Four reasons L.I. wines have gotten better: Uncork the Forks

Bedell Cellars

A small group enjoys glasses of wine at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue.

By most measures, Long Island wine has never been better.

I’m not saying that it’s all good. Or that the worst stuff today is even half as good as the best wines from years past. But if you look at the top half of the region’s wine, it’s better than the top half was five, 10, even 20 years ago. I don’t think anyone would dispute that.

But why? Looking at the wine world as a whole, technological advances  — in both the vineyard and the cellar — along with a better understanding of the chemistry of wine have drastically reduced the amount of flat-out bad wine on store shelves. That’s true on Long Island, too, but here are some reasons more specific to our local wine community.

Reason 1: More finesse in the cellar

Wines that taste overwhelmingly of oak are a personal pet peeve of mine, though I recognize that some people like them. Luckily, in just the past 10 years alone, most local winemakers have really dialed it back, allowing fruit and other flavors specific to Long Island-grown wine to shine through. The best Long Island winemakers aren’t trying to make California- or Bordeaux-style wines anymore. They are making great Long Island wine. That’s important.

Reason 2: Climate change

For our day-to-day lives — and those of our children, their children and beyond — climate change is scary, but for local grape growers, there are some benefits.

“Climate change has pushed harvest dates forward by two to three weeks,” said Wölffer Estate’s Roman Roth. “This has generally resulted in harvesting riper grapes, especially in the vineyards that have outstanding vineyard management that allows for extra hang time.” Riper isn’t necessarily better in every situation, but if you historically struggled to get certain grape varieties fully ripe, and now they do so consistently, you’re going to make better wine.

Reason 3: Improved viticulture

If you drank local wines in the ’80s and ’90s, you probably remember distinctly under-ripe flavors in many of the reds. I’m not talking about notes of various herbs like thyme or mint, which bring complexity. I’m talking about wines that taste like bell pepper. Warmer growing seasons have something to do with that, but changes in how grapes are grown have had an even bigger impact.

“Twenty years ago we did not practice the rigorous leaf removal around the cluster zone, so those early reds had a high amount of pyrazines, which bring green character,” said Roth. “Now we do very early and thorough leaf removals and the resulting wines are much riper and lusher yet still elegant and vibrant.”

Members of Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing, with its certification program, are also ensuring that grapes are being grown with fewer toxins and herbicides. I don’t have any data or science to support this, but I’ve tasted wines from the same vineyard, with the same winemaker, both before and after it joined LISW. The wines grown after the changes in the vineyard are more vibrant, with a purity and focus that just weren’t there before.

Reason 4: Smarter planting

Early on, grape growers planted either what they wanted to grow or what they thought they could ripen. Today, with 40 years of collective experience, growers better understand what works best in our soils and for our climate.

Bedell winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich told me recently, “One of — if not the most — important development has been the understanding and planting of new clone/rootstock combinations in the vineyard. The original plantings on Long Island were not always the best clones or rootstocks. We know a lot more about these now and also where to plant them.”

Along the same lines, you’re also seeing continued experimentation with less common varieties. Look out for more albariño on the island in a few years.