Protruding more than a hundred miles into the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island offers an antidote to the feverish frenzy of New York City, yet it also rivals the thrills of Manhattan as a serious destination for the wine lover.
New York State has 11 AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) but only two are well known for vitis vinifera (European) grapes – the Finger Lakes, up north, and Long Island – while other areas have favoured unremarkable American hybrid varieties. Trying to find one of the region’s wines on the list of a top restaurant in Manhattan can still be a struggle but that’s starting to change, as notoriously demanding New Yorkers come to appreciate the quality of what’s being grown in their own back yard. These are wines in tune with the fashion for lighter, fresher styles.
‘I have seen a big shift in the reactions we get from New York city consumers,’ says Amy Opisso, general manager at Lieb Cellars, ‘ten years ago, they would try a Cabernet Franc and say “oh, this doesn’t taste like Cab” because it wasn’t a big, bold, jammy Californian wine, whereas now the reaction is now “oh, this is just a delicious wine” so I think we are well positioned.’
Winemaking in New York State actually predates America’s disastrous experiment with Prohibition but Long Island’s wine history is still being written, with the first vines planted a mere 50 years ago. It’s a wonder it took them so long, as the island’s proximity to the sea means the climate is similar to Bordeaux, whose signature varieties are arguably this emerging region’s most celebrated.
‘We have a unique maritime climate, with the breeze, the saltiness. If you go about a metre deep, the soil is pure sand, just as you would find at the beach, so the vines have to dig deep to find water,’ says Miguel Martin, general manager at McCall Wines.
Exploring Long Island is easy: a couple of hours along the busy expressway, dreary suburbia slowly gives way to farmsteads and fresh air as New York’s vast conurbation slips into the rear-view mirror. The region’s 57 wineries start to sprout as the island splits in two, with both forks offering enticing visitor-friendly options.
Six Long Island wineries to visit
Charles and Ursula Massoud were among Long Island’s early pioneers and their charming Paumanok winery, established 40 years ago and now run by son Kareem, offers the perfect starting point for a tasting journey. There’s a bewildering array of different grapes grown here but the Chenin Blanc is a must, while thrill-seekers should splash out on a flight of Massoud’s exciting, top tier, minimal intervention wines, which belie their bucolic setting.
A short distance away, along the North Fork, Sparkling Pointe is Long Island’s answer to a Champagne house. The cool climate is well-suited to the production of fizz, so Cynthia and Tom Rosicki decided to dedicate their winery to traditional method sparkling wines, made with the classic Champagne grapes – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay – even hiring a Frenchman, Gilles Martin to oversee the winemaking. As well as tasting flights, educational visits are also available.
Situated on a remote track, on the North Fork, Lieb Cellars is a winery and ‘custom crush’ facility (to process wines for small scale producers without their own equipment) with an attractive front deck boasting views of the vines. The tasting room is the place to enjoy wines such as Lieb’s IWSC silver medal-winning Cabernet Franc, paired with cheeses and charcuterie. There’s also a library room for private tastings and small groups.
Head to Channing Daughters on the South Fork, where chef-turned-sommelier-turned-winemaker Christopher Tracy likes to experiment. There’s white, red, fortified, sparkling and even Pet Nat, but the rosé selection is arguably the winery’s strongest suit: Tracy produces a range of single varietal examples, with each bringing its own distinctive character to the fore, making for a fascinating tasting experience. Founder Walter Channing was an accomplished sculptor, so be sure to check out his creations, dotted around the winery and nestling in the vines, as you sink the pink.
Follow the A-listers and make a beeline for the Hamptons, where Christian’s offers the perfect place for a wine-matched lunch or supper. Owned by one of the island’s most successful wineries, the nearby Wölffer Estate (which also has a tasting room open to visitors), the setting is casual but classy, with top-notch service led by an ex Soho House head honcho. There’s a focus on local sourcing, seen in dishes like the delicious herb-crusted Montauk tuna, a perfect pairing for Wölffer’s wildly successful ‘Summer in a bottle’ rosé, the name of which alone is worthy of an award.
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In the sleepy North Fork hamlet of Cutchogue, McCall Wines offers a rustic tasting room experience (tour buses and limos are banned), with a selection of classy cuvées, including Bordeaux blends, though Burgundian Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the star performers. You can taste outside on a picnic bench, or enjoy burgers from a food truck (on selected evenings) produced courtesy of the white Charolais beef cattle reared on the adjoining ranch.
Places to stay on Long Island
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SUNSET BEACH HOTEL
Those seeking serenity after a tasting flight should head to Shelter Island. Once a well-kept secret, a haunt of Marilyn Monroe, this haven of tranquility between the forks is home to Sunset Beach hotel, owned by André Balazs, of Chiltern Firehouse fame, who converted it from a faded beachside motel to a cool, calm des res. With just twenty rooms, starting at around a thousand bucks a night, starched linens and stripy yellow sundecks, the design aesthetic is cutting edge but also surprisingly sympathetic to its serene setting.
Seemingly effortless styling can also be found at The Shoals, a newish waterfront hotel near Southold, on the North Fork. Don’t be alarmed by the website booking template that requires your length and draft – The Shoals is also accessible from the sea, with 20 boat slips for those seeking berth and board.