The vintage of 2009 is on its way

04/22/2010 12:00 AM |

The first wines from Long Island’s 2009 vintage are beginning to be released this spring. The 2009 growing season was an unusually challenging one, after 27 days of cold rain in June. Unlike tomatoes, which were devastated, grapevines held onto their fruit. But varieties that are normally harvested in September (like chardonnay and sauvignon blanc) weren’t ripe until October, and some red grapes, especially cabernet sauvignon, never fully ripened. When frost took the leaves off the vines in November, the winemakers’ mantra was, “This will be a great year for rosà .”

Of course, none of them was particularly ecstatic about the prospect of having thousands of gallons of rosà wine in tanks that are normally filled with red wine. Rosà s can be made from less than perfectly red grapes, or from a blend of red and white wine. Because they aren’t fermented with long skin contact, they don’t suffer from the bitterness of unripe tannin. Still, it’s lucky that rosà — especially dry rosà — has grown in popularity and even respectability in the past few years.

Based on several bottles of newly released ’09 Long Island rosà and white wines that I’ve tasted recently, these wines are a testament to the many local winemakers’ skill and experience. The wines are vivacious and surprisingly smooth for wines so young. I expected to find some raw, phenolic bitterness from unripe tannins, but was instead pleased to discover a dynamic mouthfeel that made up for any lack of body. The reds from ’09 may come up short when they are released later this year or next, but from what I’ve tasted so far, the whites and rosà s are a triumph over adversity.

The fact of the matter is, although it is currently fashionable for winemakers to say that their wines are made in the vineyard, the best winemakers actually do “make” wine. There are thousands of moments in the evolution of any wine when decisions made by the winemaker can result in either a product that truly does express the best aspects of the fruit, or in one that is mere beverage alcohol. While every winemaker dreams of a perfect year like 2007, when the sun and the rain came as if summoned by a magician’s wand, in most vintages there are some varieties that have ripened too little or too much; there are batches of grapes that have suffered from attacks by fungus, birds, or bugs.

Throughout the winemaking world, some of the measures that can be taken to ameliorate a bad situation are extreme. Although Long Island’s wineries are too small to support this kind of million-dollar technology, many large bulk wineries in Europe, South America, Australia and California deal with problem wines via a thermal flash process (“flash dà tente”). This technology employs a heating chamber followed by a spaceship-like vacuum chamber where grape skins are literally exploded and separated into components. Color and tannin are instantly extracted, eliminating the need for prolonged fermentation “on the skins.” Flash process also removes vegetal pyrazines that smell like green peppers, making it possible in hot climates to harvest physiologically unripe fruit at a desirable sugar level. It can take mold-riddled grapes and neutralize them into blendable, innocuous wine. This technology is a far cry from the ancient Roman technique of burning a rodent that has fallen into a fermentation pit, then throwing the ashes back to purify the contaminated wine, but the net result is similar.

Long Island’s winemakers have access to far gentler measures to refine their wine. While I haven’t asked any to give up their secrets, so I can’t say what they have done, I know from my own experience that judicious use of “fining” agents can vastly improve wine. Most fining agents are natural products that act by connecting with specific elements in wine, removing them by precipitation. What remains at the bottom of the tank is then eliminated by racking or filtration. Pure proteins will take out bitter and astringent tannins; bentonite clay will remove excess protein; activated charcoal (like the charred rodent in the Roman example above) can eliminate nasty aromas. Winemakers do laboratory trials to discover how much is needed to be effective without stripping the wine. They don’t talk about using fining agents because consumers don’t like to imagine that extracts of sturgeon bladder (isinglass), milk (casein), bones (gelatin) or eggs (albumin) have been dumped in their wine, but consumers should know that these are not additives per se; by the time the wine is bottled, any residue of fining agents is gone. The downside of fining wine is that good elements may be lost with the bad.

At Croteaux Vineyards in Southold, which makes only “rosà on purpose,” on a very small scale, co-owner Paula Croteau noted that her vines had more foliage than usual in ’09, and while this could have led to problems from shaded fruit, by her judicious canopy management, the additional leaves provided better photosynthesis without forming vegetal aromas. This then eliminated the need for later interventions in the winery. She has four new rosà s that prove the success of this vintage. It’s interesting to taste these wines comparatively because they show the difference between the clones (natural genetic variations) of merlot they are made from. Clone 181, for example, is markedly fruit-driven, with luscious peach and guava aromas, while Clone 314 is more austere and citrusy. There is another version of Clone 181 that was fermented by indigenous yeast (instead of being inoculated by a select cultured strain, as is common). This “wild” version does in fact show more complexity than its fraternal twin, but is less overtly fruity.

White wines in a tough year can still excel. At Paumanok Vineyards, I found their 2009 Chenin Blanc to be distinctly leaner than the prior vintage, which was lush with tropical tones. In fact, I prefer this year’s drier version. It is the very essence of refreshment. I found the same quaffability from Peconic Bay’s new riesling, a beautifully bracing wine with bell-ringing purity. The outlook for chardonnay from 2009 is positive, too, especially for those who prefer a chablis style to coastal California chardonnay.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.