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Not always easy to grow, some North Fork winemakers seem to have figured out pinot noir. (Credit: David Benthal)

Ruby-toned, silky and complex, pinot noir deftly straddles the fruity and the earthy. It goes down easy enough for beginners, while imparting a range of flavors to satisfy more rarefied palates. Not surprisingly, this light-bodied red, which pairs well with anything from pizza to poultry, saw its sales soar during the pandemic. Yet, pinot noir is an enigma to most growers, particularly here. 

Though its beginnings are somewhat murky, pinot noir is believed to be one of the oldest grapes, originating in France’s Burgundy region. These days, it’s grown from Australia to Chile, from northern Italy to northern California, and it’s firmly rooted in the North Fork, which boasts a cool climate that’s ideal for its cultivation, but also coastal humidity, which is problematic. 

Pinot noir grapes were the first of two kinds planted by Alex and Louisa Hargrave when they opened Long Island’s first commercial vineyard in the early 1970s. Despite their historic status, its grapes are considered too finicky for most local vineyards. 

They’re thin-skinned, ripen early and are as tightly clustered as a pine cone (“pinot” is a derivation of the word in French; “noir” refers to the grapes’ dark hue), making them especially susceptible to weather. 

“Pinot noir is a delicate and expressive grape that comes with many challenges, no matter where it is grown,” says Ria D’Aversa, vineyard manager at Cutchogue’s McCall Wines, which has raised the bar for local pinot noir. “Here on Long Island, the grapes are met with high humidity and, in certain years, heavy rainfall leading throughout the harvest season.” 

Humidity is a challenge for any varietal. Growers must ensure the grapes get enough air flow to keep clusters dry, which requires constant trimming back of leaves and exposure to sunlight. They also spray the grapes with fungicide to reduce the likelihood of mildew. 

With pinot noir, such maintenance increases incrementally, which is why so much pinot noir is often turned into sparkling white (without skins). 

“The thing about growing pinot noir is that timing is crucial,” D’Aversa said. “Pinot needs [maintenance] in a timely and quick manner.” 

Even regions well known for pinot noir cultivation grapple with the rigors of this varietal. 

“My previous job was a vineyard manager in Sonoma [California], where you’d think there are ideal growing conditions for pinot, but it’s not true,” D’Aversa said. “It’s all about paying attention to how the climate, season and management take care of the grapes.” 

Cold temperatures enhance pinot growth. 

“Pinot may not be the toughest variety, but it does cope well with harsh winters and ripens early in the season, allowing us to pick earlier than our other varieties that ripen well into October,” D’Aversa said. 

Given its high maintenance, what sort of vintner would willingly undertake pinot cultivation? 

Simply put, people who grow this grape are typically more than just passionate about it. They verge on obsessed. 

“I find my personality lends well to pinot growing, [as I’m] meticulous and anxious at times,” D’Aversa said. “We try our hardest to get it right, and then everything else is up to Mother Nature.” 

It also attracts people who love a good challenge. 

“Even though it’s a difficult one, pinot noir is one of my favorite red grapes, so I accept to deal with the Long Island challenge every year!” said Lilia Perez, winemaker at RGNY in Riverhead, who made her first pinot noir in 2018 and considers it one of her more demanding vintages. 

In addition to RGNY, producers like Castello di Borghese (where the Hargraves grew their first pinot noir grapes), Duck Walk Vineyards, Lenz, Macari Vineyards and Wölffer Estate also produce the varietal. 

“Growing pinot at McCall is part of the story of our winemaking,” said D’Aversa. “[Owner] Russ McCall’s love for the grape started early in his career and he planted what he thought were the best clones for the region … We are currently looking to add more clones to our spice box of excellent pinot growing.” 

McCall has raised the bar for local pinot growers, but there are other excellent vineyards producing it. Given the time-consuming, labor-intensive work it takes to cultivate this varietal, don’t expect to pay less than $25 for a good bottle. 

Four Long Island pinot noir bottles worth checking out

McCall 2014 Hillside Pinot Noir ($59)

You can probably guess which part of McCall’s estate vineyard the fruit for this wine was grown on. The wine from that hillside spent 16 months in French oak barrels, and it shows. The nose is a beautiful combination of ripe red berries (cherries and currants) with hints of toasted walnut, earth and floral hibiscus. The medium-bodied palate is cherry driven with earthy and spicy nuances, silky, maturing tannins and a long, elegant finish. Though it tastes terrific right now, this wine will only get better with age.

Macari Vineyards 2020 Pinot Noir ($32) 

This wine is a bit of an outlier. It’s by far the youngest, freshest-tasting wine, having been aged only in neutral oak for well under a year. It’s crunchy with fresh, sweet red cherry aromas and flavors with hints of fresh cranberry, black pepper and cherry pit. It tastes more like something from the Beaujolais region of France than Burgundy. It’s punchy and fresh but still has enough of a silky feel on the finish to remind you that it’s pinot. 

RGNY 2019 Pinot Noir ($48) 

This bottle leans toward the earthy side of the grape’s spectrum, with dry soil and autumnal dried leaf aromas and flavors. There are nice cherry and cranberry flavors, too, but this wine isn’t driven by those fruit qualities. Soft and silky, the palate features light, dusty tannins and just a hint of acidity for freshness. The finish lingers nicely with a black tea note.

Borghese Vineyard 2019 Reserve Pinot Noir ($85)

Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s also a beautiful example of what North Fork pinot noir can be when it comes from some of the oldest pinot vines on the East Coast. The nose is a bit more fruit forward, with bright, ripe red cherries and cranberry notes layered with mellow hints of vanilla, rosemary and dried autumnal leaves. All that red fruit takes a half step back on the soft, supple palate with vanilla, spice and leaf tobacco emerging beneath. Aged in French oak barrels, its tannins bring it to a tart, balanced finish.