Long Island is young, as wine regions go; the first vinifera grapes were planted in 1973 by Alex and Louisa Hargrave. But it's old enough to be a lifetime for some of the people involved.
For example, Alex's brother Charlie, who helped plant those first grapes, is now vineyard manager at Peconic Bay Winery, founded on the North Fork in 1980 by Ray Blum and now owned by Paul and Ursula Lowerre. And Peconic Bay's winemaker since 1999 is Greg Gove, who launched his career at Hargrave nearly 30 years ago.
On a recent autumn Saturday, Gove led a tasting of 10 vintages of Peconic Bay Riesling, for one of the "wine salons" that were part of Harvest East End, a celebration of Long Island's wine and agricultural bounty that benefited local charities. A dozen people attended for a look back at one of the region's earliest-planted yet least-heralded white grapes.
"Riesling has never been as popular as Chardonnay out here on the North Fork," Gove told us, "but it ages much better." The tasting proved his point.
Peconic Bay's Riesling vineyard was planted in 1980 on sandy soils behind the winery and has been dry-farmed ever since. Long Island's climate is humid, and autumn rains—even hurricanes—are common, so, Gove said, "We have learned to tolerate a certain amount of rot. When we see it spreading, we harvest right away."
The grapes are generally still quite green at harvest, around 19 or 20 degrees Brix. They are whole-cluster pressed, then fermented with a special yeast that's extremely sensitive to temperature; when the wine has the balance of acid and residual sugar Gove wants, he chills it to stop the fermentation. This results in light wines with 10 to 12 percent alcohol, 1 to 2 percent residual sugar and teeth-rattling acidity that keeps the wines tart and lively.
And, as it turns out, gives them an impressive capacity to age. We tasted vintages from 2009 back to 2000. I reviewed a number of these wines on release, in our official blind tastings, and they consistently scored 80-84 points, or "good," on our 100-point scale. Tasted non-blind at the vineyard, some had faded, but some had improved.
The 2009 and 2008 vintages were still quite young. They showed lemon and green apple flavors, with light herbal notes and very tart acidity. Both were good; drinkable now, they could benefit from another year or two in the bottle.
From 2007 to 2004, the wines were balanced, with fruit and herbal flavors mingling with petrol and spice notes. I especially liked the '07; harvested at nearly 25 Brix, it had richness and depth of flavor.
From 2003 to 2000, the wines were quite varied in character. The '03 and '02 showed excessive petrol, naptha and vegetal character. But the 2000 was still quite lively, with a candied peach character. And the 2001 was my favorite of the flight. Harvested at only 19.2 Brix, it had developed gracefully, with complex flavors of pineapple, honey, toasted almonds and spice.
I wouldn't say these wines make a compelling argument that Long Island Rieslings should be aged for a decade before opening them. But they testified that a serious vintner could make an ageworthy white from this terroir, and that Long Island is still just tapping its potential.
I came away with gratitude that Blum, the Lowerres and the Hargraves have shown so much faith in this region, and with renewed respect for Gove and his team. When it comes to wine, there's nothing better than a pleasant surprise.
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions