In Long Island Wine Country, merlot has always been king.
As the island’s most widely planted and produced grape, the ubiquitous, sturdy varietal has certainly made its mark.
But with a ripening industry comes change, and another red grape — cabernet franc — is receiving some well-deserved attention.
Although roughly 800 acres, or about 35 percent, of East End vineyards are planted with merlot, cabernet franc has an undeniable presence, accounting for about 10 percent, or 250 acres, according to Alice Wise, a viticulturist at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.
While merlot tends to be a bit sweeter, a little fuller and perhaps somewhat “fresher,” Wise said cabernet franc grapes tend to contain more tannins, which give wine a smoky, acidic flavor.
“They bring different things to the table,” she explained.
Vineyard owners and managers began experimenting with cabernet franc in the early to mid-1980s after realizing other Bordeaux varietals, including merlot and cabernet sauvignon, thrived in southwestern France’s similar maritime climate.
Many did so at the urging of French oenologist Dr. Alain Carbonneau, a grapevine specialist who visited the region for a merlot symposium in 1988, according to Robin Epperson-McCarthy, a research fellow with the Long Island Merlot Alliance. Epperson-McCarthy is researching the history of Long Island Wine Country to help LIMA market the region more effectively.
“[Dr. Carbonneau] told a group of vineyard managers that if the Long Island industry was going to make great merlot, we needed cabernet franc as the backbone of the blend,” she said. “A lot of growers went out the next year and planted cabernet franc.”
It was planted as both a blending component for merlot and a potentially significant grape for varietal wines, she said.
With grape growers and winemakers exploring that significance, the consensus about Long Island’s signature varietal is changing.
One vintner will tell you that dependable merlot makes the region’s best wines, while another will insist the satisfying result of taming the later-ripening, sometimes herbaceous cabernet franc is unmatched.
Macari Vineyards, a 200-acre operation in Mattituck, took home the 2014 New York State Wine & Food Classic’s award for Best Red Wine with its 2010 Cabernet Franc, helping the winery claim the New York State Winery of the Year award.
Macari’s winemaker, Kelly Urbanik Koch, had no problem picking between the two varietals.
“I feel like out here, merlot is so consistent. It’s easy to ripen; it’s kind of like an easy work force grape,” Urbanik Koch said while harvesting cabernet franc in early November.
“Cab franc takes a little more care in the vineyard and is a little slower to ripen,” she said, “but the wines are more complex, I think. They are a little bit more multidimensional than merlot.”
Vineyard owner Joseph Macari Jr. said he first planted cabernet franc in 1996, starting with just nine acres. He has since expanded to 30 acres, though that still lags behind his 50 acres of merlot.
“We have, unfortunately, more merlot, yes,” Macari said. “We love merlot, but I like cab franc a little better. It is more interesting to me. We can do so much with it.”
Ron Goerler Jr., winemaker and general manager at Jamesport Vineyards, believes in the varietal so much that his cabernet franc acreage outspans that of merlot — and for good reason.
A good accompaniment to a meal, he said, cabernet franc complements the East End’s farm-to-table movement.
“You always think, ‘What’s the ultimate goal of the wines you’re trying to produce?’ ” he said. “Cabernet franc, for me, is a great variety that works very well out here in a food area. I think, ultimately, it really reflects the wines that can be made here.”
And while at 40 years old the region is relatively young, Goerler said he believes Long Island is still answering the question of what its cabernet franc should be.
“Sometimes it can be green, sometimes it can be spicy, sometimes it can be really lush. I think the weather really dictates the variation more than anything,” he said. “It seems to be hard to tame sometimes, from the fruit side.
“But when it’s done right,” he added, “it is beautiful.”
Cabernet franc ripens later in the season than merlot. And if not given the appropriate time to ripen fully, its vegetal elements — which not every drinker enjoys — shine through.
“When not so ripe, for me, the green charter is a positive,” he said. “You get much more into the garden herbs; you get sage, thyme, oregano, those garden herbs and flavors that are a little more earthy.
“It’s like adding herbs to your food, but they come through your wine,” Nappa said.
Raphael has seen increased demand for its cabernet franc vintages — so much so that an additional five acres will be planted this year, bringing its holdings to 12 acres.
And then there are the winemakers who prefer merlot, a grape with a proven track record in the region.
Wölffer Estate Vineyard winemaker Roman Roth, who is president of the Long Island Merlot Alliance, doesn’t discount cab franc’s positives, due in part to “younger customers who are quite excited about new varieties.”
“They are about discovering something new, and cabernet franc falls into that,” he said.
But Roth said “the key to success” for the local wine industry as a whole is focusing on its strengths.
“You want to make a consistent quality,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s about what our region can produce. It’s what your climate can produce best. Merlot is certainly easier to grow than other varieties. It is more forgiving, whereas cabernet franc can be crop-sensitive.”
This story was originally published in the 2015 edition of the Long Island Wine Press