This story was originally published in the Suffolk Times/

Most of the grapes destined for white and pink wines have been pulled from local vineyards and are now well on their way to becoming wine. So I was curious: How is that fruit looking? As local wine lovers, what can we expect when these wines are released starting in the spring? And how are things shaping up for the 2016 red wines?

To find out, I asked several local winemakers what they are seeing out in the fields and in the cellars. It’s a busy time of year for them — the busiest, in fact — but here’s what I’ve been able to learn.

Brix levels, a measurement of the sugar in the grapes — and thus the amount of potential alcohol in the finished wines — are down pretty much across the board. To some, brix is the only measure of ripeness, and that can drive picking decisions. That’s only part of the story, however. Phenolic ripeness, the ripeness of the grapes from a flavor standpoint, is just as important. Maybe even more.
“The quality of the whites are very good, particularly flavors. Overall, this is a low brix year, so if you hang the fruit too long you may be in the unique position of having to adjust the sugar and the acid,” says Anthony Nappa of Raphael and Anthony Nappa Wines.

How do you adjust sugar and acid? You add it during the winemaking process. Some wineries, both here and in just about every other wine region of the world, do this every year. Others only do it when they really need to. This could be one of those years.

Lower alcohol as a result of lower brix isn’t necessarily a bad thing, according to Roman Roth, winemaker and partner at Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack.

“We have picked 76 percent of our fruit so far,” he said. “The fruit flavors are wonderful. Very clean and bright. The record-warm July and August have ensured that the fruit is [tasting]ripe and that acidity is on the lower side. Sugars are lower than the stellar 2013 or 2015 vintages, but that is fine for our elegant and balanced wines.”

At Macari Vineyards on the North Fork, winemaker Kelly Urbanik Koch is seeing the same things.

“The lower sugar levels are not indicative of a lack of ripeness. Flavors are on par with the best of years with great intensity and aromatics so far,” she said.

Nearly all of the region’s red wine grapes are still hanging, save pinot noir and anything picked for rosé. When I asked Nappa if the reds were behind their usual ripening curve — a difficult question in a region where no two growing seasons are ever the same — he was pragmatic in his response.

“I would not say we are behind in ripeness on the reds. The flavors are progressing and the acids are dropping, which is exactly where we would expect to be. The only difference is that the brix are lower than normal. This only equates to moderate alcohol levels, which I am fine with,” he said.

The idea that reds are behind might simply be a matter of comparisons to hotter, more-ripe seasons of the recent past.

“We have been a bit spoiled by many fantastic growing seasons in a row, with unusually early ripening and early harvests,” Roth told me.

One thing every winemaker I spoke to agreed on was Hurricane Matthew, and how important it was that it didn’t continue on its initial path up the coast. Nappa summed up his feelings most directly, telling me, “Thank god there is no hurricane. That would be a complete disaster. There would be no red wine this year if that happened at this stage.”

As someone who favors wines with low-to-moderate alcohol, this sounds like it might be my kind of year: an “average” year like the ones that created the wines I fell in love with more than a decade ago.

About Author

Lenn Thompson, a proud Pittsburgh, PA native, moved to Long Island more than a decade ago and quickly fell in love with the region’s dynamic and emerging wine community. A digital and content marketing and community professional by day, he founded in early 2004 to share his passion for the wines, beers and spirits of New York State. After running that site -- which became the premier source for independent New York wine commentary, reviews and news -- for 12 years, he launched in late 2016 to add the wines of Virginia, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Vermont and beyond to his beat. Lenn currently serves as the wine columnist for The Suffolk Times weekly newspaper and is the former editor of the Long Island Wine Gazette. He contributes or has contributed to publications like Wine Enthusiast Magazine, Beverage Media, Edible Brooklyn, Edible East End and Edible Hudson Valley. Lenn served on the board of directors for Drink Local Wine, and is the creator and founder of TasteCamp, an annual regional wine immersion conference for writers and trade. An admitted riesling and cabernet franc fanatic, he’s intensely passionate about eating local and the many local wine regions of America. Lenn lives in Miller Place, NY with his wife Nena, son Jackson, daughter Anna and their dog, Casey Lemieux Thompson.

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