The grapes of Long Island: Sauvignon Blanc

Several local bottles of sauvignon blanc. (Credit: David Benthal)

“We planted about five acres of sauvignon blanc because we couldn’t get any chardonnay until the next year.”

And that, according to Louisa Hargrave, is how Long Island’s first sauvignon blanc vines found themselves planted in Cutchogue by her and her then-husband, Alex Hargrave. That first year, the vines were eaten to the ground by rabbits, so it took an extra year for the region’s first sauvignon blanc vines to really get going — but as the saying goes, the rest is history for this increasingly important Long Island wine grape. 

Originating in the Bordeaux region of France, sauvignon blanc most likely gets its name from the French words sauvage, which means “wild” and blanc, which means “white,” because it used to grow wild in the French countryside.

From Bordeaux, the grape traveled north to France’s Loire Valley, where it is most famously used to make sancerre, before spreading across the globe to countries like New Zealand, Chile and the United States.

What was first planted on the North Fork as a fill-in for chardonnay has now become one of the region’s most important and beloved grapes — even if chardonnay is still planted across the most acreage.

With modern vineyard technology and winery additives, almost any grape can be grown on Long Island, but according to Raphael winemaker Anthony Nappa, “The grape varieties that are best suited to any region are the ones that achieve both the desired flavors … and balanced chemistry.

“To achieve a unique regional expression the right grape must be in the right place and sauvignon blanc is one of those grapes on Long Island,” he said.

Sauvignon blanc historically likes maritime conditions and very well-drained soil, according to Bedell Cellars winemaker Richard Olsen-Harbich, who made his first local sauvignon blanc back in 1984.

“In the Loire, as well as in Bordeaux, it has its best success on sites where there is a significant amount of sand, silt and gravel, something which our subsoil is famous for,” he said.

Despite its potential in our soils and climate, growing and making sauvignon blanc here isn’t without its challenges. Those fresh-cut grass or herbal qualities so common in sauvignon blanc? Those are the result of compounds called methoxypyrazines (pyrazines for short). At high concentration, these compounds can move from pleasant to oppressive. Think bell peppers rather than summer herbs.

“The reduction of pyrazines is key and requires a lot of work in the vineyard,” said Paumanok Vineyards winemaker Kareem Massoud. “Leaf removal done early and thoroughly has been documented to result in a lower total accumulation of pyrazines in the grape and therefore the resultant wine.”

Leaf removal, also known as leaf pulling, not only exposes the ripening grapes to sunlight, which lowers the concentration of pyrazines, but also enables the wind and sun to dry the grapes after rain or humid conditions. This is important because sauvignon blanc can also be susceptible to late-season rot.

Sauvignon blanc also doesn’t harden off in the winter as well as some other varieties, making frost damage a constant concern when temperatures dip below freezing. Location is important.

It “shouldn’t be planted on sites with heavy soils or soils with higher clay content,” Massoud said. “It tends to be vigorous so those soils will create too large a canopy and inhibit ripening.”

In the cellar, most local winemakers agree that sauvignon blanc shines brightest without the use of new oak barrels. “I do not like oaked sauvignon blanc or tank battonage [lees stirring],” said Nappa. “It tends to cover up the subtle fruit flavors.”

Long Island sauvignon blanc has gotten better over the years, due mostly to a better understanding of the timing and importance of leaf removal.

“The first wines were very grassy,” said Hargrave, who also points to leaf pulling, particularly in the fruit zone, as the reason for improved quality.

“The Long Island style to me is nothing like anywhere else,” says Olsen-Harbich, adding, “We’re not New Zealand and we’re not France. I would say our style lies somewhere in between these classic versions. Our style is all our own.”

Nappa describes local sauvignon blanc similarly. “Somewhere between New Zealand and Sancerre, touching upon the green, underripe flavors as well as the tropical overripe flavors. It’s a hard balance to achieve and easy to go in one direction or the other. Floral aromatics as well as grapefruit and citrus flavors seem a common thread, along with a unique minerality/salinity that we get.”

One Comment

  • Unlikely Sauvignon Blanc is native to Bordeaux– the Romans are credited with spreading Vitis vinifera from it’s original habitat of the Middle East to Europe… Still a good grape here if you can manage its vigor. Usually ripens earlier than most other grapes here, so convenient for the winery too.