Discover the Long Island Wine Region
Long Island is the 120 mile stretch of land that juts east into the Atlantic Ocean from New York City. Suffolk County makes up roughly the eastern half of the island, and that’s where the wineries are found. Long Island is shaped like an elongated fish, and the North Fork is where the overwhelming number of wineries are located. Since the Long Island Expressway runs the length of the island, wine country is easily accessible for day trips from New York and the surrounding metro areas.
The History of Long Island
Despite its proximity to New York City, Long Island’s weather patterns are more similar to those of southern Connecticut which is just to the north and across the Long Island Sound. Long Island is geologically more similar to Connecticut as well, which makes sense because it was formed by glacial debris pushed south during the ice age.
During the pre-Colombian era, indigenous groups thrived through farming the sandy soil and fishing the plentiful waters surrounding the island. Many of the interesting ‘-ogue’ town names come from indigenous languages and usually refer to water in some way. As with elsewhere in North America, the arrivals of Europeans spurred a massive decline in indigenous populations due to disease and war.
The name Long Island – however obvious it may be – was actually awarded by early Dutch settlers who named the land ‘Lange Eylant.’ The Dutch arrived in the early 1600s and dotted the island with settlements but England claimed the island as part of the Plymouth Colony. English arrivals attempted various settlements without much success until the mid-1600s. Today, Southold on the North Fork and South Hampton on the South Fork each claim to be the oldest European village.
Long Island’s importance grew with the revolutionary discontent and it became key during for the revolutionary spy ring between Connecticut and New York. However, the population stayed relatively sparse simply due to lack of accessibility. Port towns thrived but beyond that, Long Island remained rural for the next several centuries.
The advent of ferry service from New York to Brooklyn allowed a posh neighborhood to spring up in Brooklyn Heights. The subsequent installation of the Long Island Railroad and the introduction of cars meant that western coastal towns of Long Island became luxury homes for Manhattan elite and served as inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
The eastern end of Long Island still thrived agriculturally until America’s tastes in potatoes changed from boilers to fryers. The once-booming potato farms slowly began to collapse and younger generations moved away from farming in search of sustainable work. By the middle of the 1900s, the North Fork was an almost forgotten area.
Enter the Hargraves. The young Alex and Louisa Hargrave arrived on the North Fork in the early 1970s with the crazy idea that they could make wine there. They likened the climate to that of Bordeaux because it was temperate, mild, and moderated by so much water. And, after much trial and error, they proved to be correct and built what is now the flourishing Long Island wine industry.
Today, Long Island still fights against some image issues and even in nearby New York City, it can be a struggle to get local wines on restaurant lists. However, young and experimental winemakers continue to craft delicious cuvees that only show the unlimited potential of the area.
Long Island Grape Varieties
As the Hargraves suspected, Bordeaux grapes tend to do well on Long Island but Burgundian grapes have done well, too. Here are the main grape varieties that can be found across the Long Island wine region.
Merlot dominates Long Island plantings, making up about 30% of total acreage, and with good reason: the climate is perfect for merlot. It doesn’t need quite as much heat at cabernet sauvignon to ripen well, and its softer tannins make it much more approachable. Long Island merlots tend to have an earthier quality than their California counterparts, which means they’ll appeal to those who claim to hate merlot. (We promise.)
Although chardonnay has not historically been merlot’s viniferal counterpart – at least not in Mother France – they do well together on Long Island. Similar to merlot, Long Island chardonnays are not as big and as rich as those from California, which often surprises newcomers. Expect pure, fruit-driven wines that, at their best, have minimal oak intrusion.
Probably not a huge surprise that cab franc does well on Long Island since it’s a Bordeaux varietal but we’re thrilled it does! Not quite as vegetal as some Loire iterations can be, they tend to have the perfect balance between fruit and earth notes.
Pinot noir can be a little tricky because Long Island is so damp and the grape is prone to mildew but in those perfect vintages, it really is perfect. More recent wineries have begun to focus on sparkling wine, which means pinot is showcased in those as well.
Chenin isn’t quite as well-known as chardonnay on Long Island but those that grow it craft some beautiful wines with it. Think bright lime and sweet pea notes. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Paumanok.)
The Long Island AVA is understandably the largest, encompassing Nassau and Suffolk counties. Oddly enough, this is the AVA that was established most recently and it includes the two smaller AVAs of the island.
The North Fork of Long Island AVA was established in 1985 and stretches the length of the North Fork, from Riverhead on the western end to Orient Point, the eastern end of the fork. The North Fork of Long Island AVA is home to most Long Island wineries because the soil and microclimates are ideal for grape growing. Currently, there are over 60 wineries sandwiched in this small stretch of land.
The oldest AVA on Long Island is The Hamptons, Long Island AVA. The name is a little deceptive because although it includes the many Hampton villages, it includes much more, like Gardiners Island. We can probably assume that “The Hamptons” carried more prestige than “The South Fork of Long Island” when the AVA was established in 1984.
Long Island Recommendations Available Nationally
Sadly, Long Island wines do not have the distribution they deserve across the country. They can be difficult to find on the west coast and even more so in non-wine-loving areas. A few online wine merchants have good selections, but the best bet is to order from the wineries directly. You’ll also be kept in-the-know for any deals and up-coming events that way.
Written By Jamie Metzgar
Jamie Elizabeth Metzgar began her career in wine by pouring in a tasting room on the East End of Long Island, NY. After moving to New York City, she landed a position at Chambers Street Wines where she was encouraged to pursue wine education at the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET). She earned Level III certification there and has since earned California Wine Appellation Specialist and Certified Specialist of Wine certifications as well. After way too many moves, she has recently landed in Northern California where she is compiling an unofficial roster of dog-friendly tasting rooms.