Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Cabernet Franc Digs in on Long Island

In little over 25 years, the Long Island wine industry has grown from one small vineyard to over 3,000 acres of vines and over fifty wineries producing world-class wines.

Located in New York State, on the east coast of the United States, Long Island extends approximately 120 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. The Long Island wine region encompasses Nassau and Suffolk Counties, with the majority of wineries and vineyards at the East End, on the North and South Forks, which are separated by Peconic Bay. These two peninsulas were created by the Wisconsin Glacier during the last Ice Age, over 10,000 years ago. Long Island is in essence a huge sandbar that was pushed down the Hudson Valley and deposited when the glacier finally receded. The soils are mostly sand and fine clay, extremely well-drained, with little topsoil, making them ideal for grape growing.

The first commercially viable vineyard on Long Island was planted in 1973 by Louisa and Alex Hargrave. The Hargraves were recent Harvard graduates who planted their vines using Virgil’s treatises on agriculture and a basic text on viticulture from the University of California - Davis as guidance. With no history of successful vineyard management on Long Island as a guidepost, the Hargraves and other early Long Island vineyard owners applied techniques that had been successful in the Finger Lakes region of New York and in California, neither of which took into account the specific climatic factors they faced on Long Island. It was not until they looked across the ocean to Bordeaux that they found the proper model.

It took several years to perfect techniques, realizing, for example, that canopy management techniques utilized in hot locales such as the Napa Valley provided significant shading that prevented sunburn, but in a cooler maritime climate such as Long Island actually inhibited ripening.

Long Island is on the same latitude as Madrid, but its climate is nothing like that of the capital of Spain. The summer heat is tempered on the island by the proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island Sound, and Peconic Bay. These waterbodies also help to prevent late spring frosts, effectively giving Long Island a growing season of approximately 210-220 days, similar to Bordeaux. The number of degree days (a means of judging the ability of fruit to ripen in a given time period) is similar to northern Sonoma County in California. With all of these factors, vintners on Long Island have found they get ripe fruit at lower sugar levels, leading to plush wines with naturally lower alcohol levels.

The Bordelaise assisted the Long Island vintners in 1988, when a two day symposium of Bordeaux wine researchers and producers was held on the island. The outcome of the symposium was the realization of the startling similarities of the terroir between Bordeaux, and in particular Medoc, to that of the East End of Long Island. The Bordelaise focused most of their recommendations on the vineyards and not the cellars noting that the islanders were (to that point) more concerned with winemaking than grape growing. Thereafter they changed the focus resulting in the steady increase of quality to the conditions seen today.

The first commercial wines from Long Island were released in 1977, and soon the Long Island wine industry began to grow by leaps and bounds. Proximity of the early vineyards on the North Fork to the Hamptons on the South Fork brought an influx of people in the late 1980s and early 1990s coming to winemaking from successes in other pursuits. Many bought existing farms growing other crops (primarily potatoes) and converted them to vineyards. With the influx of new blood and new money also came business acumen and a drive to produce quality wines. The new wineries hired consultants, many of them from famed Bordeaux chateaux.

There are approximately 188 acres of vineyard dedicated to Cabernet Franc on Long Island, representing less than 10% of the lands under vine, compared to Merlot, which represents over 35% of the planted vineyards. But despite its smaller presence, Cabernet Franc is gaining prominence. Many Long Island wineries are discovering that, as the star rather than as part of the supporting cast, Cabernet Franc can have its own charm and character.

The phenotypic Long Island Cabernet Franc typically exhibits an aroma of red berries (raspberry, cherry, and cranberry) and floral notes, with hints of leather, tobacco, and freshly turned earth. The palate typically shows some of the spice characteristic of the varietal with hints of menthol / peppermint and pepper, and the fruit shows blackberry, raspberry, and boysenberry notes.

Long Island Cabernet Franc producers of note include Castello di Borghese (the original Hargrave Winery), Wölffer Estates, Roanoke Vineyards, Palmer Vineyards, Shinn Estate Vineyards, and Osprey’s Dominion.

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