Springtime In The Vineyards

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Springtime on the East End is typically cool, with blustery winds and brilliant skies that bear a lingering chill from the Atlantic Ocean. It’s this ocean effect that makes it possible to grow European wine grapes (vitis vinifera) here, retarding bud break until risk of frost is past.
To a vintner, this season brings great emotion. As sap begins to flow in mid-March, and dandelion, purslane and chamomile appear as pretty weeds under the vineyard trellises, hope for the new season, tempered by remembrance of the prior vintage’s failings, surges in the breast of every wine grower. (Key in here Schubert’s “Trout Symphony,” Dylan Thomas’s “Force that through the green fuse drives the flower …” or also “Sprach Zarathustra.”)

It is too soon to know how large the new crop will be—that will be estimated by cluster counts in June—but grape growers can walk through the vineyard, cutting into sample buds, to determine any winter injury. Each apparent bud site potentially contains three tiny buds. Even before they push new shoots, they can be seen with a razor sliced at the bud base. The largest, primary bud bears two to three clusters; the secondary, one; the tertiary, none.

This is part of the plant’s own survival mechanism; a hard winter may eliminate the crop, but it probably won’t kill the vine. Dead buds will be brown inside, but live ones will be day-glo green inside their insulated shells. The ocean that protects us in spring also moderates our winters so that bud damage here is rare.

At the same time the sap begins to flow, work in both the vineyards and wineries accelerates. Sometimes, there are not enough hours in the day for springtime chores to be accomplished. Once pruning and tying are completed, trellises must be tightened and repaired; cultivation or weed control begins in earnest, and all else must be tidy for the season because once the shoots push out, the race toward harvest is on.

At McCall Ranch in Cutchogue, where 16-year-old vines are adjacent to a verdant pasture where Charolais beef cattle graze, there are four new baby cows (one born on Easter). Russ McCall reports that he is planting 2-plus acres of a low-yielding syrah from Côte Roti to blend with his mature merlot and pinot noir. Fine regional cuisine? My mouth is already watering.

Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year with North Fork-centric wine dinners at North Fork Table & Inn in Southold on May 17, and at Jamesport Manor Inn on June 7. Additionally, the tasting room will offer local oysters on the deck; olive oil made in Spain by owner Charles Massoud’s uncle; and three new wines, including a “minimalist chardonnay,” a “Special Edition” blend and the winery’s first bubbly.

At Clovis Point Wines in Jamesport, on Saturday, April 27, from 2 to 3:30 p.m., merlot lovers can hone their tasting skills at winemaker John Leo’s “Merlot Salon” tasting of seven local and international wines. Proceeds of the $40 fee will go to the Long Island Merlot Alliance, an industry group that will also give a “top secret” first taste of the 2010 Merliance wine (plus barrel tastings of wines from Alliance members) at the “Merlot Confidential” on June 7 at Raphael winery in Peconic.

For fans of white wine looking for some new flavors, Peconic Bay Winery in Cutchogue (where my son is assistant winemaker) has released its first-ever sauvignon blanc and viognier. Having helped harvest the viognier, I can attest to its intriguing spice and rich texture.

Malbec, a sassy red wine coming into the forefront on Long Island, is a new addition to Bedell Cellars’s Cutchogue lineup, alongside a mouth-watering chardonnay/riesling blend called “First Crush.” Bedell’s winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich, who is very involved with Long Island’s sustainability project, also told me with pride that the wineries pledged to sustainability have just completed a rigorous inspection and welcomed two new members, Michael Kontakosta in Greenport and David Corwith in Water Mill.

Mr. Corwith, a new and adventurous vintner, is springing forward with new plantings of albarino, zweigelt, gruner veltliner and arandell—NY 95.301.01, a newly named New York-bred variety. These will join last year’s plantings of Austrian varieties—lemberger, dornfelder and gruner. His choices parallel similar efforts in many regions to diversify away from the ubiquitous chardonnay/sauvignon/merlot paradigm.

Whatever wine you favor, this is an exciting time to visit Long Island’s vineyards to see for yourself the budding vines. And catch some of that spring fever.

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