Hargrave column: Joining forces for a magnificent merlot

Robin Epperson-McCarthy and Deborah Brenner of the Long Island Merlot Alliance.

Robin Epperson-McCarthy and Deborah Brenner of the Long Island Merlot Alliance.

The Long Island Merlot Alliance, founded in 2005 to promote merlot-based wines as Long Island’s finest, has recently invigorated its efforts with the appointment of a new executive director, the addition of a merlot-centric research fellow and a twin-forked wine trail.

The alliance’s seven member wineries (Clovis Point, Lieb, McCall, Raphael, Sherwood House, T’Jara and Wölffer) are true believers in the potential for this ancient Bordeaux grape here on Long Island and are devoting substantial resources toward “producing superior quality, age-worthy, balanced, classic merlot.”

Identifying a region’s finest wines with a particular vineyard or grape is nothing new. The jars of wine buried with King Tutankhamun in 1352 B.C. were inscribed with their vintage, quality, estate and vineyard supervisor (e.g., “Year 5 sweet wine of Aton, of Vineyard Supervisor Ramose”).

Today’s winemakers go to greater lengths to brand their products, but how does a whole region create an identity? In the United States, we have no “controlled appellation” laws. Unlike Burgundy, which permits only pinot noir or chardonnay, American wines can be made from any grape, so it is more difficult for our regions to brand themselves.

Long Island’s identity has been corrupted by images of Levittown, Joey Buttafuoco and, more recently, ABC’s drama “Revenge.” But Long Island merlot is fine wine, not suburban living or aspirational murder. Unlike our pop culture, Long Island wine has always been in the premium category. Our estate-grown wines can rival those from leading producers in other regions. But how to let the consumer know that? What are the qualities that distinguish our wines, in a positive way? The Merlot Alliance evolved from years of efforts to answer that question.

From the first plantings in 1973, Long Island’s growers have relied on the most recognizable European grape varieties, vinified as varietal wines. Since 1988, when the Long Island Wine Council brought influential Bordeaux grape scientists and winemakers to a symposium on “Maritime Climate Winegrowing,” we have identified with Bordeaux and focused on its grapes (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, cabernet franc and petit verdot) to define our region.

Several of the ’88 symposium speakers were influential in narrowing our focus to merlot instead of cabernet sauvignon. May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, owner of Chateau Pichon Lalande, said, “Merlot brings suppleness and mellowness to the wine, making a young wine ‘amiable’ even when the tannins of the cabernet sauvignon are strong and could be hard when young.”

Dr. Gerard Seguin of Bordeaux’s Institut d’Oenologie cautioned that in humid areas of his region merlot makes the most reliable wines while those from cabernet sauvignon can be “herbaceous, harshly tannic.”

Larry Perrine, formerly of the Long Island Horticultural Research Laboratory (now of Channing Daughters), also pointed us toward merlot, saying, “Cabernet sauvignon will not ripen fully every year in all vineyard locations.”

In the belief that to be considered legitimate in the wine world we needed to emphasize our red wines, after excluding mold-prone pinot noir (“the heartbreak grape”), our vintners then turned their focus squarely onto merlot. At the same time, Napa was identifying with cabernet, while emerging Oregon chose to brand itself with pinot noir and New Zealand with sauvignon blanc. Then Washington went and claimed merlot. At that point, our winemakers fell into a dither. Our merlots were great, but what about our chardonnays? Our sauvignons? Or should we highlight our cool-climate balance and forget varietal identity?

While this discussion continues, the Long Island Merlot Alliance, firmly devoted to varietal branding, has expanded to include “merlot-based blends.” The alliance’s new executive director is Deborah Brenner, a business consultant whose book “Women of the Vine: Inside the World of Women Who Make, Taste and Enjoy Wine” led to a cooperative wine brand of six California winemakers — all dynamic women — that she managed from 2007 to 2012. Alliance members hope she will find similar success with its own cooperative blend, called Merliance.

Working alongside Brenner will be Robin Epperson-McCarthy, a certified sommelier, who will conduct research in quantifying those practices that lead to the best possible Long Island merlot. With many years of “best practice” vineyard research behind it, the group looks to her to quantify data and design new protocols.

I’ve tasted Merliance and it’s delicious, but it is the cooperation of these forward-thinking, inspired vintners and their unselfish willingness to share results with all of Long Island’s wineries that may best promote Long Island merlot alongside all Long Island wines.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.