From the Archives: Merlot vs. Cabernet Franc

For this week’s “From the archives” feature, I’m republishing a story that I wrote and originally appeared on the New York Cork Report in May of 2005. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the region has made any progress on this topic.

On Sunday, Howard Goldberg’s Long Island Vines column in the New York Times focused on Peconic Bay Winery’s recent and upcoming releases (which I’ve got in my tasting queue as well).

What I love about this week’s column is what he says about Cabernet Franc on Long Island:

“…ultimately Long Island’s signature red wine may not be merlot, as is now routinely assumed. Given the glacial pace at which young wine regions develop — there is only one annual vintage, after all – decades are needed for patterns of strength to become boldly distinct.”

I don’t always agree with Howard’s take on Long Island wines or wine in general (what fun would it be if I did?), but I am 100% on board with what he’s saying here.

I’ve written several times both here and in my print outlets that some of my favorites Long Island reds are made from Cabernet Franc, including offerings from Broadfields Wine Cellars, Wolffer Estate, Corey Creek Vineyards, Lieb Family Cellars and Jamesport Vineyards.

They all make great Merlot too, there’s no doubt about that, but why the burning desire on some people’s part to push Long Island as a “Merlot region” — especially given the current, Sideways-induced disdain for the varietal?

I’ve had it explained to me several times, by several people on both sides of the argument (for and against pushing Merlot). Here’s what I’ve heard:

“We need to put a stake in the ground, like Oregeon did with Pinot Noir.” (someone for the push)
“They are pushing for that because that’s what they’ve invested in. Most of their vineyards are Merlot.” (someone obviously against it)
“It started out as an issue of quality Merlot vs. bad Merlot. It started as a standards thing…and turned into a marketing angle.” (Someone for it, but not as much as others)
I also get asked all the time what I think about the issue…I can only answer with “I’m not sure. No one has sold me either way.”

On one hand, I’d love to see Long Island gain traction with their Merlot (or any variety l really) to pull people in, so they can enjoy the region’s bounty. But, do I think the best Long Island wine I’ve ever tasted was a Merlot? That’s hard to say.

Wolffer Estate Vineyards’ Premier Cru Merlot ($125) is spectacular, but at that price point, it’s not the kind of wine that is going to win over the masses. Does Kip Bedell do great things with the grape? Yes. But he also makes a great red blend without a drop of Merlot, some of my favorite Gewurzt and a Viognier that I can’t get enough of.

I think Howard is right though…it may be too early in this region’s wine life cycle to pick the wine that will lead the way. The region only started planting wine grapes in 1973 after all…and that was Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.

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