At a certain point on the road to Long Island’s east end, a stretch of beaches and farms, there’s a sign that reads “Welcome to: Long Island Wine Country.” Even as a young kid growing up on Long Island, I thought it seemed out of place. Winemaking happened in Europe or California—not here. But, in fact, grape cultivation started on Long Island in the early 1970s, when Hargrave Vineyards planted the region’s first commercial vines. After years of trial and error, Long Island wines have finally been able to achieve the reputation they deserve, and the region has become a wine destination in its own right. And it was a particular grape—cabernet franc—that helped turn the tide.
For a long time, Long Island wine was dismissed as simply not very good by connoisseurs and amateurs alike. Roman Roth, winemaker for Wölffer Estate on the South Fork, remembers the lean times. “Long Island is finally becoming a marker of taste,” he explains. “Ten or 20 years ago? That was not the case.” Back then, tourism to the region was growing, anchored by the draw and reputation of the Hamptons, but wine tasting was only a footnote—something to do once you got tired of the beach.
Enter cabernet franc—an overlooked grape that, while grown on the island since the early days, had consistently been overshadowed by the region’s merlot. A hardy, savory grape used mostly in blends, cabernet franc rose to prominence in France, only to end up playing second fiddle to merlot. Inspired by Bordeaux, Long Island vintners planted the grape in the early 1980s to create classic Bordeaux blends, which usually consist of a combination of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and other varietals. Eventually, winemakers discovered that cabernet franc did especially well on its own. It’s suited to a maritime climate; nestled among the Long Island Sound, Peconic Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island offers the perfect conditions.
While the region produced worthy cabernet francs early on, it took decades for the rest of the country to catch on. Brewster McCall, of McCall Wines in Cutchogue on the North Fork, remembers the Hargraves telling his parents about their wines when he was a kid. “They had an amazing cabernet franc in the early 1990s. The only problem was, nobody would buy it. Americans didn’t know or gravitate towards the varietal, so Long Island growers, despite knowing cab franc’s excellence, continued focusing on commercially viable merlot.” Over time, word got out as the region’s wines were too good to remain unnoticed. “I’m glad to see cab franc is finally getting its time in the spotlight,” says McCall. “It’s characteristically complex, balancing elegance and power; the wines it produces are very compelling.”
Down on the South Fork, either a short boat ride or hour-long drive away, at Wölffer Estate, Roth echoes that pride for the region’s iconic varietal. On the terrace overlooking the vines, he cracks open a bottle of Wölffer Estate’s 2002 cabernet franc, which had been tucked away in the winery’s ornate and dusty wine library. It’s an epic wine, ripe with classic blueberry, cedar, and earth, and one that, along with Wölffer’s 2013 vintage, has stood the test of time. “ was a dream vintage. Probably the best we’ve ever had and it’ll be perfect in 20 years. These are collector-worthy wines.”
Imagine a late afternoon on the dunes of the beach with a bottle of local cabernet franc and a charcuterie plate on hand, watching the summer sun slide into the ocean. It seems that the east end of Long Island is just as magical as it was in my childhood, only now there’s better wine.
LONG ISLAND WINERIES WORTH THE TRIP
Nowadays, people flock to the North and South Forks specifically for wine, but often the wineries themselves are worth the trip. All near the water and surrounded either by the idyllic fishing villages of the North Fork or the glitzier towns in the Hamptons on the South Fork, here are a few of the best ones to visit.
One of the largest producers on Long Island, Pindar Vineyards puts out about 70,000 cases of wine a year and boasts a large tasting room. It cabernet franc is bold and peppery with hints of plum and raspberry.
A family-run vineyard in Cutchogue, on the North Fork, McCall Wines gained prominence thanks to its pinot noir and merlot. Its vintages appear on some of the best wine lists in New York City, including Eleven Madison Park.
Croteaux is the sole rosé-only vineyard in the United States, and its tasting barn is especially popular in summer. It offers several cabernet franc–only rosés (as befits the region) and a healthy roster of merlot rosés, as well.
One of Long Island’s most prolific vineyards, Wölffer Estate is set apart on the South Fork, whereas most Long Island wines are produced on the North Fork. Its rosé, Summer in a Bottle, is a national best seller, but the cabernet francs and merlots are well worth a try, too.
In an old colonial home in Jamesport, this vineyard has a stellar, national award-winning cabernet franc from 2015, which is peppery with cranberry notes.
This family-run vineyard on the South Fork prides itself on lesser-known varietals and unusual wines. During the summer, it also hosts yoga classes that overlook the vines.
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