"I think we may be the only wine region on earth that's so close to a major urban center, which means you can come out from Manhattan, see the wineries and then go back to New York City in time for dinner and a Broadway show," says Trent Preszler, vice president of operations at Bedell Cellars, one of the better-known wineries on Long Island's North Fork.
"True. But savvy travelers have discovered that Long Island's charming wine country (which has grown since the 1970s from one lonely vineyard to more than 30 wineries, yet is only two hours from midtown Manhattan) has enough of its own attractions to prompt a longer, more leisurely visit-especially during summer months. Why rush back to a hot, overcrowded city when you can while away the days sipping wine, go hiking and biking-or just lie around soaking up the sun at one of the area's many beautiful beaches?
"Today, Long Island's North Fork boasts more than 3,000 acres of vines sprinkled throughout the quaint towns that line Main Road from Jamesport to Orient Point. And when you visit the area in summer, you'll be among the first to taste the vineyards' newest whites (traditionally bottled in spring) and get an early glimpse of the vines, which are just starting to sprout grapes. Best of all the weather is about as close to perfect as you can get, with pleasantly warm temperatures and crystal-clear skies.
""This is the sunniest area in New York state," confirms Brandon Andrews of Raphael, one of the North Fork's biggest wineries-and certainly the only one built to resemble an Italian monastery, complete with grand beamed ceilings, medieval tapestries and a catacombs-style wine vault. "We also have the most moderate climate, because we're surrounded by water on three sides and the South Fork, which is on the ocean and acts as a barrier."
"Indeed this temperate weather-with mild winters, dry summers and long, warm autumns is one of the reasons Merlot and Chardonnay grapes grow so well here. Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Meritage-style wines also are being produced by some of the more forward-thinking vintners.
"Taste-wise, Long Island wines tend to be more European in nature-lighter, more complex and subtly nuanced-than their West Coast counterparts. That is a result of the North Fork's glacial soil, which has been likened to that in Grave, France. (Think: a sandy top layer with a bed of gravel underneath.) This produces wines that have much more in common with Bordeaux region varietals than with those heavy, big-bottomed beauties associated with California.
""Long Island wines are much more French in style-higher in acidity and tannins and minerals┐and less obvious than wines from a hot climate like California, which tend to bang you over the head with fruit," explains Preszler. "Our wines are a little more elegantly structured and subtle, so they go much better with food."
"BLAZING A WINE TRAIL
"At Raphael this translates to a pleasantly light Sauvignon Blanc and a rich and silky First Label Merlot that would pair beautifully with steak. Raphael's Merlot is produced under the guidance of consultant Paul Pontallier, managing director of France's Chateau Margaux. And Raphael is one of the few East Coast wineries to hand-harvest 100 percent of its crop.
"Though it's just minutes away, Peconic Bay Winery feels like it's in another world. Unlike Raphael's sprawling 28,000-square-foot tasting room, Peconic Bay is housed in a relatively modest refurbished barn, complete with country-cute decor.
"But beneath its rustic-kitsch exterior beats the heart of a serious winery: Peconic Bay's La Barrique Chardonnay was named Best Chardonnay in New York State at the 2004 New York Wine & Food Classic. Several of their other varietals also have won awards, both local and national.