Travel: New York: An island of vine romance

Thirsty travellers beware; there's a lot more to drink in Long Island than Iced Tea. By Anthony Rose

The 118-mile expanse of Long Island juts out into the Atlantic Ocean like a lobster with its rear end facing New York and a pair of bedraggled claws facing out to sea. The two prongs are called the South and North Forks, and are home to Long Island's burgeoning wine industry - New York's version of Napa Valley in miniature.

Only two of the cellars established since 1973, Sagpond and Channing Daughters, are on the cooler, breezier South Fork. The other 18 are dotted along the North Fork, from Paumanok in Aquebogue to Ternhaven Cellars close by the little Greenport ferry.

Like Little Enders and Big Enders, North and South Forkers passionately argue the merits of their own respective patches. The South Fork is the beach-house-and-golf-club playground of wealthy New Yorkers, a weekend extension of the Manhattan social scene. In terms of quality of resort, shopping, sophistication and media personalities, South Forkers turn their noses up at the sod-farmers and turnip-pullers of the north.

But if the South Fork is the place to be seen, the North Fork is the place to come to see. More rural and less self-conscious, the North's farming and fishing heritage and New England charm make it refreshingly green - in all senses. Far enough from New York to discourage commuting, it's not so far as to be inaccessible for tourists and wine-lovers.

Reflecting their English settler origins, the little towns and ports jumble English-sounding place names - New Suffolk, Jamesport, Southold, Bridgehampton - with native American - Cutchogue, Mattituck, Aquebogue. Doll's house clapboard homes are brushed in pale blues, greens and pinks. Toytown white clapboard churches - Hope Church of God, Incarnation Lutheran, First Presbyterian, First Universalist, Baptist and Christian Science - testify to three centuries of righteousness.

The sheltered marine environment of Peconic Bay - with its creeks, islands and beaches - is good for sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, fishing and swimming. Indian Island Park and the Orient State Park are the places to bike and hike.

The North Fork is more family-oriented than the South, with plenty of B&Bs in place of fancy hotels and restaurants. Motels are clean and functional rather than aesthetically thrilling or luxurious, but popular enough, especially those with bay views, so you have to book at weekends and in the summer. If you want luxury, try the business-oriented Ramada Inn at Riverhead - or avoid the North Fork.

Ross's, The Seafood Barge and the somewhat pretentious Coeur des Vignes enjoy good reputations, but for good value and informal eating out, the Jamesport Country Kitchen, Legends and O'Donnell's Pub in Greenport are better options. As if made for the North Fork's crisp style of chardonnay, fresh fish abounds - in particular flounders, Peconic Bay scallops and soft-shell crabs, the latter not for the queasy (you eat the whole thing, claws 'n' all).

Tastefully housed as the McDonald's in Mattituck is, I opted one lunchtime for the antique charms of the Cutchogue Diner which nevertheless had fresh fish - flounder and veg - on the menu for a mere $7.50 (about a fiver). By eating at the diner, Michele and Mat Roussan, a professional New York couple, who spend weekends and summers in New Suffolk, were displaying classic North Fork inverse snobbery. They continued in similar vein: "Frankly we're happy there aren't more hotels. It's a narrow strip and we wouldn't want it to turn into the French Riviera. And we'd rather see a new winery than another gas station or mall."

And they are seeing new wineries. Since Alex Hargrave arrived here in the early Seventies, 20 wineries have been established and more are planned. Realising that Long Island benefited from the long growing season he'd been searching for, Hargrave discovered, too, that, compared to the South Fork, the North Fork's bays and sound gave a greater degree of shelter, and lighter and freer-draining soils.

"I followed Virgil," says Hargrave loftily, "and decided to plant four champions," namely cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir, the classic grape varieties of Bordeaux, the Loire and Burgundy. "Once things looked up, they all jumped in," says Hargrave, referring to the second wave of like-minded individuals: Bridgehampton (since closed), Lenz, Bedell, Pellegrini, Paumanok and a handful of others.

"Joe Macari started the third wave in the Nineties and now we're starting to hit the big league."

Since then, some big money has moved in, with investors such as Leslie Alexander, owner of the Houston Rockets, sinking considerable amounts of capital into Long Island's fertile soil.

The Italianate, timber-framed Macari building, which stands on a wooden deck, opened its doors to the public only last year. The $12m investment houses the winery plus a tasting room and an elegant sales room. Macari is keen to gain an international audience for his impressive wines. They are very sleek indeed, with a crisp, unoaked 1997 chardonnay, an oaked version and a voluptuous 1997 merlot. Few wineries are quite as impressively laid out as Macari, but most have eager-to-please staff and welcoming wine shops where you can taste and buy.

Form follows function, Frank Lloyd Wright-style, at Pellegrini, which is elegantly laid out on three sides of a courtyard, with a self-guided tour showing how the wine is made. At Lenz winery, Eric Fry makes winning chardonnay and merlot. And Paumanok looks set to build on its reputation for aromatic dry rieslings.

Although the South Fork's complement of wineries is limited, it's well worth taking the tiny north and south ferries, which ply across the bay via Shelter Island to the old whaling town of Sag Harbor. Sagpond is breathtaking - a yellow-wash modern Gothic, 12,000-square-foot chalet of terracotta tile, stained glass and thick post and beam, complete with vaulted Romanesque cellar and 150 acres of vineyard.

At Channing Daughters, Walter Channing's weird tree-root and tree-trunk sculptures are visible in the vineyard and reappear on the labels of the winemaker Larry Perrine's crisp Italian-style, dry whites; an antidote to the ubiquitous chardonnay.

The only sensible gateway to Long Island is Kennedy airport. Current fares from Heathrow to JFK are about pounds 165-pounds 200 on Air India, American Airlines, British Airways, Kuwait Airways, United and Virgin Atlantic, through discount agents. these are likely to rise substantially in July and August. Anthony Rose hired a Ford Escort for two days for $129 (pounds 80) from Budget (0541 565656 in the UK) and paid $65.40 (pounds 40) to stay at the Silver Sands Motel (001 516 477 0011) in Southold.

To get to the North Fork, take the Long Island Expressway (Route 495) east. To visit the North Fork wineries, go to the last exit, number 73. The Expressway links with County Road 58, which becomes Route 24. Green `Wine Trail' signs guide you to the wineries. Free copies of `Wine Press - a guide to Long Island wine country' - are available from 001 516 298 3200; e-mail: mail@timesreview.com.

Two useful websites for Long Island wineries: www.liwines.com and www.northfork.com/nfpc

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