Grape harvesting at Wölffer Estate Vineyard on Tuesday, October 14. Photo by Michael Heller.
By Mara Certic
East End oenophiles were elated last year when the 2013 Long Island grape harvest was lauded as the best ever vintage. According to local winemakers, celebrations are in order again, as 2014 is proving to be another banner year for South Fork vineyards.
“The harvest is coming along fabulous,” said Roman Roth, the winemaker at Wölffer Estate Vineyard, in a phone interview on Monday morning.
Mr. Roth became the vineyard’s first winemaker in 1992. Beforehand, he worked in the industry in Germany, California and Australia before settling in Sag Harbor.
“2012 was an amazing vintage, ’13 was the best vintage in history—Long Island history—and then now ’14 is looking very close. We had a couple of rains, but it’s still a great, great vintage,” he said.
“We had three great years in a row. That’s really spectacular,” Mr. Roth added. The year 2011 was difficult, he said, but 2010 had been great as well. “Out of the last five years we had four banner years,” he said.
Christopher Tracy, winemaker at Bridgehampton’s Channing Daughters Winery, also praised the quality of the harvest thus far. “It’s been awesome, it’s been fantastic, it’s been a great growing season,” he said on Wednesday morning.
Both winemakers attribute the seemingly excellent crop to the dry, warm growing season, which according to Mr. Tracy, was “perfect” up until the rain that hit on September 30. Nevertheless, “the quality’s been fantastic and the quantity has been great as well,” he said.
Mr. Tracy was not prepared to qualify the best vintages of the past decade, and said he is “hesitant” to discuss the actual wine until it is ready for consumption. He added “there really aren’t bad vintages anymore.” He attributed this to the advance of viniculture and improvements in vineyards.
“There are warmer and dryer vintages that promote different styles of wine,” he said, but there are very few definitively bad vintages these days.
This vintage is being lauded, he said, because “it’s just easy.”
“It’s an easy harvest and pick,” Mr. Tracy said. “There’s no mess, there’s no rot, it just makes life quite easy in terms of the harvest.”
So far, Mr. Roth said the grapes have not been affected by any diseases or disease-pressure but will make “healthy, great tasting wine.”
East End vineyards typically begin their harvests in mid-September, when they start picking the grapes for the lightest white wines.
“The grapes for the lighter, crisper, fresher, more elegant wines are picked first,” Mr. Roth explained. On September 15, grape pickers at Wölffer began picking pinot noir grapes for sparkling wines and the other crisper white wines. “The hallmark of Long Island wines, and Wölffer wines, is to make 11.5 to 12 volume percent,” Mr. Roth said. “Now these elegant wines, with a little bit of acidity, are very fashionable and that’s what our region can produce.”
As of this week, Mr. Roth estimated Wölffer had completed approximately 60 percent of the harvest and the vineyard is now harvesting grapes for its chardonnay and their heavier white wines. The busy pickers at Wölffer have picked all of the grapes for the rosé, which debuted this summer and, according to Mr. Roth, was a “major hit.” “Rosé will be back,” he said.
Mr. Roth added this year’s aromatic whites are all in and described them as “very fruity, very clean, very pure.”
The harvest at Channing Daughters began on September 11 and has been “pretty much nonstop since then,” Mr. Tracy said. As of Tuesday, October 14, the harvesters at Channing Daughters had picked 217 tons of grapes. Mr. Tracy said they look to finish at approximately 260 tons.
At Channing Daughters, the first grapes to be picked are for the light Muscat and pinot grigio. The last white to be picked, Mr. Tracy said, is their ribolla gialla. The grape-picking season typically comes to a close with the harvest for the cabernet sauvignon, which typically takes place either in late October or early November.
Mr. Roth said there have been some years the harvest went on as late as November 7. He explained as long as there is a good canopy late into the year, the richest red wines will remain elegant and “won’t become cough syrup,” he said.
“The only thing we’re praying for now is that we get to keep sunshine and there’s no more rain,” Mr. Roth said. He explained he looks for extra concentration and dehydration for his red wines, in order to have a higher skin-to-juice ratio he said.
“You know when you have a berry, there’s so much skin and so much juice and when there’s dehydration the ratio changes. Then there’s more skin and less juice which gets you more color, more flavor, more tannins, more of everything,” Mr. Roth said. “And so now we just hope for a little bit of an Indian summer,” he said.
“For the reds we need two weeks of sunshine, and that’ll do it,” he added.
As Long Island vineyards continue to gain repute in the eyes of wine drinkers worldwide, Mr. Roth said the bar continues to be set higher and higher.
“You just can’t make bad wine anymore, not that I ever made bad wine, but certainly the pressure is there, which is good. It makes you focus; you fight on all fronts. You make sure everything is clean and you work harder,” he said.
After the huge success of Wölffer’s rosé this summer, Mr. Roth said the winery is slated to make “a little brother or a sister of that,” which will be a white blend that will debut in the spring.
Mr. Tracy wouldn’t divulge the specifics of any upcoming projects but said a couple of new projects will launch in the spring. “There’s always something new and exciting happening here,” he said.