Pushing the envelope with European varieties: Uncork the Forks

Sherwood House Vineyards

Alex Rosanelli inside the Sherwood House Vineyards tasting room. (Credit: Monique Sigh-Roy)

Chardonnay, merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot. That’s what Alex Rosanelli, managing partner of Sherwood House Vineyards and Hound’s Tree Wines, where he also makes the wines, has growing in the vineyard shared by both labels. It’s a fairly standard set of grapes for any North Fork vineyard, although many have some sauvignon blanc, too.

But, with a new three-acre planting this spring, Rosanelli is going beyond the standard. Well beyond, in fact.

Two of those acres are nebbiolo, the famous Northern Italian grape variety best known for the Barolos and Barbarescos made from it in the Piedmont region. The other acre is a combination of roussanne and Marsanne, best known in France’s Rhône Valley.

“We have about 80 percent roussanne, 20 percent Marsanne, which is a bit of a flip of the traditional ratio in the Rhône, but I think roussanne is the more interesting variety,” Rosanelli said.

Nebbiolo leads to some of the most revered and age-worthy wines in the world, but rarely reaches those heights outside of its native land. But Rosanelli seems confident that he can make a go of it on the North Fork.

“There is always a bit of guesswork — which is one reason we have planted five different clones — but I generally think of a couple things when trying to decide whether a grape will be successful out here: Will it ripen successfully; is the soil compatible with the style of the wine we are looking to make; and how will it handle the disease pressure of an East Coast climate,” he said.

He considers the soil question to be the easy one, preferring lighter and more floral styles of nebbiolo, which tend to grow in well-drained sandy soils — he points to the Roero region — that aren’t dissimilar from what we have here on Long Island. Similarly, he thinks that the fact that nebbiolo is late-ripening should be a benefit on the North Fork.

Nebbiolo is a thin-skinned variety, somewhat like pinot noir, about which he said, “[Pinot noir] can be so challenging here. If it ripens too early, you have thin-skinned 20-plus-brix fruit on the vine in September when it can still be 75 degrees and 100 percent humidity. It melts off the vine if you aren’t careful.” But, if the fruit ripens later — say mid- to late October — the cooler weather and lower humidity can mean that there is less pressure.

He admits that fully ripening nebbiolo on the North Fork is “the tricky one.” But he also thinks that being on the edge of where it can ripen might be a good thing compared to warmer climes.

“My hope is that with a bit more acidity and lower alcohol the varietal character can really come through,” he said, adding, “If all else fails, nebbiolo makes a really nice rosé.”

The Marsanne and roussanne planting was inspired by the success of a handful of producers with viognier, another important white variety in the Rhône Valley.

“[But] when I think of Rhône whites, the king for me is roussanne: the blends of hermitage or as a varietal by a producer like Chateau de Beaucastel. It’s also another example where I don’t think New World versions have been as successful as they could be; — roussanne tends toward flabby, but in our climate we have been able to preserve acidity in even some of our ripest whites.”

His plan is to bottle the new grapes as a co-fermented field blend in larger format, neutral oak with maybe a bit of stainless steel fermentation to preserve acidity.

It will be a few years before any of us can taste the fruits of these experiments, but Rosanelli doesn’t plan to rest on his laurels either. He’s planning to plant some other grapes in coming years, but that’s another story for another column. Keep an eye out for these wines. Merlot and chardonnay may rule the Long Island wine landscape, but it’s good to see these experimental efforts. Who knows? With how our climate is changing over time, grapes like these may become the new norm some day.