Uncork the Forks: Fingers crossed for 2019 ‘special vintage’

The cellar crew processes the grapes from harvest at Bedell. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

I am compelled to write harvest reports every vintage — it is the biggest news in the region right now, after all — but it’s not something I particularly enjoy doing. Given how our weather varies from year to year and the fact that winemakers need people to buy the wines they make regardless of what that weather is like, it can be hard to get accurate assessments of how the grapes are coming in.

It’s far better for me to wait until the winter, when I can actually taste the in-progress wines for myself.

I was set to forgo the mid-harvest report entirely until a local winemaker closed an email to me about something else entirely with: “By the way, this year is shaping up to be really something special. [I’ve] never seen anything like what I’m seeing right now. Fingers crossed.”

This is a winemaker I’ve known for almost two decades now. He doesn’t sugarcoat things. This was real information about a potentially great vintage — so here we are.

You probably know already that the 2019 Long Island grape harvest is well underway. Social media is jam-packed with pictures and videos of beautifully ripe fruit being picked, crushed and pressed.

In general, it’s halftime for local vineyards. Grapes destined for sparkling wine have been picked. As have most of the white wine grapes, save those where a little extra ripeness is wanted, including those set to become sweeter, late harvest wines. Reds used for rosé are coming in as I type this. Some early ripening reds like pinot noir and malbec have come in as well. Every winemaker I’ve spoken to is excited about the white wines he or she is making this year. And despite a little raining coming over the next week or so, it sounds like the red grapes are healthy and will be able to weather — pun intended — the rains.

Earlier in the growing season, most were far less optimistic.

“The latter part of spring was quite cool and rainy and limited the potential for higher levels of sugar,” said Kareem Massoud, winemaker at Paumanok Vineyards. But a vintage isn’t necessarily made in the spring. More often than not, it’s the late summer and fall that matter most.

“We always say the month of September is the most important one,” said Raphael winemaker Anthony Nappa. “We need sunny days [that are] not too hot. But we also need cool nighttime temperatures, ideally in the 50s. We also need dry days, a little rain is okay but ideally, it comes overnight and is sunny the next day.”

As you’ve probably noticed yourself, that’s exactly what we got.

Bedell Cellars winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich (the winemaker who tipped me off to the vintage, by the way) told me, “I’ve seen ripeness levels that I haven’t seen since 2010. The difference in ’19 has been that acid levels are remaining crisp at high sugar and aromatic levels. Just beautiful.”

It’s not just that the fruit is coming in ripe; it’s coming in without the kind of disease pressure that often dictates when grapes are picked.

“The fruit is coming in nice and clean and ripe, which is to be expected with a spectacular September such as what we just experienced,” said Massoud of the white wine grapes he’s picked both at Paumanok and at Palmer Vineyards, which is also owned by his family.

With healthy grapes and low disease pressure, winemakers can pick when the grapes’ flavors and chemistries are deemed perfect. This is better for the finished wines and also the winemakers.

“I have even squeezed in multiple fishing trips this harvest, so I would count that as a smooth vintage so far,” joked Lenz Winery winemaker Thomas Spotteck. “Hopefully the weather holds on for the reds to come in as smooth as the whites!”

That’s what is yet to come: the bulk of the red wine harvest, including Long Island’s core red varieties, cabernet franc, merlot and cabernet sauvignon.

“The merlot and cabernet sauvignon will continue to hang with the rain falling while the skins are still resilient, keeping disease pressure low,” Saltbird Cellars owner-winemaker Robin Epperson McCarthy told me last week before a day of rain.

With a few more weeks of good weather, this could be a special vintage. Olsen-Harbich said, “I’ll say right now that 2019 will be recognized as one of the great Long Island vintages. I’m very excited about everything that is coming in. Obviously we still have to close it out but it’s looking super nice. This vintage is a freight train full of ripeness that isn’t stopping for anything.”

 Nappa echoes the sentiment, telling me “There is no need for marketing spin here. Things are about as perfect as they get so far this ripening season.”

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.