Under the Radar: Long Island Merlot

Some wine areas are vaguely familiar but not well known or fashionable.  Parts of Southern Italy, such as Puglia, fit this category, as do parts of Spain, such as Manchuela.  But there are other areas, such as Long Island, that fly almost completely under the proverbial radar, showing up on the “screen” of very few consumers.

This is understandable enough in the case of Long Island, which evokes images of traffic jams and suburban sprawl rather than vineyards.  Even if your mind’s eye moves further east, to where the grapes are actually grown, you are likely to conjure up images of sailboats or upscale mansions in the Hamptons rather than vineyards.

Maybe the wines are unknown because it’s a new area.  The Hargraves planted the first wines on Long Island in 1973, less than 40 years ago.  However, the Marlborough region on the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island was planted at about the same time, and their Sauvignon Blancs have taken the world by storm.

You might think that proximity to New York City, which likes to think of itself as the wine capital of the world, would be a perfect market for Long Island wines and a springboard to wider popularity.  But the sad fact is that few Long Island wines can be found on the wine lists of New York City restaurants.

Merlot:  Long Island’s Most Planted Grape

Conceivably the answer to why the wines remain so obscure is simply that the wines themselves are not very good.  As if to address that question, the Long Island Merlot Alliance hosted a blind tasting last week in New York City.

The Long Island Merlot Alliance, founded in 2005 (perhaps not the best timing coming right after the movie, Sideways, with it’s famous “I’m not drinking any f#$%& Merlot”) is composed of six wineries–Castello di Borghese, Clovis Point, McCall Vineyard, Raphael, Sherwood House Vineyards and Wölffer Estate Vineyard.  Their aim is to make Merlot the “signature grape” of Long Island.  With 700 acres of it planted already, accounting for about one-third of all vineyards, Merlot is the most widely grown variety on Long Island.

Leslie Howard, winemaker at Raphael, insists, “Merlot is the top grape for the area” because of the soil and climate, which are quite similar to Bordeaux, Merlot’s traditional home.  But, he admits, “Other grapes grow well, too.”  Indeed, Raphael, founded in 1996 and planted only Merlot initially, has expanded its plantings to include the other Bordeaux varieties, both red and white.

“It’s dependable,” is the way Howard describes Merlot.  Because it’s an early ripening variety, it always ripens even with Long Island’s maritime-influenced cool climate.  Howard notes, “In hotter years Cabernet [Sauvignon] does well, but in cool years, we make rosé [from it].”  Howard continues, “the looser bunches [of Merlot] also means less rot,” an important advantage with Long Island’s humid climate.

A Blind Tasting Proves the Point

The tasting consisted of 14 Merlots or Merlot-based wines from around the world:  seven, one each from members of the Alliance plus their collaborative blend, dubbed Merliance, three each from France and California and one from Washington State.  The wines at the tasting were well matched.  All were from the 2007 vintage and, with the exception of one, Wölffer’s Christian’s Cuvée Merlot ($100), all were in the same price range, $25-58.

Tasters, members of the wine trade and journalists, were asked to score the wines based on a system that I don’t admire.  It required assigning up to 20 points in each of five categories–appearance, nose, palate, perceived quality and readiness for drinking–and then summing them to reach a final score.  To me, the categories do not have equal importance.  Moreover, pitting seven Long Island Merlots against seven from elsewhere gives a Long Island wine a 50 percent chance of finishing first based on random selection, while each other wine has only a 7 percent chance of finishing first.

Nevertheless, I suppose that overall seven-against-seven format made for a relatively even test of the Long Island Merlots, and the results were indeed illuminating.
Illuminating Results

My top five wines, ranked closely together, all came from Long Island.  I correctly identified the origin of only half of the wines–and I misidentified the origins of three of my top five wines.  (Whenever I don’t fare too well identifying a wine’s origin–and it occurs more frequently than I’d like to admit–I’m reminded of the response of noted British wine writer, Harry Waugh, to the question he was asked one evening at a wine dinner, have you ever confused a Burgundy with a Bordeaux?   His response, “Not since lunch.”)

In retrospect, I should have identified the Long Island wines because, stylistically, they fell just where I expected them to–in between the burly, ripe and oaky West Coast ones and the more austere ones from St. Emilion and Pomerol.  The ones from France had an inherent disadvantage because of the 2007 vintage was difficult there and produced leaner styled wines.  The Long Island Merlots had plenty of concentration and ripeness without being overdone.  In short, they had balance and harmony, with invigorating acidity that kept them fresh.  The tannins were polished making them immediately enjoyable.

My Ranking

Raphael, First Label Merlot (North Fork of Long Island) $42 (92 points)
Clovis Point, Vintners Select Merlot (North Fork of Long Island) $35 (91)
McCall Wines, Ben’s Blend (North Fork of Long Island) $45 (91)
Sherwood House Vineyards, Merlot (North Fork of Long Island) $25 (89)
Wölffer Estate Vineyards, Christian’s Cuvée (The Hamptons, LI)  $100 (88)

Chateau La Croix St-Georges (Pomerol) $58 (87)
Freemark Abbey Merlot (Napa Valley) $28 (85)
Chateau La Fleur Cardinale (St. Emilion) $45 (83)
Castello di Borghese, Merlot Reserve (North Fork of Long Island) $29 (83)
Chateau Ste. Michelle, Canoe Ridge Estate Merlot
(Horse Heaven Hills, Columbia Valley, Washington) $25 (83)
Chateau La Confession (St. Emilion) $42 (82)
Duckhorn Vineyards (Napa Valley) (81)
Swanson (Oakville, Napa Valley) $29 (81)
Long Island Merlot Alliance, Merliance (Long Island) $35 (80)

Questions Remain

It’s clear that Long Island produces excellent Merlots, but since it is also home to other distinctive wines, only time will tell whether that grape reigns supreme.  But the big question now is:  Why aren’t Long Island Merlots yet up on the radar screen of more consumers?  They certainly deserve to be.

May 3, 2011