Log In / Join Now

stirring the lees with james molesworth

Off to Long Island Wine Country

A few summer days on Long Island? Sure, why not …
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 15, 2016 2:00pm ET

But this isn't vacation, it's work. Don't be surprised, but there are a few wineries out here.

I jest. Most wine lovers know that there's a deeply-rooted wine scene on Long Island's North Fork, with a few additional operations on the South Fork. The area was pioneered by the Hargraves way back in the 1970s (their winery is now called Castello di Borghese, after the current owners.)

The wines have made progress in terms of quality, but I can't say they've come as far as other U.S. regions that started around the same time. Compare Long Island to the progress Oregon has made since Eyrie and Ponzi started up there around the same time. Closer to home, look at how quickly the Finger Lakes has established itself, coming out of the remnants of the hybrid and native grape culture of the '70s and '80s.

What has held them back? Perhaps, with well-heeled New Yorkers using the area as a summer vacation spot, the Long Island wine scene has gotten comfortable depending on a local following. The wines mostly sell direct from the wineries; they don't need to compete with the whole world of wine in restaurants and retail shops. The vintners haven't had to push as hard.

The Finger Lakes area draws plenty of tourists, too. But whether it's natural conditions or human ambition, the wineries have leapt ahead of Long Island. I've been Wine Spectator's reviewer for the Finger Lakes since 2000. Over the past year, I reviewed 187 Finger Lakes wines, with 14 earning 90 points or better on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale (7 percent) and 159 rating 85 points or better (85 percent). Meanwhile, from Long Island, my colleague Thomas Matthews and I have reviewed a total of 136 wines in the same period, of which only six earned 90 points (4 percent) and only 64 earned 85 or better (47 percent).

Continuing the comparison, the Finger Lakes has adopted a more focused approach centered on Riesling as its lead grape (there is still a mélange of other varietals of course). Meanwhile Long Island takes a broader approach, with wineries often producing numerous bottlings from several varieties, typically blue chips such as Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. So while the Finger Lakes has developed a much clearer sense of itself, Long Island still seems stuck on soft focus.

I've begun reviewing Long Island wines in blind tastings in our New York office, and decided that a visit to the vineyards might help bring the region into focus for me. And so I headed off for a few days in the region, starting with a stop at Wölffer Estate.

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1, and Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1.

Keld Johnsen
Denmark —  June 16, 2016 1:30am ET
I have imported Wines from Long Island and Finger Lake into Denmark for more than 20 years.They are great Wines,elegant and sofisticated to serve with many dishes.
The New York State is beautiful and must be visited
Finger Lakes Wine Alliance
Geneva, NY —  June 17, 2016 9:43am ET
Some years ago the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance (30+ wineries) adopted Riesling as our 'go-to' variety. The past 18 vintages that I have experienced has shown that the Finger Lakes location and climate favors expressive Riesling. I'm excited to see investments in vineyards and wineries by established and new producers with an emphasis on Riesling and to welcome our colleagues from the Rhone (Louis Barruol), the Mosel (Johannes Selbach) and California (Paul Hobbs). RJM

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.