Sign up for our Newsletter

Worth the wait: Long Island reds. (Photo credit: Conor Harrigan courtesy of Long Island Wine Country)

Roses aren’t the only red item associated with a February night — or frigid weather, more generally. 

“This is the best time to dig into your wine cellar and find the heavy monsters, the big reds,” says Roman Roth, the winemaker and a partner at Wölffer Estate Vineyard.

Winemakers can serve up a few hypothesis on why red vinos hit differently in the winter months.

Roman Roth in the cellar with the sleeping reds of Wolffer Estate. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

“They are comforting. They are warmer because we don’t serve them at cooler temperatures,” says Anthony Sannino, the winemaker at Sannino Vineyards, which he owns with his wife, Lisa. “Typically, they [offer] a warming sensation when you drink them.”

That’s winemaker Robin Epperson-McCarthy’s gut reaction, too. But she points out that what we are often stuffing our bellies with during the winter also looms large.

“For me, winter time is about food and the wines that we pair to create a thoughtful meal,” says Epperson-McCarthy, the owner of Saltbird Cellars and partner in Chronicle Wines. “This is a time for hearty meals and rich vegetables. I think of my favorite winter staple, garlicky and buttery local Hephzibah porcine shiitake. In whatever dish, this flavor component paired with a layered luscious red wine nourishes the body and stimulates the mind.”  

Robin Epperson-McCarthy of Saltbird Cellars. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

Your mind — and tastebuds – may drift to a big, bold cabernet sauvignon like the ones produced in regions like Napa Valley, but Long Island’s cooler climate lends itself to red wines with more elegant and layered characteristics.

“We are more reminiscent to European style reds because we’re a cooler climate,” Sannino says. “Richness and fullness of fruits are there for our varieties.”

While your mileage may vary with tastes, some Long Island vintners say these brooding reds strike a welcome chord.

“When I think of a good red wine, though, I don’t think of heavy,” says John Leo, the winemaker at Clovis Point and Premium Wine Group and founder of the label Leo Family. “To me, the best wintertime wines are full bodied, full flavored and warming. I associate a heavy wine with too much oak and too much alcohol. But a good brooding red has to have balance, subtlety and length.”

So, yes, you can find a Long Island red to warm up with — one that hits all the right notes. Here, our local winemakers share what’s in the wine glasses they raise when temperatures fall.

Petit Verdot, Sannino Vineyards

Everything we just said about reds on Long Island? Throw it out for a second.

At Sannino Vineyards, the petit verdot — a wine with 15% ABV, is reminiscent of California reds. 

“[Customers] drink that and say that they are puzzled,” Sannino says. “To say we can’t [produce bold reds on Long Island] isn’t entirely true. There are varieties that are expressed like that.”

Petit verdot grapes stay green for the longest time of any other variety grown at the vineyard, making it an exercise in patience when waiting for them to ripen.

“You have to…harvest it at the last moment,” Sannino says. “Even when leaves are dropping, I can harvest this.”

Pair with: Gamey meats, like venison and lamb. “It’s a big wine. It needs the fat,” Sannino suggests.

2019 Harbinger, Saltbird Cellars

Saltbird Cellar’s “Harbinger” is a mostly merlot blend. (Photo credit: Madison Fender)

Epperson-McCarthy loves a good merlot, especially one produced on the Island.

“This grape is our grape,” Epperson-McCarthy says. “It is consistently delicious every vintage. Rich dark fruit and big soft tannins with the freshness of the cool-climate acidity make it a perfect companion for heavy proteins.”

The 2019 Harbinger is a blend made with 80% merlot and 20% cabernet sauvignon.

“The lushness of the merlot fruit with a complement of cabernet sauvignon with its rich raspberry notes and its tight structural tannins create a wine that my business partner, Alie Shaper, has dubbed liquid velvet,” Epperson-McCarthy says. “Harbinger is only made in the vintages that cabernet sauvignon is ripe enough to add to the soft fruit of this blend.”

Pair with: For dinnertime gold, Epperson-McCarthy suggests opting for a hearty dish like duck with a blueberry reduction, boar with beach plum jam or steak with buttery potatoes.”

Leo Family Red, Premium Wine Group

Leo is selective about the number of reds he bottles under the Leo Family label he founded — he’s only done so a handful of times. 

“This is a blend of merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and usually a small amount of malbec and syrah,” explains Leo. “Each variety adds something different to the way the blended wine smells, feels and tastes.”

Leo Family reds are bottled only in the best possible vintages. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

Wine runs in Leo’s DNA — in a good way. His grandfather once made vino in the basement of his Hudson Valley home. And all wines bottled under “Leo Family Red” must impress his family of tough critics first. This one passed with flying colors.

“What I want to find in my wine is elegance and mouth-filling density; a harmony of ripe fruit flavors and intriguing undertones,” Leo says. “I want it to satisfy me with its well-built persistence.”

Pair with: Leo suggests serving Leo Family Red with white meats and marinated poultry, like duck or goose. “Since the Leo Family blend is based on merlot and cab franc, it is not as obviously bold or as tannic as some other well-regarded wines,” he says. “Lean meats and wild fowl have enough flavor and enough savory oils to match Leo Family, without the wine overwhelming them. Sauteed mushroom dishes also have the delicious effect of heightening the deeper fruit flavors of the wine.”

2021 100% Petit Verdot, Corey Creek Tap Room

Corey Creek winemaker Marin Brennan prides herself on producing unique, terroir-focused small batch wines — the 100% petit verdot is no exception.

“This fuller-bodied red captures the essence of the North Fork terroir, accentuating beautiful dark berry fruit and spice notes,” Brennan says. 

The grapes underwent a wild yeast fermentation in stainless steel tanks and matured in neutral barrels for 21 months. The process enhances the wine’s character and minimizing oakiness, giving way to the fresh dark-berry notes.

Pair with: The brightness of this wine cuts through the fattiness in meats, but Brennan says it’s versatile enough to play with pairings. Think charcuterie boards with hard cheeses like aged cheddar and gouda, cured meats, pate and dried fruits.

2019 Musée, Bedell Cellars

Bedell Cellars Musée. (Photo credit: Vera Chinese)

Musée, Bedell Cellars’ flagship wine is also Richard Olsen-Harbich’s favorite. Olsen-Harbich uses a classic Bordeaux-blending approach to select the ripest, most powerful reds in the vintage to create the wine he says was inspired by owner Michael Lynne’s love of art and vino. The label, commissioned by artist Chuck Close, is a nod to that — so is the complexity of a Musée.

“Our reds are less intoxicating and more refreshing than the super-extracted, high-alcohol reds from the West Coast, making them more like the classic red wines of the Old World,” says Olsen-Harbich. “It has richness and power, but it’s balanced and elegant and won’t overpower a dish.”

Pair with: Olsen-Harbich says this classically styled big red is a perfect pairing for dishes like roast duck, goose and filet mignon. A few others to whet your appetite and whistle? “Hearty and flavorful stews, such as beef stew or cassoulet, pair nicely as the wine’s structure can enhance the savory and earthy notes of these dishes,” he says. “Aged, hard cheeses like aged Gouda, cheddar or Parmesan can also pair well with this wine’s complex flavors.”

2019 Claletto Cabernet Sauvignon, Wölffer Estate Vineyard

Roth loves making a balanced, elegant wine. 

“But once in a while, it is fun to go the complete opposite and go big,” Roth says. “It is contrast that makes life fun … so let it rip.”

Yet, Roth prefers to make even his big wines ones that stop short of succumbing to a trend that comes “courtesy” of climate change — sweet, often over-oaked wine that are higher in alcohol and more tannic.

“It is important to find a wine with character, some balance, great structure and earthiness, and not just fruit and alcohol and oak,” Roth says.

Roth feels the Claletto Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine inspired by Amarone style wines from Northern Italy’s Veneto region, fills that bill. The grapes stay on the vine until fully riped. After they’re picked, the grapes go on drying racks to dehydrate. Less water reduces the sugar and alcohol and intensifies the flavor, color, tannins and acidity.

“There are two things I love about this wine,” Roth says. “I love when a big heavy wine is balanced by acidity and minerality and has an interesting structure. And our climate is all about elegance and balance and yet by dehydrating the grapes we have managed to make this absolute powerhouse of a wine. Nobody ever expects to find such a big wine – it has a huge surprise effect.”

Pair with: This won’t likely come as a huge surprise: “In this case, go big and rich with the choice of food,” Roth suggests. “Ossobuco, leg of lamb, wild boar stew, goulash or boeuf Bourguignon. The wine and the food will complement each other and make the whole dining experience even bigger.”