"No, if anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any f...g Merlot!" was the exclamation from the movie Sideways that caused the best selling red varietal in the US to collapse, losing sales and popularity. Frankly, the complaint about the grape is understandable. In most appellations Merlot is fat, fleshy, soft, flabby, and dull. Bordeaux uses it to calm down their Cabernet Sauvignon which can be overly tannin and austere, which is not that much of a compliment. Of course, their blends can be spectacular, but other than in Pomeral it is seldom will even the French will drink Merlot straight. From warmer climates, like Napa, the grape can become overripe requiring heavy manipulation to control alcohol levels without correcting its flabbiness nor increasing complexity. This is especially true of cheaper Merlots, which means most Merlot from the Golden State. It becomes overly sweet on top of being dull and ventures into areas of flab that are downright obese.
That being said one might ask why an article on this grape? Merlot really likes the East End of Long Island. It thrives there. Long Island winemakers have developed Merlots that almost seem to be from a different varietal altogether. The wines are leaner, fruit without flab, showing pepper and spice, and moderate but solid tannins. Unlike Bordeaux, the wine has sufficient intrinsic interest and strength to be frequently bottled as a single varietal. Eric Fry, winemaker for the Lenz winery, says of the varietal: "Long Island is the only place in the world where the Merlots are 'masculine' and the Cabernets are 'feminine'. Everywhere else, the Cab is the big guy and they add Merlot to soften the Cabernet. We do the opposite. We add Merlot to the Cabernet to beef it up. It's an inverse situation here." The region is becoming known for its high quality and interesting Merlots. Long Island wineries are able to produce wines of complexity, character, and backbone from a varietal that is all too often dull, flabby, and soft from wines made elsewhere.
A Tale of Two Forks
The primary winemaking regions are the North Fork and the Hamptons. These are the two peninsulas on the eastern end of Long Island separated by the Peconic Bay. Both were created as the Wisconsin Glacier receded during the last Ice Age, over 10,000 years ago. Both regions are official American Viticultural Areas (AVA). An AVA is an area recognized by an agency of the Federal government as having specific climate or geographic features that set it apart from the surrounding area. It also means that the AVAs have distinctive histories of winemaking. Once an area has been designated an AVA any wines stating that they come from that region must contain 85% grapes grown in that region.
North Fork of Long Island AVA
The North Fork wine producing region has an abundance of sunshine, more than anywhere else in the state. It has a maritime climate, cool and temperate, but with a relatively long growing season. Its season of 210-220 days is sufficient to ripen Merlot but has trouble consistently ripening some other varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon. Although summers in New York can get brutally hot and the winters bitterly cold, the North Fork climate is moderated by three bodies of water: the Long Island Sound, Peconic Bay, and Atlantic Ocean. These mitigate the harshness of the winters, protect against late spring frosts effectively lengthening the growing season. The water tempers the heat of New York summers. The cooling effect allows North Fork Merlot to ripen and do so much more slowly than in hotter appellations. The ripening vines do not have to be shaded as they do in Napa, allowing increased direct exposure to the sun without the grapes becoming cooked or raisiny. The North Fork comprises approximately 3,000 acres of vineyards with about 40 wineries which produce wines from twenty different varietals.
The Hamptons are markedly cooler than the North Fork. The area is frequently beset with fogs in the summer which reduces the ambient temperatures and overall sunlight compared to its sister appellation to the north. Frequent exposure to Atlantic Ocean breezes further contributes to the general cooling. This typically delays bud break by up to three weeks. The soils are damper silt and loam compared to the sandier North Fork. This causes the vineyards to not drain as well as the other side of the Peconic. These conditions contribute to a different and distinctive wine from the South Fork. Hamptons Merlot is more restrained, less fruit focused and tend to display more earth notes than their northern neighbor more fruit focused releases. In the hands of talented vintners and winemakers they can also be quite spectacular. The Hamptons AVA currently contains four wineries.