Celebrated wine aficionado, Ron Kapon, who is known in wine circles as the Peripatetic Oenophile — the traveling wine expert — answers questions that Cheese Connoisseur readers have asked.
Cheese Connoisseur: Why write about Long Island wine?
Ron Kapon: A press release I received in early 2018 drew my attention. It invited me to experience the Long Island Winter Fest, now in its 11th year. Part of my family lives permanently in Bridgehampton on the South Fork. I never visit them during the summer on any weekend, since the roads are jammed and stores and restaurants are packed. Winter Fest was a great idea to introduce consumers to what the North and South Fork offer in the off-season. It also serves as an economic boost to the region. Arts, entertainment, food, wine, craft beers, culture and escorted and individual tours were offered with many of the events free of charge. There also were special offers on hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, and transportation.
C.C.: Can you share with our readers some fun facts about Long Island wines?
R.K.: In the past 40 years, Long Island wines have had a meteoric rise. Once a rural region, known for ducks and potatoes, Long island is the youngest and fastest-growing wine region in New York. In case you did not know, New York State is the third largest wine growing region in America only behind California and Washington, with Oregon and Texas numbering four and five. The United States is the fourth-largest wine producing country in the world after France, Italy and Spain. There are 56 wine producers on Long Island, with 47 on the North Fork, four on the South Fork and five in Western Suffolk County. Long Island produces over 500,000 cases of wine annually. The number of acres planted in vines in 1973 was 17. Hargrave Vineyards, now known as Castello di Borghese Vineyard & Winery, was the first to open in 1973. In 2018, there are over 4,000 acres of wine grapes planted. The number of visitors to East End wineries is estimated to be over 1.3 million in 2018.
C.C.: What factors make Long Island wines so distinctive?
R.K.: According to LIwines.com, the terroir on Long island is derived from the glacial soils, cool maritime climate and native flora as well as the distinct culture of the region. The soils have excellent internal drainage, modest fertility and moderate water-holding capacity, which control and limit the impact of the periodic summer rains, controlling vine growth and promoting grape ripening. The long, warm summers are tempered by cooling breezes of the Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean that prevent excessive summer heat. The surrounding water gives off warmth to the East End that extends summer into a mellow fall, allowing ample time to ripen the fruit well into October and November.
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C.C.: What is an AVA and does Long Island have any?
R.K.: American Viticultural Area (AVA) is a designated wine grape-growing region in the United States distinguished by geographic factors. Federal regulations require that 85 percent or more of the wine is derived from grapes grown within the boundaries of that AVA and that the wine is fully finished within the state or one of the states in which the AVA is located. The Long Island AVA was established in 2001, 15 years after two smaller AVAs were created at the eastern end of Long Island. In 1984, the Hampton, Long Island AVA included all the area in the South Fork of Long Island. In 1985, the North Fork, Long Island AVA was established. It was promoted as a benefit for some wineries located just outside the two smaller AVAs and for wineries that wanted to create wines that use blends from vineyards in different parts of the island. It was also developed and promoted as a consumer protection of the Long Island name. The Long Island AVA designation was promoted as a benefit for some wineries located just outside the two smaller AVAs and for wineries that wanted to create wines that use blends from vineyards on different parts of the island.
C.C.: What grape varieties are grown on Long Island, and do you have a favorite?
R.K.: The moderate climate with plenty of sun allows Long Island to grow many grape varieties from the most widely planted Chardonnay and Merlot—to the whites Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Viognier, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Grigio, Gruner Veltliner, Albarino, Chenin Blanc, Semillion, Tocai Friulano, Pinot Blanc; and the reds, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Carmenere, Blaufrankisch, Dornfelder, Syrah, and Pinot Noir.
My personal favorite is Merlot, which makes up almost 30 percent of the total grape plantings on Long Island, or roughly 700 acres. Merlot matures faster than Cabernet Sauvignon, and its softer tannins lead to a rich, fruit forward wine that goes well with food. There is even a Long Island Merlot Alliance (LIMA) that is a not-for-profit trade organization that promotes Long Island Merlot and Merlot based blends to consumers, media and the trade worldwide.
C.C.: What are the classic pairings for Long Island food and wine?
R.K.: According to Juan E. Micieli-Martinez, the winemaker for Martha Clara Vineyards, food and wine are two inseparable items that provide sustenance and enjoyment to all that enjoy such delicacies. On Long Island, the sandy loam soils, surrounding bodies of water and their respective estuaries provide a bounty of amazing food and wine.
Long Island Sauvignon Blanc provides racy acidity and a myriad of tropical fruit flavors. Nothing pairs better with Long Island Sauvignon Blanc than oysters from local waters. The briny bivalves and Sauvignon Blanc are a mouth-watering combination that goes down so effortlessly. Much like terroir of any wine region, Long Island’s bodies of water reflect distinct differences in the shellfish that they produce. Better known as merroir, visitors to Long Island should seek out oysters from the various bodies of water to savor the subtle differences that each body of water can produce. These include oysters from Long Island Sound, Peconic Bay and Great South Bay estuaries. Be sure to take note of the distinct differences each body of water creates in our bi-valve friends.
Another delectable pairing of wine with bivalves includes the delicious Peconic Bay scallops, which are savory gems of tasty-goodness that pair delectably with Long Island Chardonnay. Whether you prefer stainless steel fermented or a more classic barrel-fermented and barrel- aged Chardonnay, you can bet that Peconic Bay Scallops will pair well. There are so many ways to enjoy scallops, but no matter how you like them, grilled or pan-seared, just give them a squeeze of lemon and grab a cold bottle of Long Island Chardonnay.
The history of Long Island wine dates back to the mid-1970’s, but Long Island was internationally known for its fowl well before becoming popular for its vinous offerings. In fact, it was so well known for its duck that, in 1931, a local duck farmer built the “Big Duck”, which is located in Flanders, NY, and can be found in the National Register of Historic Places. Long Island duck is served and cherished all over the globe, but when visiting Long Island, the classic pairing for duck is Long Island Merlot. The soft velvety tannins of this Merlot pair incredibly with the savory flavors of Long Island duck.
As the saying goes, “if it grows together, it goes together” and agriculture and aquaculture on Long Island are alive and well. The Eastern End of Long Island is a bounty of delicious wine and food offerings, and I strongly recommend experiencing these pairings for yourself.