Merlot Finds a Home on Long Island

Merlot is not a superstar like cabernet sauvignon, nor a cult classic like pinot noir. But it’s a grape to take seriously. It’s also lifting Long Island wine to world-class status and has recently garnered impressive reviews from internationally renowned wine media outlet The Wine Advocate.

Bordeaux of course, makes excellent red wines. Wineries within that region are known for the individuality of their stylistic expressions. Approaching Saint-Émilion on the Right Bank, the wines become softer, what the French call more “feminine,” with wonderful smoothness and complexity. This is the ancestral land of merlot, where it makes up a high percentage of the traditional blends. Named for the blackbird, “merle,” it has dark fruit flavors like cherry and blackberry, and fine tannins.

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Serendipitously, the story continues right here, where merlots are now considered the highest expression of the Long Island appellation. It’s a fresh start for a variety that hasn’t always had it easy. Back in the day, a few opinionated masters of the wine universe singlemindedly adored the kind of oaky California cabernet sauvignons that could wrestle a Porterhouse steak to the ground. Merlot, relegated to a commercial style, was mocked.

In the 2000s when wine popularity soared “Big Cabs” got elbowed aside. It turned out that many wine lovers actually prefer lighter, fruit-forward reds that can be sipped at cocktail hour and paired with casual summer barbeques and winter stews.

Proponents jumped to point out merlots don’t have to be simple and fruity; they can be subtle, restrained and true to their terroir. This philosophy fits well with Long Island’s cool climate, where cabernet sauvignon rarely fully ripens, but merlot consistently performs. Vinified and aged judiciously in oak barrels, it will naturally tend towards a temperate style with bright fruit, hints of herbs and an inherent balance. Maximum ripeness shows lush, juicy flavors, full body and firm tannins.

The Long Island Merlot Alliance comprises six member wineries. It’s on a mission to “promote the full potential of the Long Island appellation in producing superior-quality, age-worthy, balanced, classic merlot and merlot-based blends to consumers and media worldwide.”

“Our merlots have character, intensity, finesse and balance,” said Roman Roth, LIMA president and winemaker/ partner at Wölffer Estate in Sagaponack. “Our customers love our elegant wines, compared to the big, heavy wines of hotter climates. When it comes to fine wine, less can be more.”

The serious wine world is taking notice. Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate just gave 78 Long Island wines a rating of 90 or above out of 100. A number of those are merlots: Paumanok Vineyards got 93 points for its 2007 and 2010 Tuthills Lane Merlot. Delicious vindication, considering the late Mr. Parker led that long-ago Big Cab parade.

All that aside, there’s the simple truth that merlot has an affinity for Long Island fare, like duck, “surf and turf,” fire-pit grilled striped bass and local lamb chops. Moving into fall, we naturally tend towards reds. Locally, the merlot cup is running just in time.

The Merlot Cup Runneth Over
Elegant, complex and inviting comparison to merlot-based Bordeaux. 2010 is an excellent vintage and this wine is at the pinnacle of what Long Island can achieve. 70% merlot, 20% cabernet franc, 7% cabernet sauvignon and 3% petit verdot.

Harbes 2013
Hallock Lane Merlot
Best in Class at this year’s prestigious New York Wine & Food Classic is this 100% merlot vino. Medium bodied with refined, ripe fruit and young tannins coming into harmony, this new release is from a small vineyard planted in select merlot clones.