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By Eric Zelko
The millennium ended with three strong vintages in New York, with a series of unprecedented dry, hot growing seasons in 1997, 1998 and 1999, but the 2000 vintage was a nail-biter for many New York winemakers, from Long Island to the Finger Lakes.
A damp, overcast, unseasonably cool summer slowed the ripening process significantly, and many vintners were forced to delay harvest until well into October and November to achieve adequate maturity and ripe flavors in the vineyards. Fortunately, dry weather and clear skies in September and October accelerated ripening in the weeks leading up to the harvest, leaving winemakers optimistic about the 2000 vintage.
On Long Island, the majority of vintners didn't harvest Chardonnay until well into October. Merlot was picked in mid-November, and late-ripening varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, were left to hang on the vines through Thanksgiving.
The 2000 harvest offered a sharp contrast to the 1999 harvest, when growers faced difficult conditions due to heavy rains brought on by late-season hurricanes along the Atlantic Coast. This year, the cool, dry weather from September through November proved a blessing to many Long Island wineries.
"It was a strange year, to say the least," said Eric Fry, winemaker at Lenz Winery, on the North Fork of Long Island. "But most of the wet weather occurred before veraison, and we had little or no rainfall from September through Thanksgiving, which turned a potentially disastrous year into a very good one."
Fry cited the long, dry ripening period and cool autumn nights as the reason for exceptional flavor development in red and white varietals and for the abundance of clean, disease-free fruit. "The wines from the 2000 vintage are going to surprise a lot of people, especially the Merlots," he said. "From a winemaking standpoint, we got everything we could have hoped for -- rich, ripe fruit with a great flavor profile, good acidity and moderate tannin levels."
Winegrowers in central New York's Finger Lakes appellation dodged a bullet in late September, when an early frost caught some by surprise. Frost damage was slight, however, and mainly limited to vineyards at higher elevations, said Timothy Martinson, director of the Cornell University's Finger Lakes Grape Program. Most hillside vineyards along the lakes were insulated by the climate-modifying effect of the water, which retained the summer heat.
"It was a challenging year for us," said Martha Macinski, co-owner of Standing Stone Vineyards, on the eastern shores of Seneca Lake. "We had to let the grapes hang late into the season, but we had very dry, clear weather and great harvest conditions, so we're very excited with the results, particularly with Pinot Noir."
Pinot Noir may be the real surprise of the Finger Lakes' 2000 vintage, with the majority of growers reporting good ripeness, very little rot and rich, concentrated flavors. Other red varieties, notably Cabernet Franc, did not fare as well and were harvested at lower sugar levels than is normal in some vineyards.
"Vintage variation is what makes winemaking so exciting in a cool-climate region like the Finger Lakes," said Dave Whiting, owner and winemaker of Red Newt Cellars, on Seneca Lake. "Each year is unpredictable, offering a completely new set of circumstances, and such was the case in 2000."
Whiting was particularly enthusiastic about whites such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer. These varieties benefited from the gradual ripening period and crisp, dry autumn nights, which not only preserved good acid levels, but also enhanced desired flavor components, yielding wines with classic varietal character.
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