A month ago, Long Island's winemakers were placing bets on their 2001 harvest. It looked good, but they had to get through those last few critical weeks before they could count on hitting the jackpot.
Now with all the grapes in, they can barely contain their excitement. Long Island may have achieved, if not a benchmark vintage, then at least its most exhilarating harvest since 1997. Chalk it up to a nearly perfect growing season, in which sunny weather persisted right through the second week of November.
"The flavors in the grapes are the best I've seen in eight years," said Roman Roth, winemaker at Wölffer Estate on Long Island's South Fork, in the Hamptons AVA.
With lengthy hang times permitted by the great weather, even grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc -- usually difficult to ripen fully on this narrow finger of land jutting out into the Atlantic -- came in with high sugar levels.
Roth was so confident that he and vineyard manager Richard Pisacano decided to allow Wölffer's Merlot and Cabernet Franc to hang through some rain at the end of October, even though the grapes were ripe, with sugar levels approaching 25 degrees Brix.
For other wineries, the growing season inspired the kind of relaxed attitude that Long Island's vintners envy in regions where the weather is less demanding. "The harvest has been pretty casual," said Eric Fry, longtime winemaker at Lenz Winery, on the warmer North Fork, across the Peconic Bay from Wölffer.
Fry already had most of his 2001 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in fermentation tanks by the end of October. But the "lingering Indian summer," he said, permitted him to wait on his Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
A short drive up the road from Lenz at the new Raphael winery, which brought in its first all-estate harvest in 2001, winemaker Richard Olsen-Harbich bucked the trend of longer hang-time and brought the winery's Merlot in by Oct. 21.
"I've never seen Merlot this ripe," Olsen-Harbich said. "Everything is doing what it's supposed to. Sauvignon Blanc was at 23.5 Brix when we harvested, and the acidity was ideal. Merlot is almost idiot-proof in a year like this."
Several miles north, closer to the Long Island Sound, things were hopping one October afternoon at Russell Hearn's Premium Wine Group, where truck after truck, laden with grapes, trundled through the main gate of the custom-crush facility. Bruce Schneider, co-owner of Schneider Vineyards, was there waiting for his second load of Cabernet Franc, his winery's specialty.
"We're very optimistic," Schneider said. "This year, the flavor development and the tannin in the grapes has enabled us to push the envelope with our reds."
Of course, all the good news doesn't mean that vintners can retire their worries -- although this year they had fewer than usual.
"Every year is different out here," said Robert Pellegrini, who runs one of the North Fork's older wineries and remembers soggy summers and sudden hurricanes that can destroy a harvest. "We really need to stay on top of things."
Solid vineyard management, he argued, has rewarded the North Fork with four good vintages in a row. Match that with a summer that saw only two genuinely rainy weeks, then the extended fall, and Pellegrini had plenty of reason to be "cautiously optimistic."
That note of reservation was seconded by Hearn, who is Pellegrini's winemaker, in addition to running Premium Wine Group. "I would call 2001 very, very good," he said. "We had three outstanding vintages in the nineties -- '93, '95 and '97 -- all characterized by a long, hot growing season. This year, we had a lot of warm fall days, but not really good heat. As a result, Cabernet Sauvignon wasn't quite there."
However, Hearn, who got a good overall picture of the harvest at his custom-crush facility, reported that Long Island's bread-and-butter wines, Chardonnay and Merlot, look good across the board. Additionally, he suggested that increased winemaking skill might be able to transform a very good vintage into a great vintage. "I think at Pellegrini we will make Merlot of comparable quality to what we made in the outstanding vintages of the nineties."