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Long Island celebrates 50 years of winemaking

On 19 August 2023, Long Island will celebrate 50 years of making wine. As the region celebrates its golden anniversary, Decanter speaks to several producers about the history of the region and what the future holds for Long Island wine.

In Long Island in 1973, Louisa and Alex Hargrave stepped out on a limb.  They were convinced Long Island would be the perfect place to grow grapes for fine wines and planted vinifera in Cutchogue, New York.

The couple took over a dilapidated potato farm and planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc. Hargrave Vineyard soon became the region’s first successful commercial vineyard and winery.

This year (2023) marks a golden anniversary for Long Island, and there is much to celebrate. Fifty years later, the region boasts 57 producers across its three American Viticultural Areas of Long Island and sub-regions of The Hamptons and the North Fork.

‘Many observers have a hard time grasping the notion that fine wine can be grown on Long Island,’ says Kareem Massoud, president of Long Island Wine Country. ‘There’s so much scepticism. But it’s a really fun and interesting place to grow fine wine.’

Massoud knows the land intimately – his family founded Paumanok Vineyards in the early 1980s when he was a child. In 2018, the family acquired Palmer Vineyards and Massoud serves as the winemaker for both.

‘We all knew something special was happening across the whole region,’ he says. ‘Watching it grow and blossom to where we have dozens of producers making high-quality wines has been so exciting.’

Unlike anywhere else

Long Island sits just two hours outside New York City and is widely supported by the city’s residents seeking a summer escape. The land splits into two forks. The surrounding waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island Sound and Peconic Bay moderate its maritime climate.

While The Hamptons AVA is a tourist hot spot brimmed with vacation rentals, the North Fork is home to most of the region’s vineyards and wineries.

Over 25 varieties of grapes are planted in Long Island, with more than 90% being vinifera.

‘The diversity of grape varieties we can grow successfully, and the resulting spectrum of wine styles possible from those raw materials, is indeed an incredible palate to create from,’ explains James Christopher Tracy, partner and winemaker at Channing Daughters.

Alongside common regional varieties like Chardonnay and Merlot, he creates wines from varieties like Malvasia, Refosco, and Ribolla Gialla.

‘The difference in sites and the fact we get to utilise grapes from all three AVAs just adds to the complexity and possibilities,’ says Tracy, who is focused on pushing the boundaries of New York wine.

The region’s well-draining sandy loam soils with gravelly, sandy subsoils are critical to its success. As is meticulous farming. ‘There’s really no margin for error in the viticulture we do on Long Island,’ says Massoud.

Sorting grapes at RGNY. Credit: RGNY

An underdog and overachiever

For the team at RGNY, regional experimentation was key in deciding to expand the brand to the North Fork. ‘New regions allow you to do much more innovative work, which is part of our DNA at RGNY,’ explains CEO Maria Rivero González.

‘It had to be an underdog region,’ continues Rivero González. Her family established its eponymous winery in Mexico’s Parras Valley in 1998. RGNY launched in 2019, with the pandemic following shortly afterwards.

Rivero González notes the timing was both problematic and important for new brands to find their footing. ‘People were buying what they knew, but the North Fork exploded,’ she says. Unable to travel, New Yorkers discovered wine in their own backyards.

Like many producers in Long Island, Rivero González is focused on pushing the envelope. ‘Driving something different in any region is good. Change is good.’

Driving forward

Tis year has been full of celebrations for Long Island Wine Country, culminating in a Grand Celebration at Peconic Bay Vineyards on 19 August.

Despite the excitement, producers remain heavily focused on what comes next.

The 2023 vintage has remained mostly chaotic in New York, with a late frost providing widespread damage in the state’s largest wine-producing Finger Lakes region. Though Long Island found safety in its warmer temperatures, the concern about the future remains.

‘We’re a cool climate region on a warming planet. That means we’re relatively well-positioned for climate change,’ explains Massoud. ‘Without any question, the number one issue we face over the next 50 years cannot be anything other than climate change.’

Long Island Chardonnay. Credit: Channing Daughters

Sustainable initiatives are top of mind for producers like Paumonak and Palmer, RGNY, and Channing Daughters, all of whom belong to Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing, which launched in 2012.

Massoud notes hybrid and native grape varieties may also be on the way for Long Island. ‘If you’re serious about sustainability, leaving them out of the conversation is impossible.’

At its core, Long Island is pushing for the best possible expression of home through high-quality wines and experiences. ‘Our wineries take great pride in their achievements, which have been made possible by the unwavering support of loyal customers and the local community,’ says Massoud.

Massoud recommends visiting the small but mighty wine region to see it first-hand for those new to Long Island wine. ‘I always invite people to come and visit. Don’t take my word for it. Come and judge for yourself.’


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