Whites hold steady after a ‘tough’ year: Uncork the Forks

Bedell Vineyard (Credit: W Studios NY)

Every fall I find myself wanting to write a harvest column to share what I’ve heard from grape growers and winemakers about the grape-growing season. Often there is a lot of “spin” involved — no matter how bad the season, wineries still need to sell the resulting wine, so they don’t want to paint too dire a picture. I also think that winemakers are generally hopeful people. They have to be in a region like this one!

This year I’m breaking it up into two separate columns. This week, we’ll focus on the white wine grape harvest, which is pretty much complete across both forks. Then, in a month or so, I’ll touch on the red wine grape harvest, which is just starting this week and next.

“This vintage started out cool and wet, which is more or less the norm for the North Fork,” said Bedell Cellars winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich, “Summer was slow to come but when it did we had a lot of heat and sun. The fruit really ripened quickly through a very hot and dry August and slowed down once September hit, which was cooler, with sporadic rains.”

Grapevines need rain to grow — like any other plant — but too much is, well, too much. And the humidity we all endured this summer only exacerbates the problems.

“This vintage has been a struggle across the board. Consistent rain and humidity has made this year tough — with humidity comes mold and disease in the vineyard,” said Brewster McCall from McCall Wines.

And, because white grapes tend to be thinner skinned, they are even more susceptible to molds and mildews.

Because of that pressure, many picked their whites a bit earlier than they otherwise might have, hoping to get as much healthy, clean fruit into the winery as possible. 

“We probably picked earlier than we would typically from a brix perspective,” said Hounds Tree winemaker Alex Rosanelli. “That being said, we are picking chardonnay 10 days later than in the prior three vintages.”

“This year it may not have been a good decision to wait too long for high sugars to accumulate, as that wasn’t going to happen,” said Olsen-Harbich, adding, “These are the kinds of wines we make and I think our consumers find them refreshing.”

In a few months, we’ll all be able to start judging whether these picking decisions — and the extra work done in the vineyards to maximize ripening and mitigate disease — worked or not. But at this point, local winemakers remain optimistic that they’re making the kinds of balanced, elegant white wines the region is known for.

Kareem Massoud, Paumanok Vineyards’ winemaker, told me: “Sugars are lower than usual. The good news is that flavor, ripeness and acidity are where we want them and yields are close to normal.”

Kelly Urbanik Koch, winemaker at Macari Vineyards, is seeing the same, telling me: “We have seen physiological ripeness in the fruit at very low sugar levels this year. Acid levels have been very balanced — right in the range that I am looking for. Flavors are developed and fermentations are smelling great and we have a handful of wines which are done fermenting already.”

Olsen-Harbich, who has been making wine here on the island for more than three decades, has seen more growing seasons than most. When I asked him what consumers can expect from the 2018 whites, he summed it up simply: “Beautifully balanced and aromatic wines, like always.”

Lenn Thompson has been writing about American wine — with a focus on New York — for nearly 15 years. After running newyorkcorkreport.com for 12 years, he launched thecorkreport.us in 2016 and The Cork Report Podcast soon after. He lives in Miller Place with his wife and two children.