be without dessert wines? We finished off with two floral, fruity, golden-colored, wonderfully sweet (256 grams per liter residual sugar–think ripe peaches and honey) dessert wines. The 2012 100% Chardonnay-based Diosa Late Harvest is very pleasant with its peach and apricot flavors. The even sweeter 2019 Dscencia Botrytis Chardonnay is a nice blend of peaches and honey and has a wonderful end taste.
Our only disappointment is that Wolffer wines are not widely distributed in San Francisco.
The Bottom Line
Overall, we enjoyed some wines from each of the wineries we visited—both North Fork and South. However, two wineries consistently impressed us: Beddle Cellars on the North Fork and especially, bottle for bottle, Wolffer Estates where we enjoyed every wine we tasted. The vast majority of wines at each place belied our generalized impression that Long Island wines lacked the concentration and complexity of the wines from the West Coast and Southern and Central Europe.
Although we did not taste any this trip, most of the wineries we stopped at also pressed cider from local grapes. Some also produced vermouth and/or spirits. Another reason to return!