Wine Column: What makes Long Island wines ‘cool’

From 1973 to 1999, when I had my own vineyard, I always loved to work in the field after the sap began to flow in mid-March. The barely sweet liquid would drip from the pruning cuts on every vine, intimating the surge of new life and a new vintage. Walking down the rows, feeling the earth’s renaissance, reminded me of the first lines of Dylan Thomas’ poem, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age … ”

Despite the promise of rejuvenation (or, in Thomas’ case, the inevitability of death), March and April on the East End can be aggravating to anyone who is impatient for full-blown springtime. The crocuses and daffodils tease us into thinking that winter’s chill will soon be gone, but the warming sun provokes the wind to blow cold air from the ocean over the twin forks, and while Manhattan enjoys a riot of colored tulips, our gardens are still pushing forsythia blooms.

This phenomenon of a maritime spring is not all bad; for vineyards, it offers extended protection from the spring frosts suffered inland. Because it takes more heat to change the temperature of water than of air, the ocean and Long Island Sound act as massive cold sinks, delaying bud break until early May, when frost danger is over in all but the lowest-lying sites. This is in marked contrast to the growth cycle in regions like Napa and Sonoma, where the winters are so mild the vines are barely dormant, and where buds open in March. There, frost protection in the form of smudge pots, wind machines or sprinkler systems is de rigueur. While Long Island’s growing season runs from May into October (and maybe November), California’s vintners are ripening fruit from March till October (depending on site and grape variety).

I bring up this distinction because few wine fanciers, including wine journalists, seem to be aware of a fundamental difference between “hot” and “cool” climate viticulture. Can we agree that a wine region where vines experience temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit for several days during the growing season should be considered hot? Regardless of whatever claims these places make to being cool, the only time they are actually cool is when the fog rolls in (or the high-altitude desert night brings plummeting temperatures) — which could and does create a temperature difference of 40 to 50 degrees in a 24-hour period.

This “diurnal shift” is much vaunted, but frankly, without it these places would not be growing grapes at all. On Long Island, as in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Collio and other places where temperatures rarely, if ever, go so high, and the diurnal shift is far less pronounced, grape vines ripen slowly and steadily over the (shorter) growing season. Tannin, sugar and acidity develop so that there is a natural balance to the wines. When the diurnal shift is pronounced, especially when vines experience temperatures over 90 with low humidity, the vines proceed in a start-stop fashion; there is no photosynthesis when it is dark or when the stomates shut down to protect them from dehydration. The fruit in this situation is usually high in sugar and low in acidity, resulting in wines that must be acid and alcohol adjusted.

Although these “big” wines often score high points with wine critics, I often find something lacking in them. What’s lacking is energy — the very element that makes wine come alive on the palate, that makes it evolve as you drink it. I like to taste that life force that begins in the spring; I want to find it in the wine itself.

To me, energy is what distinguishes true cool-climate wines from their big, fruit- or tannin-bomb cousins from the land of high diurnal shift. It’s present in Long Island wines if they aren’t over-oaked; if you want to see what I’m talking about, taste the Macari Sauvignon Blanc, the Paumanok Chenin Blanc or the Peconic Bay Riesling (for starters). For reds, try the Lenz Cabernet Sauvignon, Shinn Nine Barrels Merlot or Channing Daughters Rosso Fresco.

To distinguish themselves from hotter parts of the region, the wineries of west Sonoma — hugging the Pacific coast where it’s foggy most of the time — have formed an association. Calling their area “true Sonoma,” their best wines are balanced and nuanced, with plenty of energy. Cases in point: Peay Vineyards’ Pomarium Estate; Cobb Wines, Coastland Vineyard; B. Kosuge, Hirsch Vineyard. Due to their high altitude, their diurnal shift is relatively low. And you will need to spend both energy and dollars to find them.

Editor’s note: The wine bottle pictured with Ms. Hargrave’s March 17 column was incorrectly identified. It is from Sparkling Pointe, not Barone Fini.

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