Picking winning reds: Uncork the Forks

Inside Premium Wine Group in Mattituck. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

The pumpkin-picking throngs have subsided. The turkey and stuffing have been eaten (a lot of it, in my case) with some really good wines and we’re squarely in Peconic Bay scallop season. It’s a good time of year — and a good time to check in on this year’s red wine grape harvest.

Most of the wines are either finishing up fermentation or are already pressed off their skins and nestled into various oak barrels for aging, but the winemakers I’ve spoken to seem realistically optimistic overall — even with the challenging growing season they endured.

“Harvest 2018 was a challenge. Mother Nature gave us more rain than normal and that we would care to have,” said Russell Hearn, who makes wines for Lieb Cellars as well as his own labels, Suhru Wines and T’Jara.

Almost across the board, the last grapes to come in were cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot, the most late-ripening of the Bordeaux varieties. Some picked those grapes a little later than average; there’s no such thing as “normal” on Long Island, really — it’s tough to grow grapes here and every season is different.

The earlier-ripening red grape varieties — things like merlot and malbec — were picked later than normal, however. The gap between the end of the white grape harvest and the beginning of the red harvest was a bit longer, as growers and winemakers tried to allow the grapes to ripen as much as possible.

All told, there was about a three-week pause between whites and reds.

Ultimately, there came a time when letting the grapes hang longer wasn’t going to allow the grapes to ripen much more, so some growers picked based on weather.

Erik Bilka from Pindar, Borghese and Harbes vineyards said he picked the rest of his reds Nov. 1 because he “wanted to beat the rainy weekend that was forecasted — and turned out to be correct.” Similarly, Raphael’s Anthony Nappa pointed to some frost in the vineyard, which can damage the vines’ leaves and retard photosynthesis, and therefore negatively affect ripening. That drove some picking decisions as well.

Bilka told me that “sugars were very slow to develop but fruit across the board was in good shape without much disease pressure at all the vineyards. Flavors in the grapes are well-developed even with the brix lower than we typically shoot for.” That was echoed by others like Hound’s Tree Wines’ Alexander Rosanelli, who said, “This will certainly be a lower brix/alcohol year, though acids are in line with typical levels. Cool, wet weather continued through October, so we did not get much sugar accumulation in that period, though we did have flavor development.”

Hearn said, “Color is a little lighter than usual but early indications I am good with. There, however, will not be any reserve blends from the 2018 harvest. I am reducing my extraction goals from the fruit this year. Medium body, fruit forward is the goal, not ‘big’ tannin structure. A year like this you have to be more realistic about how much is possible.”

So which red grapes will ultimately lead to 2018’s best wines? There is at least a little divergence on that. For Nappa, 2018 reminds him of 2016 and said, “Merlot shines brightest, giving us what looks to be reserve-level quality wines. Proving again why merlot is the most important and consistent red grape in the region.”

Rich Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell Cellars, suggests several things besides merlot, saying “I’d have to say that malbec, cabernet franc and petit verdot are the red stars of this vintage. Great color and aromatics along with an elegant mouthfeel. Petit verdot was the ripest fruit of the vintage, which is always amazing, as it takes a long time to get to the finish line — so that may be the best red in the cellar this year as it often is. It’s a great fit for the North Fork!”

Ultimately, these winemakers are simply forecasting what the wines will be like — though with their combined experience, they do understand what the 2018 wines might eventually taste like. But don’t take their word for it. When the wines start to be released next year, keep in mind that harvest reports aren’t as important as tasting them for yourself.

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.