When You Come to a Fork in the (Wine) Road, Take It

North Fork wineryAdmittedly our North Fork weekend happened sort of by default. Dedicated Riesling fans that we are, our original plan had been to go to the Finger Lakes for a no holds barred “It’s all about Riesling” weekend. So we were disappointed when calls to multiple B&B’s, tense searches on Kayak and Expedia, and even an appeal to American Express’ Platinum Concierge did not produce a single hotel room. No, we definitely hadn’t expected the region to be full to capacity in late October.

Being resourceful and determined to taste good wine, my thoughts turned to other options. I’d been to the North Fork nearly a decade ago on a wine-tasting day trip. What had stood out for me then was the area’s natural beauty and the fact that I’d never before encountered varietal Cabernet Franc. Located 2 1/2 hours east of New York City on the East End of Long Island, the North Fork got its name because it’s here at a town called Riverhead that this area of land splits into two parts that are separated by Peconic Bay: the left or South Fork (known as the Hamptons) and the land to the right or North Fork.

The plan was to base ourselves at a beachside B&B for the weekend and to devote Sunday to touring and tasting at several local wineries.

Dispatch from New York’s North Fork

Old Field Winery

Old Field Winery

From all I’d read, since my inaugural visit to the area, the quality of the wines has improved to the point where they’re getting increasing attention and winning awards not just in regional competitions and publications but also from outside the region including from Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast (’10 Best Wine Travel Destinations 2013’) and Wine Advocate (“There is plenty of evidence that the region has arrived.”). There’s no danger of unseating Napa just yet, but it’s clear this is an area on the rise.

The North Fork wine industry got its start in 1973 when Louisa and Jim Hargrave set up Hargrave Vineyard. Today the North Fork is home to 40+ wineries cultivating 3,000 acres of vineyards. They are located in many of the towns that make up the region including Mattituck, Cutchogue, Jamesport, and Southold.

So what do North Fork wines taste like?

Though North Fork vintners cultivate both white and red varieties, in general with some exceptions (noted Riesling producer Paumanok for one) to date it’s been most successful commercially with blends of Bordeaux’s red varieties.

For Sunday’s winery visits, we chose Vintage Tours. As a wine connoisseur—let’s be honest, geek—I wanted to go with someone who knew wine in addition to understanding the lay of the land. Jo-Ann Perry’s tour sounded perfect. She’s an area native and wine industry veteran who has been leading tours of the area’s wineries for quite some time.

Our first stop was Old Field Winery, a 63-acre family-owned winery that’s been in business since 1996. The owner and winemaker (a member of the fifth generation of family owners) was our guide. She painted a vivid picture of the challenges and rewards of working in wine. Unlike Napa, which is blessed with low pest pressures, a moderate climate, and consistent bountiful harvests, New York vineyards have to contend with the seasonal swings in temperature that result from its maritime climate (winter can see lows of 5°F while summer temperatures can rise above 80°F). Frost, thunderstorms, hail, hurricanes, and garden variety spoilers such as mildew and raccoons are all in the mix.

Mattebella Vineyards

Mattebella Vineyards and Tasting Notes

We had lunch at sustainably-farmed Mattebella Vineyards where John, the tasting room Manager, led us through the flight. Given his obvious passion, we weren’t surprised to learn that before landing at Mattebella he’d spent years teaching wine before finally giving in fully to his muse and setting up shop on the North Fork. Here we had our most sophisticated tasting. Wines were paired with a menu of small bites designed to complement the wines including crostini with fig jam and blue cheese, and chocolate.

McCall Wines was the stop I found most interesting from a tasting perspective. While it lacked the intimate vibe we’d enjoyed at Old Field and Mattebella—the owners were visible but didn’t interact with our group—the wine lineup was superb. Long-time Atlanta-based wine distributor Russell McCall set up his winery near his family-owned farmland in Cutchogue. He was so enamored of Pinot (something I completely understand!) that he imported cuttings from French clones sourced from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Full disclosure: I have a very high bar when it comes to Pinot and my yardstick is Burgundy.

I tasted Ben’s Bordeaux Blend and three Pinots including the 2013 Hillside Select. Pinot’s trademark earth and spice notes were there as were the delicate red berry and floral aromas. The pale ruby color was true to form. But what really got me going was the great balance of elegant, clean fruit framed in bright acidity that carried through to the lingering finish. I only bought one bottle but could so easily have left with several.

Harbes Family Farm

Harbes Family Farm

Our last stop was Martha Clara Vineyards. I remembered this one from my long ago trip to the North Fork. This was probably the most “professional” of the tasting rooms we visited and the most familiar looking. Frequent visitors to Napa would recognize the limos parked in the parking lot, the tasters clustered around the counter, and the somewhat harried tasting hosts who did their best to impart the background for each wine while keeping everyone’s thirst slaked.

The food could be its own post. Not only is this agricultural area farm-to-table country, October is prime time for apple-picking, pumpkin harvesting, tasting delicious sweet corn, and heirloom tomatoes among other fall bounty. In fact, one of the many high points of our day was a stop at Harbes Family Farm. The family’s history on the East End goes back 13 generations.

Having barely scratched the very beautiful surface, we’re already planning our next trip to the Fork