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wine column louisa hargrave
The question of what varietals to plant is not always obvious or easy. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch file photo)

Imagine you are a wine producer on Long Island. With Vintage 2014 safely harvested, it’s now time to think about the future, time to reassess your vineyard plantings and, if you can afford it, tear out unproductive sections or replant with more desirable varieties.

So what should you plant? The choice isn’t obvious or easy. What if fashions change and the wine from that grape that was easy to sell 10 years ago is piling up in your warehouse with no takers today?

Most of Long Island’s vineyards are heavily focused on chardonnay and merlot. These were the leading varieties worldwide in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s and it has only been in the last decade, as consumers have become more educated and adventurous in their willingness to try new wines, that demand for other varieties has made diversification compelling.

Still, while the international market is flooded with wines made from chardonnay and merlot, these two grape varieties are, arguably, the easiest to grow and make into quality wines here on Long Island. Steve Bate, head of the Long Island Wine Council, travels widely and follows wine trends with appreciation for the vintners’ dilemma. He said, “It’s a lot of fun for Long Island aficionados to try new varieties here such as albariño, but I suspect most visitors, especially first-timers to the region, prefer to try/compare what we do best from vintage to vintage.”

There are about 700 acres of merlot planted on Long Island, making it the most widely planted wine grape in the region and 30 percent of the overall vineyard acreage. Members of the Long Island Merlot Alliance believe Long Island “can produce wonderfully complex merlot wines with fruit-driven flavors and aromas not found in warmer climes.”

But Long Island merlot is a drop in the bucket compared to the over 600,000 acres of merlot planted worldwide. How can Long Island’s growers convince consumers that a grape considered plonk in other regions is our best bet here?

One way is to use it in a blend with other compatible grapes. Bedell Cellars, founded by Kip Bedell, aka “Mr. Merlot,” and now owned by media mogul Michael Lynne, remains merlot-heavy but also features branded red and white blends like Taste Red, Gallery and Musée, alongside other varietal wines.

Here in the U.S., a winemaker can legally blend any varieties together, but if a grape is named on the label (making it a “varietal” wine), the wine must contain at least 75 percent of the stated grape. You’d be surprised what a difference the addition of even 5 percent of another variety can make to a varietal wine.

The wiggle room granted by federal statute is not lost on winemaker Bruce Schneider of Onabay Vineyards in Southold, who says, “The focus will remain with varietal wines because this is what U.S. consumers prefer and expect … and varietal wines allow you to blend up to 25 percent of other grape varieties, which gives plenty of flexibility to consistently make distinctive and delicious wines.”

Sommeliers, critics and bloggers are always in search of the new and different and they make it difficult to forge a regional identity around one grape variety. Will it be merlot, malbec, sauvignon blanc or riesling today? The New York Wine and Grape Foundation, funded to promote all of New York’s wines, relentlessly celebrates riesling as New York’s grape, even though very few Long Island producers grow it. It may be the best grape for the cold Finger Lakes, but Long Island can ripen far more varieties, including reds, so why feature a grape that, as wine writer and riesling lover Jancis Robinson states, “has too strong a personality to appeal to enough consumers to gain global traction”?

While everyone debates the merits of mainstream varieties, at Premium Wine Group’s custom crush facility, co-owner/manager Russell Hearn, who has probably monitored production of more diverse wines than anyone on Long Island, has a hankering to grow humidity-tolerant tannat (Uruguay’s “national grape”), suggesting it “could be an excellent blender, [with] dark color, low acidity, modest flavor impact not to overwhelm like petit verdot does.”

Meanwhile, Channing Daughters in Sagaponack takes a happy, wild ride augmenting the standard favorites with muscat ottonel and lagrein. Easily selling out small batches of exotic varietal and blended wines, Channing Daughters’ winemaker Christopher Tracy dreams of adding more “that would be fun, delicious and would likely grow well … rkatsiteli, saperavi, trousseau and vitovska … I’ve got others too!”

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

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