I spent a few days in Charlottesville, Va., a couple weeks ago taking part in the Virginia Wine Summit, a celebration of the Commonwealth’s wine and wine culture. I was invited to speak on a panel titled “Defining Local on the East Coast,” a vague and somewhat nebulous topic that I’m not sure we really tackled during the session, but I digress.

The summit itself was only one day but, as a speaker, I was able to join my fellow panelists — mostly sommeliers and restaurateurs from up and down the Eastern Seaboard — on a tour of some local vineyards and for some walk-around tastings of other Virginia producers.

Tasting so many wines in such a condensed period of time is both exhausting (I know, poor me) and educational. There are differences between the Virginia wine industry and Long Island’s, but there are a lot of similarities, too. Though the soils there are a bit heavier — many dominated by red clay — it’s hot and often humid during Virginia summers, not unlike here. Many of the growers I spoke to pointed to fall hurricane season as a big consideration — again, not unlike here. They grow a lot of Bordeaux-varieties red wines down there as well, just like here.

And, just as the Long Island industry is relying on merlot as the region’s “signature variety,” Virginia has chosen one as well: viognier. The best Virginia viogniers were a revelation: fruity and floral with a wonderful, mouth-filling texture and balanced acidity. The problem, much as with Long Island merlot, is that there’s is so much inconsistency in Virginia’s viognier. Many were flabby and lacked freshness. Some were over-oaked. Some were picked too early to preserve acidity and didn’t really taste like viognier. Sound familiar?

I vacillate when it comes to the concept of a signature variety. On the one hand, it’s a smart, almost necessary, way to quickly brand a region in the minds of consumers. There is value in people thinking “cabernet sauvignon” when they hear Napa Valley. Long Island means merlot to a lot of people. Virginia has tried to brand itself around viognier.

On the other hand, I think that diversity is Long Island’s — and Virginia’s — greatest strength. Long Island merlot can be outstanding, but so, too, can its sauvignon blanc, cabernet franc, even malbec and some of the lesser planted varieties like blaufränkisch, Tocai, albariño and chenin blanc. The longest-lived Long Island wines I’ve ever tasted have all been cabernet sauvignon.

Similarly, in Virginia, I tasted some delicious wines made from sauvignon blanc, albariño, rkatsiteli, Mourvèdre and nebbiolo.

I think that, at least at this point in time, diversity and experimentation should — and often do — define local wine on the East Coast. Merlot is important — very important — but it’s also important that Hound’s Tree Wine just planted some nebbiolo. It’s important that Bedell Cellars just planted some pinot gris. I’m excited to see what comes of these and other similar projects.

Maybe the Long Island message should be “Come for the merlot; stay for everything else we can grow.”

This story was originally published in the Suffolk Times and on northforker.com.

About Author

Lenn Thompson, a proud Pittsburgh, PA native, moved to Long Island more than a decade ago and quickly fell in love with the region’s dynamic and emerging wine community. A digital and content marketing and community professional by day, he founded NewYorkCorkReport.com in early 2004 to share his passion for the wines, beers and spirits of New York State. After running that site -- which became the premier source for independent New York wine commentary, reviews and news -- for 12 years, he launched TheCorkReport.us in late 2016 to add the wines of Virginia, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Vermont and beyond to his beat. Lenn currently serves as the wine columnist for The Suffolk Times weekly newspaper and is the former editor of the Long Island Wine Gazette. He contributes or has contributed to publications like Wine Enthusiast Magazine, Beverage Media, Edible Brooklyn, Edible East End and Edible Hudson Valley. Lenn served on the board of directors for Drink Local Wine, and is the creator and founder of TasteCamp, an annual regional wine immersion conference for writers and trade. An admitted riesling and cabernet franc fanatic, he’s intensely passionate about eating local and the many local wine regions of America. Lenn lives in Miller Place, NY with his wife Nena, son Jackson, daughter Anna and their dog, Casey Lemieux Thompson.

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