There’s a common saying among winemakers that great wines come from vines near water. If you look at many of the world’s wine regions, that is true. When it comes to the North Fork, it is no exception.
As a wine region almost completely surrounded by water, with Peconic Bay to our south and the Long Island Sound to the north, North Fork wines benefit greatly from the water’s effects.
“The whole reason we’re here and in a commercial wine district is because of the surrounding water,” said Richard Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell Cellars. “That is the number one factor. And that’s because it has everything to do with the climate, the temperatures and the type of grapes that we grow.”
When it comes to North Fork terroir (French for “taste of a place,” said Olsen-Harbich), the water is one major component, along with soil and climate.
“Because we’re on the water, we get the airflow,” added Rosamond Phelps Baiz. Her vineyard, The Old Field Vineyards, is located right on the water, and she said she can even see a difference between her grapes grown on the water and ones grown farther away.
The surrounding bodies of water on the North Fork act as a mitigator of temperature, effectively buffering both warm and cold fronts.
“In the spring, when plants and buds are emerging, we are the last area for plants to wake up because the surrounding water is still cool,” said Richard Pisacano, co-owner of Roanoke Vineyards and vineyard manager at Wölffer Estate. “That protects us from the spring frost. At the end of the year, when the grapes are ripening and the frost conditions march their way down from the north, because the water has held onto the heat from being warm all summer, we’re protected from the fall frost.”
The soil of the North Fork also works to the vines’ favor. Tens of thousands of years ago, when a glacier moved over the area, it brought with it the topsoil from northern New York, New England, and Canada. When that glacier melted, it left behind that material. Below that topsoil is a bed of gravel and sand.
“The ground is very porous below the topsoil, and so, standing water is not a problem,” Olsen-Harbich said. “It drains away from the vines. They hate being in water, and they hate having their roots wet.”
When we talk about terroir, we are talking about the wine, the final product, and how it tastes based on the environment where the grapes grow.
“We tend to have more acidity,” Phelps Baiz said of North Fork wines. “We tend to be subtle and have a longer taste profile on the palette. They don’t blow up in your mouth. And I think that comes from being in somewhat of a cooler region.”
Olsen-Harbich agrees, adding that North Fork wines have an expression of crispness and high levels of aromatics. But he also said there is an underlying “saline minerality” as well.
“It’s hard to put a finger on where it comes from, it’s not coming from the ground,” he said. “I think it’s more of an atmospheric effect where a lot of condensation, a lot of salt spray from the water during certain times especially when some storm fronts roll in, adds some saline quality in the wine.”
The buffering shield effect the water has on the grapes can also give the winemaker more control over when to harvest, and in turn, have more control over how the final product will taste.
“If you let the grapes hang a little longer, you’re gonna get some more richness,” Pisacano said. “But even when we hang the fruit very long, we can still retain this energetic quality [to the wine], one that makes you keep going back to it and drinking it and enjoying it.
Depending on how long the winemaker will decide to leave grapes on the vine can affect taste, a luxury North Fork vineyards have because of the shield the water provides, Pisacano said.
“We’re able to continually reach whatever level of ripeness the winemaker seeks,” he said. “And depending on their style, it may be super fresh and vibrant, or rich and dense. Just by waiting a little longer, we can achieve those characteristics.”
What gives North Fork wine its Old World characteristics is the water and how it impacts the wines coming out of this area, Phelps Baiz said.
“I think it’s extraordinary when you have a piece of land like this that is so affected by water currents and wind,” she said. “I think it makes it a very curious and very interesting region and a challenging region. The water from my standpoint it’s a wonderful moderat- ing effect in general.”