Winemakers remember vintages. They recall the way the weather changed and impacted the grapes through the season. They also rarely forget how the resulting wines had to be treated in the cellar.
Long Island’s 2012 vintage is particularly memorable for two main reasons – what came before it and how it ended.
The 2011 vintage was marred by more than 40 inches of rain during the growing season, the most in more than three decades.
“2011 was probably the worst vintage I have seen on Long Island,” said Russell Hearn of Lieb Cellars and Suhru Wines. Longtime vintner Rich Olsen-Harbich of Bedell Cellars echoed those comments, saying “it was one of the most difficult years we’ve ever had.”
The end of the 2012 growing season came with the arrival of Hurricane Sandy on October 29, which forced some wineries to pick grapes they might have otherwise left on the vine to ripen just a bit more.
What happened in between was more typical of a Long Island vintage – even for a region where the norm is always in flux.
“We had a very early bud break in mid-April,” said Anthony Nappa of Raphael and Anthony Nappa Wines. “This was more common in the past, but 2012 was the last time it has happened. The following year’s bud break was around the first of May and now we always are in the first week of May and never in April anymore. I’m not sure what that means yet, but it’s all been pushed back.”
After early budbreak, which is when the grape-growing season begins in earnest, the early part of the summer – June and July – was marked by high humidity and overcast days, which increases disease pressure and can slow ripening, respectively. Still, the rest of the summer and early fall was “marked by plenty of heat, sun and long stretches of dry weather; ideal conditions for winegrowing,” according to Paumanok Vineyards winemaker Kareem Massoud. At least until Hurricane Sandy arrived.
So was 2012 a good vintage? A bad vintage?
Opinions varied greatly among the winemakers I spoke with for this story.
Massoud called 2012 an “exceptional vintage,” though Paumanok only produced one “Grand Vintage” wine that year, a cabernet sauvignon. The winery only produces a Grand Vintage when the wines earn the designation.
“It was a below-average year, but not as bad as 2011,” said Hearn. “Due to the higher-than-normal acidity they have aged quite well and are relatively soft now. (But) the fruit intensity was never high nor tannin weight, so they are mature – not over the hill – soft red wines. These are not ‘bad’ wines, they just aren’t meant for the long term, 10-plus years.”
“I understand the mixed reviews,” said Raphael’s Anthony Nappa, who was making his own wine at Premium Wine Group at the time. “I think it’s easy to pigeonhole the vintage, which is stuck between 2011, one of the worst I have experienced here, and 2013, which was the best vintage I have experienced here. So looking back, it’s easy to overlook 2012 and focus on 2013.”
Because 2012 wasn’t broadly considered a vintage for long-term aging, most of the winemakers I spoke with didn’t have extensive libraries of wine for us to taste. But between some wines from my own cellar and a handful of bottles I was able to get from local winemakers, I can at least offer some broad impressions.
Most of the white wines I tasted were tired, mostly lacking acidity and freshness (as you’d expect 10 years on). Bedell Cellars 2012 Gallery, though, was broad and mouth-filling with gobs of peach and tropical fruits with well-integrated, spicy oak and a long finish that still showed a bit of acidity.
Of the reds, these aren’t big, burly wines – but that’s not what you look for here anyway.
Several stood out and continued to impress over the course of three days open on my counter. Paumanok Vineyards 2012 Merlot was still quite fresh with acidity, partly because of the vintage, partly because it’s closed under a screw cap, with some earthy, mushroomy notes just starting to develop alongside red and black cherry and cocoa powder notes. Bedell Cellars 2012 “Black Label” Cabernet Franc was the best cabernet franc in the bunch, with beautiful structure and complex flavors of sweet red berries, vanilla, earth and savory roasted poblano pepper. The finish is long and herb-tinged. Wolffer Estate’s 2012 Christian’s Cuvee Merlot wasn’t as rich as warmer years, but was seemless with intense cherry flavors layered with graphite, damp earth and herbs.
Nearly every time I’ve done a tasting of Long Island wines with 10-plus years of age, the cabernet sauvignons stand out. This time, Roanoke Vineyards 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon From the Hill Block, filled that role. Hints of tobacco and resinous herbs mingled beautifully here with dark berries and plum. There is a rich, caramel note here that leads into a very long, licorice-tinged finish.
No, 2012 won’t be remembered as one of the best vintages ever for Long Island wine, but the red wines in particular are aging gracefully. If you have some in your cellar, I’d consider drinking them soon, but there’s no hurry.
“2012 has been underrated as the wines I made that year were quite nice,” Olsen-Harbich said. “I’d say for me, the vintage was slightly above average – more difficult to manage in the vineyard and cellar but all things considered, the results speak for themselves,.”
I think he’s right. They do.