A cheeky little number - with just a hint of spud

A short drive from Manhattan, old potato farms are being turned into prizewinning vineyards. Sarah Barrell raises a glass

Two hours after leaving New York I am sitting on a white sandy beach sipping a fine local chardonnay. Have I travelled by resurrected Concorde to California's wine country? No. I haven't even left New York. Or at least I haven't left New York State. The north-eastern tip of Long Island, known as the North Fork, may be two hours' drive from Manhattan but it is a world away. California still hogs America's viticultural spotlight but thanks to Long Island's vineyards and award-winning vintages, New York is now established on the oenophile's map.

Two hours after leaving New York I am sitting on a white sandy beach sipping a fine local chardonnay. Have I travelled by resurrected Concorde to California's wine country? No. I haven't even left New York. Or at least I haven't left New York State. The north-eastern tip of Long Island, known as the North Fork, may be two hours' drive from Manhattan but it is a world away. California still hogs America's viticultural spotlight but thanks to Long Island's vineyards and award-winning vintages, New York is now established on the oenophile's map.

Pretty impressive when you consider that 25 years ago potatoes were Long Island's more prosaic claim to farming fame. Paumanok is one of the first vineyards that day-tripping New Yorkers reach once they leave the commuter-populated Long Island Expressway for the North Fork. One of some 30 vineyards flanking the two coastal roads that run North Fork's 28-mile reach, Paumanok has its tasting room in a prettily converted turn-of-the-century barn.

Overlooking a tidy field of vines, my wine savvy companion and I sip a crispy chenin blanc which vineyard representative Jim Burns tells us is so quaffable he drinks it "like lemonade". My New World-shy wine palate is impressed. So much so I'm tempted to try a vintage chardonnay, which demands more savouring and, unlike the classic Californian equivalent, is anything but over-oaked. I even venture a Riesling, which is also surprisingly good. This seems to be the key phrase here among visiting New Yorkers. The rest of the wine world may be aware of Long Island's accolades but judging by their scant use of the spit bucket and frequent use of very American superlatives, New Yorkers have yet to learn what's in their own backyard.

"The more potato farms are converted to wineries, the more undeveloped Long Island will stay," Jim says, while giving an impromptu tour. "And much less likely to become overrun with strip malls," he concludes. So far, North Fork is miraculously devoid of these. Twenty years after Paumanok planted its first vines the label started producing knock-out reserves now to be found among Bon Appétit's top 50 in the US. And perhaps more can be expected when you consider that Long Island has a maritime climate and sandy soil that produce farming conditions matching those in Bordeaux. Like most of the vineyard workers we meet, Jim's passion is as plain as the nose on his wine-ruddy face. "Come in here during fermentation," he says as he walks us through the wine-making rooms "and you can actually hear the bubbling. The place is alive. It really is neat."

As on many of North Fork's vineyards, the process is endearingly small-scale. In Paumanok's case, the bottling room is in the back of a mobile truck that can be motored off to neighbouring farms. Up the road, at Martha Clara Vineyard, things are no less lacking in well-preserved rural charm. Owned by Robert Entenmann, he of the traditional American cakes, the tasting room sports gingham curtains at the windows and has space to accommodate a Friday night "sock hop". Displaying the same kitschy class, the "store" sells retro-looking deli goods such as wine chutneys, Key Lime mustard and even home-grown grapeseed skincare products.

Several tastings and a wine-addled night's sleep later it's off to the Cutchogue Diner for breakfast. We eat pancakes and eggs over easy at the bar of this trailer-style 1940s landmark. Outside the Cutchogue village church is disgorging blinking families on to manicured lawns. We gather our lined stomachs and make for the vineyards and another place of worship, of sorts. Castello di Borghese, the "founding vineyard" formerly known as Hargrave, was the Long Island wine pioneer back in 1973, but was recently taken over by the Borghese family. Wandering around the grounds we spot the tall figure of Marco Borghese, the owner, winding his way though the vines on a bicycle. Marco, an aristocrat of the modestly rumpled kind, is an Italian whose family line stretches back to 9th-century Rome. While missing Italian food, he clearly loves his New World home, naming the vineyard's latest dessert wine Allegra, after his 16-year-old daughter.

Gianni, his son, takes us through the tasting. While we sip at a medal-winning 2003 cabernet franc, Marco's wife, Ann Marie, shows us the line-up for the vineyard's annual opera. "We've become a cultural centre as much as anything else," says Marco, petting his Italian pointer, Trevi, who flops about his feet as if he's lapped up one too many. "You really should come back for harvest season though," adds his wife. "A writer friend of ours came and helped us bring the grapes in last year and maintained there's no work like it."

A similar scene of bucolic family bliss was to be found at The Old Field a 19th-century farm, converted into a vineyard by fourth generation Long Island farmers Chris and Ros Biaz. The tasting room is alfresco, on a shaded trestle table, the picnic area beside the old redbrick icehouse. Most Long Island vineyards have outdoor picnic areas where you can bring your own food to eat beside your wine purchase. This one, beside the old ice pond with vine rows rolling down to the beach, has to be the most picture perfect. But no amount of picnic cheese and crackers can address the amount of wine we've now ingested, so it's off to the North Fork's smartest restaurant for, well, a five-course tasting menu.

At The Greenporter Hotel and Spa, a converted 1950s motel with boutique luxuries such as Frette linen and Annick Goutal toiletries, my companion books in for a restorative full body detox massage. I sit reading the "Vintner Tasting Menu," in the adjoining La Cuvée bistro. The Greenporter's rather glamorous owner and kitchen creative, Deborah Rivera, has whipped up a menu using local produce paired with local wines. It's impressive stuff, the crowning plat principal of which is a celestial striped bass and lemon risotto served with a glass of pinot blanc from neighbouring Lieb Vineyard.

And it doesn't get more local than having your winemaker sitting at the bar in front of you. La Cuvée, it seems, is also the Sunday-night gathering spot for Long Island winemakers. Cutting a rustic swathe at the smart chrome bar in their dungarees and check shirts are Eric Fry from Lenz and Greg Cove from Peconic vineyards. As argue over whose wine is better, Deborah whispers, "Sometimes I have to remind them it's not rocket science." She's right but producing medal-winning vintages out of potato fields does seem something close to miraculous.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com) offers return flights to New York for £424 during the October harvest season. Car Rentals (0845- 2250 845, www.carrentals.co.uk) offers two days' hire from £106.

Where to stay

The Motel on the Bay (001 631 722 3458; www.northforkmotels.com) offers doubles with kitchen from $82 (£51). The Greenporter Hotel and Spa (001 631 477 0066; www.thegreenporter.com) offers b&b in a double from $94 (£59). The North Fork Bed and Breakfast Association ( www.northfork.com/nfbba/) has a good range of B&Bs, many within walking distance of the vineyards.

Further information

The Long Island Wine Council (001 631 369 5887, www.liwines.com). The Long Island Convention and Visitors Bureau (001 631 951 3440, www.licvb.com).

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