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'A very good year' for LI vintners

Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue. (Aug. 28, 2013)

Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue. (Aug. 28, 2013) Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

An exceptionally warm, dry growing season free of late-summer storms produced one of the cleanest and most abundant grape harvests on the North Fork in nearly a decade -- and some exceptional wines, vintners said as they put a cork in the 2013 vintage.

More grapes, and more and better wine, have spillover benefits for Long Island's economy. The wineries produce roughly 500,000 cases of wine a year, with an estimated value of around $100 million, said Steven Bate, executive director of the Long Island Wine Council, an industry group. Even a conservative 15 percent increase, he said, would translate into a $15-million boost.

With nearly all of the year's wines now in barrels or tanks and set for aging, many of Long Island's 60 wine producers said the absence of big storms one year after superstorm Sandy left them the luxury of allowing fruit to ripen to a peak on the vine.

Reds showed record sugar levels with structure and complexity not seen since the banner 2007 harvest, winemakers said. Aromatic whites benefited from relatively cooler nights and a similar peak ripeness.

'Amazing' situation for LIThe combination of ideal conditions will show in reds -- merlots, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon wines -- starting in 2015 and 2016. Some strong whites will start appearing as early as next spring.

They'll also be appearing in greater abundance than in recent years, thanks to greater grape production. One local producer, Bate said, produced 120 tons of grapes this year, compared with a previous average of around 70 tons.

At Wolffer Estate Vineyards in Sagaponack, average yields swelled to 3.4 tons of grapes per acre, up from a 20-year average of 2.8 tons, said vineyard manager Rich Pisacano, who also owns Roanoke Vineyards in Riverhead. More importantly, he said, the grapes showed record sugar levels.

"It's sort of uncharted territory for us to have so much come in at such a phenomenal level of ripeness," said Pisacano. "It's a really epic year and an amazing situation for Long Island."

Increase in touristsThe weather boost helped not just production, but in attracting more visitors to the region, Bate said. Tourists add to the local economy an estimated $90 million to $120 million a year in non-wine spending for local hotels, restaurants and other tourism venues. The industry estimates some 1.3 million people visited its wineries in 2012.

Veterans Day alone, he said, saw a 30 percent increase in visitors. The jump is all the more important because 2013 began with a decided thud for winery owners.

"The year did not start out well because we were still suffering from economic hangover from hurricane Sandy. The first quarter was very bad," said Bate.

But better weather "really allowed us to recover on the tourism and business sides as well," he said. "It was perfect for both grape production and the retail business, and that extends over to the regional economy."

Vineyard owners who have dealt with everything from epic rain to hail at harvest time said this year's weather gave them the luxury to let the grapes linger.

"The good weather made the harvest pleasant and relatively stress-free," said Theresa Dilworth, owner of Comtesse Thérèse, an Aquebogue winery and bistro.

Her cabernet sauvignon and merlot showed record-high sugar levels, she said, measured in brix, a gauge of sugar in solutions. "It was the highest I've ever seen," she said. Brix for merlot came in at 25, while cabernet sauvignon registered 26, she said, adding, "Usually, we struggled to get brix to the low 20s."

There was even some concern that the high sugar levels could disrupt the normal fermentation of the wine, and some local vintners said they considered diluting with water or lower-alcohol wine from previous years to prevent alcohol levels from exceeding 14 percent. Dilworth said her winemaker decided against it. Pisacano said he expects some reds to come in with record 15 percent alcohol levels -- not a problem for Wolffer.

"It doesn't worry us at all," he said. "The wines will still be very Long Island."

Taking their timeLong sunny days and cool nights meant grape growers didn't have to invest as much time or energy into maintaining this year's crop, said Marco Borghese, co-owner of Castello di Borghese Vineyard in Cutchogue. Expensive spraying to limit fungus was kept to a minimum.

"If you have to spend a lot of money to make some decent wine, it might be decent wine but it's not a good year," he said. "This was a very good year."

Vineyard owners said even birds, which can swarm a vineyard and decimate a crop at the peak of harvest, weren't much of a problem this year.

Some attributed it to the widespread use of netting, but others said the weather played a role. Warmer weather meant birds remained north longer, arriving here well after the harvest.

Matthew Berenz, winemaker for Vineyard 48 in Cutchogue, said he expects the white wines to be among his best when they are available starting next year. He said the ability to take his time selecting grapes for picking as they ripened helped produce some of his best riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and chardonnay grapes.

"You were able to take your time and let the fruit hang," he said. "It's nice for the winemaker not to have to rush."

Tastes of a good seasonEric Fry, winemaker at Lenz Winery in Peconic, said the year was so optimal that some grapes appear to have been grown in California, where hot dry days produce wines with alcohol levels exceeding 14 percent. "Everything jumped like crazy, giving us California-style stuff," he said. He likes Long Island-style wines and has been tinkering in the barrel to bring the sugar levels down.

Fry said while all the wines will benefit from the perfect growing season, he expects merlots to be among the best wines from this year's vintage. Merlot has long been a staple red of the Long Island region, just like chardonnay in whites.

"I'm really happy with the merlots," Fry said. "They have a nice ripeness, with soft tannins," he added, referring to the wine's textural dryness.

Dilworth of Comtesse Thérèse said yields were helped by just the right amount of rain in June. "That gave us a lot of green growth," she said.

Miguel Martin, winemaker at Palmer Vineyards in Aquebogue, said he saw yield increases north of 15 percent this year. As a result, his holding tanks were full last month as he led a visitor on a tour of the cellar. "We're extremely happy with the quantity and the quality," he said.

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