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Lenz Winery merlot harvest

Vineyard workers harvest merlot at The Lenz Winery in Peconic. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

Lenz Winery merlot harvest

If you were to compare the 2016 Long Island vintage to a bottle of wine, it might be the kind you’d serve at a dinner party for friends — but perhaps not the special occasion reserve you were saving for your 25th wedding anniversary.

Harvest reports from across the East End are rolling in, and the prognosis is that 2016 is shaping up to be a challenging but manageable year. It will likely be remembered as a perfectly respectable vintage.

Vintners are reporting lower than average sugar levels, or brix, at ripening. That will translate to wines with a lower alcohol by volume content when the 2016 bottles are released.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen the sugar this low with the grapes being this ripe,” said longtime Lenz winemaker Eric Fry. “That’s not evil, nothing wrong with that. As long as the wine tastes good, that’s fine.”

Last Thursday, the crew at the Peconic vineyard, which grows more than half a dozen varietals on its 85 acres, were snipping clusters of merlot to be brought to the winery.

It’s a unique harvest for Fry, who has held his position for 28 years, because it’s his first with a second-in-command. Last spring Lenz hired assistant winemaker Thomas Spotteck, a Shelter Island native with experience in vineyards in Washington State and South Africa. Fry said he’s thinking about retiring in the coming years and is training Spotteck to be his successor.

“It’s good and bad,” Fry said with a laugh. “Good in that I’ve got somebody that I can trust to do things that I want. Bad in that I have to trust somebody to do things that I want.”

Like Fry, Wölffer Estate Vineyard winemaker and co-owner Roman Roth, who is also president of the Long Island Wine Council, noted that low alcohol isn’t necessarily something for winemakers to worry about.

“The fruit flavors are wonderful. Very clean and bright,” Roth told our wine columnist, Lenn Thompson, earlier this season. “The record-warm July and August have ensured that the fruit is [tasting] ripe and that acidity is on the lower side. Sugars are lower than the stellar 2013 or 2015 vintages, but that is fine for our elegant and balanced wines.”

This year’s summer was ideal in terms of sun, heat and breezy weather, said winemaker Kareem Massoud of Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue.

Just .9 inches of rain fell during the entire month of August — much lower than the average 3.98 inches, according to data from the National Weather Service. Lower-than-average rainfall was also reported in July and September.

And a four-day heat wave from Aug. 12-15 — when temperatures reached 90, 93, 97 and 90, respectively — brought record-breaking highs to the region.

“Yields were lower than normal, but quality was high,” Massoud said in an email.

Lenz Winery merlot harvest
Vineyard workers harvest merlot at The Lenz Winery in Peconic on Thursday, Oct. 20. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

Luckily for wine growers, the biggest threat to the vintage, Hurricane Matthew, moved to the Atlantic Ocean after pummeling the Carolinas in early October. A severe storm in late summer or early fall can be devastating: In 2011, the effects of Hurricane Irene decimated the red grape harvest on Long Island.

Bedell Cellars winemaker Richard Olsen-Harbich called 2016 a “quintessential Long Island vintage” in that the wines that are produced will be made in Long Island’s signature style — balanced and low alcohol.

“There are no easy vintages here on Long Island … but the results are beautiful and so worth it,” he said. “It’s what makes what we do so triumphant and rewarding.”

Olsen-Harbich said to be on the lookout for 2016 cabernet franc, albariño, sauvignon blanc and malbec.

Jamesport Vineyards culled about a third of its crop this year, according to president Ron Goerler Jr., leading to yields of about two and a half tons per acre — about average. Less fruit on the vines means the grapes can ripen more quickly.

“The hardest part of this business is not getting greedy,” Goerler said. “I don’t see it being a bad year because of a little bit of rain.”

Making wine on Long Island may never be simple, but the experienced grower knows how to navigate erratic weather. Adam Suprenant, winemaker at Osprey’s Dominion in Peconic and Coffee Pot Cellars in Cutchogue, agreed that 2016 will be a year to reward those who are diligent in the vineyard.

“The people focused on quality are going to do great,” he said one day before the last of Osprey’s cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, carménère and petit verdot were set to be harvested.

In his opinion, Suprenant said, sugar levels might not be lower than average — just less than they were in banner years like 2010, 2013 and 2015.

“To me, this [year] is normal for our area,” he said. “To be super dry for so many years in a row is exceptional.”