Long Island’s 2015 harvest is looking optimistic: Uncork the Forks

Grapes ripening at Corey Creek VIneyards in Southold. (Credit: Randee Daddona for northforker)

After writing grape harvest reports for more than a decade, I’ve learned a few things. One, every winemaker is hopeful this time of year. Comments like “This will be an outstanding vintage” and “XYZ will be a great year for Long Island wine” abound.

I’ve also learned that it’s not always true. It’s easy to get caught up in the romanticism of wine and wine country, but this is a business — the business of selling wine. That salesmanship begins before the grapes are even picked.

But after the summer we’ve had, you don’t need to talk to local grape growers or winemakers to know that it’s been a beautiful summer. Warm but rarely punishingly hot. Exceedingly sunny with very few rainy days. With experience, I have to ask fewer questions about how a season’s weather will manifest itself on the vine and eventually in the bottle.

Warm is often better than hot. Dry is better than wet, but too dry brings its own problems. We’ll get to that in a bit, though.

The last thing I’ve learned is best summed up by Charles Massoud, co-owner of Paumanok Vineyards, who is fond of saying, “You cannot take it to the bank until it is in the tank.” Yes, it’s been a potentially great growing season, but it’s still early. A lot can happen, so any optimism is cautious. 2005 was a great vintage, too, until drenching rains in October caused problems for some wineries.

Still, it’s been a good year so far. “This was the most enjoyable summer that I ever remember on Long Island,” Massoud told me. “Other than the second week in July, when we had hot, hazy and humid weather, the rest has been warm, not hot, and relatively on the dry side with humidity generally not an issue.” These are great conditions for grapes as long as they get enough water, either through irrigation or timely rainfall. Low humidity reduces disease pressure — things like downy and powdery mildews are always a concern here — and a dry season concentrates flavors.

“The net effect is that the fruit is clean and ripening well and fast. The drought kept the berries small, which translates into greater flavor intensity,” Massoud said.

But remember, it’s still early.

Grapes for sparkling wine have been picked already at places like Paumanok, Macari Vineyards, Lenz Winery and Pindar Vineyards. White wine grapes are coming in now.

We got some rain a week or so ago. Kareem Massoud, Charles’ son and Paumanok’s winemaker, said of that rain: “The rain we got over the past seven days totaled about 2.7 inches. Enough to partially quench the thirst of the vineyard. On one hand, we really needed the rain; on the other hand, we really did not need it. In any case, everything is still looking good after the rain and now harvest is really getting underway.”

The Paumanok team has picked chardonnay for sparkling as well as a couple passes of sauvignon blanc. Chenin blanc will come in this week along with more chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.

Down the road at Raphael, the white wine harvest started much earlier than usual. In fact, winemaker Anthony Nappa has reported that they are done with white wines and looking ahead to reds. “We are done harvesting whites, whereas most years we haven’t even started yet. We harvested the sauvignon blanc and riesling as well as a little sémillon.”

When I asked him about the accelerated schedule, he said that it’s not just the warm weather we’ve been enjoying. “We had a lot of winter damage. We had a huge crop last year, four to five tons per acre, but this year we are one to two tons per acre, which makes ripening faster.”

Nappa displays that important cautious optimism, though “The quality is very good and the wines I think will be great. Now I just hope it cools off a bit, at night particularly, and stays dry, to slow the reds down and get nice ripening in October.”

Across the board, winemakers have reported that fruit is coming in clean — without disease or rot — but drought and near-drought conditions have had an impact on the grapes’ natural acidity, another reason for early picking. It’s important to pick white wines before they’ve lost too much of that fresh, refreshing acidity.

Edward Lovaas, winemaker at Pindar Vineyards and Duck Walk Vineyards, said, “The warm, dry weather has given us great fruit, cleaner than normal. The only real downside to the year is the lower acidity.”

Veteran winemaker Roman Roth of Wölffer Estate Vineyard has had a similar experience so far: “The fruit is extremely clean, with great ripe berry notes. Acid is mostly on the lower side,” he said. Some winemakers will adjust that lower acidity in the winery — adding acid early or late in the winemaking process. Others will take what Mother Nature gives them. What happens next? No one really knows. As Roth told me, “We will need to stay lucky for the next couple of weeks to bring in our top chardonnay and red wines. No risk, no fun! But if the weather stays like at the moment, a great vintage is in the making!”

There’s that optimism again.

Top photo: Grapes ripening at Corey Creek VIneyards in Southold. (Credit: Randee Daddona for northforker)

Lenn Thompson