Uncork the Forks: Do Long Island wines get better with age?

Credit: Vera Chinese

I don’t have an expansive wine cellar, but I do have one. It’s in a corner of our basement against an outside wall, where it stays mostly cool year-round. It’s also a disorganized disaster of a mess. And that might be understating the situation.

But, as I slowly try to dig through it and drink down my cellar to a more manageable size, I’ve found some real treasures — older local wines that in many cases I didn’t realize I had. I opened some with friends just to see how they were tasting. They varied in years from 1997 to 2006 and, while a couple of them were probably beyond their peak drinking, not a single one of them was what I’d call a clunker.

That got me thinking about whether or not age-worthiness matters, to the wineries making them or to the region as a whole. Who cares if Long Island has wines that can age for 20-plus years?

“To make wines that can age very well is the ultimate pedigree for a winery,” Wölffer winemaker Roman Roth told me in an email. “It is a statement celebrating how great the vineyard is, its terroir, the vintage, the commitment of the winery and the skill of the vineyard manager and the winemaker. Making wines that can age gives a legacy and brings one to par with the greatest wineries in the world.”

Wölffer’s large rosé program aside, Roth makes some of the most age-worthy wines on the East End. A bottle of his 2006 Perle Chardonnay was among my cellar finds and while it was a bit oxidized, it still showed fruit qualities and wonderful structure and length. He understands what it takes to make wines that can age for five, 10, 15 or more years.

By aging, I don’t mean just hanging on either. No wine collector buys wines hoping or expecting that they will stay the same or merely survive over time. They are looking for the wines to evolve — in a positive way. Tannins can soften. Flavors can become more complex, with non-fruit flavors emerging. Does a wine get “better” with age? I put better in quotes because there are a lot of people who don’t like aged wines, and that’s okay, too.

And that point gets me to the other side of the discussion, the side that argues that it doesn’t really matter all that much how long Long Island wines can age.

Roth adds, “Being able to make wines that can age is a wonderful insurance for buyers, for collectors, for romantics and for wine lovers in general.” Wine buyers, those who are buying for shops or restaurants, obviously need to know that the wines they buy aren’t going to degrade over time. But are they expecting to keep these wines for more than a couple of years? Most of the sommeliers I know are changing their lists so often that I doubt they are looking for more than a year or two.

Most wines in America — I’ve seen estimates of up to 99% — are consumed the same day or week they are purchased. Do those consumers care? I’m not sure. I have a lot of wine-loving friends, but none of them are thinking about how a wine will develop in their cellars (which in some cases is just a small rack in the kitchen pantry).

I understand that a more traditional American wine ethos says that a wine region can’t make a name for itself without proving first that its wines can age, but I do wonder if that’s the case anymore. I see both sides and I honestly don’t know.

But I guess, on the whole, it doesn’t matter that much for Long Island. Long Island’s wines have proven again and again that they can and do age beautifully.

By the way, the best of the older wines I’ve had recently was a bottle of Lenz Winery 2001 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon. I had it with friends and didn’t take a single note — but it was incredible. And probably would have continued to develop in the bottle for years to come.

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.