The next time you find yourself on the East End of Long Island, look out your car window. If you see grapevines, there’s a fair chance they are merlot, which makes up nearly 30% of the total grape plantings on Long Island. Roughly 700 acres of local vineyards are dedicated to merlot, making it the most-planted red grape variety. Its dominance is on full display in local tasting rooms, too, where you’ll find merlot bottled by itself, as well as in many red blends, rosés — and a few wineries even use it in sparkling wine production.
The importance of merlot to the local wine industry simply cannot be overstated. It is a workhorse for the region while also leading to some of its most lauded and adored wines.
Why merlot for Long Island?
But why does every winery grow merlot? And why do other regions look to Long Island to buy merlot fruit or wine for their own production?
“The simplest answer is that it grows and ripens the best on Long Island,” says Eric Fry, who has been making merlot at Lenz Winery for 30 years. He adds: “Merlot matures faster than cabernet sauvignon and its softer tannins allow for the drinker to perceive subtle mid-palate flavors. Of the five Bordeaux reds, it has the right balance of heartiness, tannin and fruit to ripen successfully virtually every year. When merlot is ripe, it consistently makes a rich, fruit forward wine that goes with food.”
That consistency is the key nearly every winemaker will point to. It’s not that other red Bordeaux grapes like cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot can’t succeed here. They can, and do. It’s that they don’t do it routinely the way merlot does.
“Merlot is the most planted in the region for a reason — consistently good fruit quality,” says Anthony Nappa, winemaker at Raphael. “Always ripe flavors, good fruit set and crop size. It makes great reserve red wines every year.”
Defining Long Island Merlot
Consistency in the vineyard isn’t reason enough to anoint merlot as the region’s signature variety. The wines themselves need to be delicious and distinctive. They need to taste like Long Island merlot — wines that can be made only here and nowhere else.
Long Island merlot has changed significantly in the industry’s 40-plus years. Through improved practices — in both the vineyard and the cellar — you won’t find the same erratic quality from vintage to vintage and from producer you once did. Underripe merlot with flavors of bell pepper or fresh-cut grass used to be easy to find, but not anymore.
“I’ve noticed, across the board, more consistency and, along with that, an increase in quality,” says Amy Zavatto, executive director of the Long Island Merlot Alliance — a trade organization devoted to promoting quality in Long Island’s merlot and merlot-based blends. “Merlot always grew well here, but changes in practices — vine spacing, clonal selection, vineyard treatments, harvest decisions, yeast selection, barrel selection and program — have made the wines dependably delicious.”
Diversity Within the Consistency
Dependability and consistency are practical considerations rather than exciting ones. But what makes local merlot so intriguing are the ways it’s being used at various wineries.
Some winemakers, like Lenz’s Fry, prefer varietal merlot — those comprising at least 75 percent merlot. At the same time, others think it works best in blends.
“Merlot can be beautiful on its own but more importantly we look for it to be the heart and backbone of our best blends.” says Kelly Koch, winemaker at Macari Vineyards.
Looking Forward — And Back
No matter how much experimentation may be happening with new-to-Long Island grapes, merlot is and will continue to be a crucial grape across Long Island — and not just because it’s expensive to rip out productive vines and plant new ones that take three years to produce usable crops.
To see the potential future of these wines, one has only to look back. According to Koch, “The evidence can be found by tasting old vintages of Long Island wines. These merlots and merlot-based blends have great longevity and are showing amazing depth with age. This is an important indicator of quality in our region and something we should be proud of and continue to strive towards.”
Merlot isn’t just Long Island’s most planted red wine variety; it’s also Long Island’s best understood one. Vineyard managers and winemakers are honing in on what clones and sites work best in their vineyards in a way that they aren’t for other red grapes.
“Ask any winery what clones of merlot they have and they can list them off,” says Nappa. “Ask them about clones of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc or petit verdot? They couldn’t tell you.”
A version of this story was originally published in the fall 2017 edition of Long Island Wine Press