Let’s let Long Island wines be themselves: Uncork the Forks

As of a few days ago, I’ve been writing about wine for 14 years — just about all of that focused on New York and Long Island wine. Perhaps not surprisingly, I tend to reminisce every time the anniversary passes.

When I first visited Long Island Wine Country just a few weeks after moving here for a job almost two decades ago, I wasn’t long out of graduate school. I guess you could call me a wine drinker at the time, mostly because I thought it was a grown-up alternative to cheap beer. But like many underemployed grad students, I mostly drank cheap stuff: stuff that I now know was probably factory-made and definitely wasn’t very good. I remember drinking a lot of Australian wine with animals on the label. Blue Marlin Chardonnay was a favorite. I had very little experience with Old World wines, save beaujolais nouveau at Thanksgiving — another wine I know better than to drink today.

I had yet to taste the great wines of the world, or even the United States. I wasn’t unlike the average person walking into a North Fork tasting room, probably.

I remember, while touring Long Island Wine County those first few times, hearing two phrases over and over: “Bordeaux-style reds” and “Burgundian chardonnay.” I feigned understanding at the time, not wanting to admit that I had no idea what they were talking about. I nodded politely and listened to tales about soils and climate and malolactic fermentation.

But the fact is, I had no idea what they were talking about. They might as well have said “Martian-style merlot.” It would have meant as much.

All these years later, wine has become an obsession. I’ve explored Bordeaux — not first-growths maybe (because who can really afford those today?), but some very good wines. I’ve tasted white Burgundy, too. Enough to understand the style, anyway.

Looking back, it’s easier to understand what Long Island wineries were really trying to tell me.

By comparing their reds to Bordeaux, they really meant “We’re not like California.” And at the time, I guess that was an important differentiation for drinkers coming in looking for plush California-style cabernet. And by saying “Burgundian chardonnay” they meant “plenty of oak, but not like California.”

There probably were at least a few wines back then — and there certainly are today — reminiscent of classic merlot and chardonnay from the Old World, but most did, and do, fall short.

Maybe short isn’t the right word, though.

Long Island wine shouldn’t taste like wine from California or Bordeaux or the Loire Valley or anywhere else except Long Island. The comparisons are lacking, not Long Island wine.

And I think the greatest development in the Long Island wine industry over the past five or so years is a turn away from these comparisons. You almost never hear them anymore. And the winemaking reflects that, too. Winemakers aren’t beating the cabernet franc-iness out of their cabernet franc as much. Barrel-fermented chardonnay isn’t as oaky anymore. And while merlot and chardonnay still dominate plantings, varieties like albariño are on the rise as growers explore Long Island’s terroir further.

Winemakers — the good ones, anyway — have realized just how good Long Island wine is when it’s allowed to express itself as itself. Long Island wine is more comfortable in its own skin today than it was when I first started drinking and then writing about it.

My wife framed the first print story I ever wrote about wine — but it’s in our basement collecting dust. It was a story about local dessert wines and in the very first paragraph I referenced “Port from Spain.” Port isn’t made in Spain, of course. It comes from Portugal. I still cringe every time I see it. I guess I’ve come a long way since those days, too.