North Fork harvest: Sunny forecast for great grapes in 2012

GIANNA VOLPE PHOTO | Workers set up bird netting on a block of cabernet franc at Macari Vineyards in Mattituck last Thursday.

As birds swoop in to sample ripened grapes at area vineyards, some winemakers are swooping in to sample the berries’ sugar levels for sparkling wine. In fact, Sparkling Pointe in Southold has already begun to harvest their pinot noir for a bubbly vintage.

If the weather holds, the North Fork’s wine grape harvest could come unusually early and produce a crop of exceptional quality.
Grapes grown for sparkling wine usually are the first collected.

“We have two- and three-year-old plants that have shallow roots, so they ripen faster,” winemaker Gilles Martin said Monday. “We started harvesting last Saturday because I’m very happy with the taste and balance of the juice, and they’re good, quality grapes.”

Mr. Martin added that the grapes were at 18.5 brix, a measurement of sugars, when the crew began to pick the fruit.

Sam McCullough, who manages the vines at Lenz Winery in Southold, as well as his own in Aquebogue, said he’s not far behind Sparkling Pointe when it comes to picking pinot noir for sparkling wine.

“I checked the pinot noir and it was looking like it’ll be the end of this week or the beginning of next week,” Mr. McCullough said Monday. “That’s about as early as I’ve ever done it, having been working on the same farms for over 20 years. In 1991 and 2010, it was the 30th or 31st of August, and this year it’s looking like late August, beginning of September. It’s been a warm year, so everything is looking on or ahead of schedule.”

This year’s early bud break, the point at which the fruit-producing part of the vine opens, proved a mixed bag for wine growers. Chilly days in May caused some buds to freeze but also extended the growing season, making for riper fruit earlier in the season. Still, most growers are holding their breath for the weather to hold until harvest is over.

“As Charles Massoud at Paumanok says, ‘Until it’s in the tank, it’s not money in the bank,’ ” said Adam Suprenant, winemaker at Osprey’s Dominion. “The climate here is just too variable to start jumping up and down. The Atlantic is quiet now, but we could face a hurricane at any moment. We’re just crossing our fingers and hoping it stays dry and sunny.”

Since Osprey’s Dominion won’t produce any sparkling wine this year, it is still about a month away from beginning its harvest.

“This is the year to make a stab at making a true red pinot noir,” Mr. Suprenant said. “Generally you have to get the really hot years to have a chance because pinot noir has a well-defined timeline until it starts to deteriorate.”

Vintners say hot, dry summers produce the most flavorful grapes. In that regard, this year’s crop is far superior to what came off the vines at the end of last year’s wet and cool growing season, when some fruit rotted before it could be picked.

Mr. Suprenant, however, said Osprey’s Dominion held on to its fruit.

“We had one of our biggest harvests,” he said. “We definitely broke the budget on spraying last year, but I think that helped.”

As other vintners do during autumn’s approach, David Page, co-owner of Shinn Estate Vineyards, is keeping a close eye on weather forecasts.

“We don’t know if the 2012 wines will be better than the 2011 ones because until the wine is made, there’s not a heck of a lot to say about the vintage,” he said.

He also agreed with Mr. Suprenant that, while this year has had more high-degree days and sun than last year, that can change — literally overnight — if the rain begins to pour.

“We’re excited and the sun is shining, but we don’t know what the weather will be like later in the day, let alone tomorrow,” Mr. Page said. “Hopefully things will continue to track in the right direction, and if that is true, we could make some delicious wines.”

Greg Gove, Peconic Bay Winery’s winemaker and a veteran of 27 seasons, is keeping his hopes high.

“It’s looking like a fabulous year,” he said. “We had this kind of heat in 2005 and even though you don’t really know until it’s over, I think this year might be one of the best years yet.”

[email protected]