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Our wine columnist Lenn Thompson asks, ‘should merlot be Long Island’s signature varietal?’ (Credit: File photo)

Earlier this week, the Long Island Merlot Alliance announced that Martha Clara Vineyards – one of the region’s largest and most-popular wineries – had joined its ranks. Great news for both the winery and the organization, it also raises the question again: “Does Long Island have or need a ‘signature variety?’”

There is a follow-up question as well – “if so, is it merlot?”

Many of the world’s great wine regions have signature varieties – varieties that they are best known for and lead to the regions’ best wines. In much of Europe, these varieties are mandated by regulations that dictate what can and can’t be grown where and what can go into which wines with which labels.

Here in the United States, growers and winemakers aren’t limited that way, but signature varieties have still emerged over time. When we think about Napa Valley, we think about cabernet sauvignon. Most people associate pinot noir with Oregon. Closer to home, there is a push for viognier in Virginia and riesling rules the Finger Lakes region. In each case, these cornerstone grapes have helped these regions differentiate themselves from other corners of America.

But don’t forget Napa also makes some of California’s best-loved chardonnays. Some of my personal favorites from Oregon aren’t pinot noir and you’ll find some terrific petit verdot and Bordeaux-style blends in Virginia. And there are, of course, some great sparkling wines, gewürztraminers and even cool-climate pinot noirs in the Finger Lakes.  A signature variety needn’t be limiting.

So let’s agree that a flagship could benefit Long Island, which sometimes has a hard time marketing itself.  But is merlot that grape?

It’s the easy – and some would suggest obvious – choice, yes. It’s the most-planted red grape on the East End and it produces consistently even in Long Island’s often-challenging growing conditions. But does it make the region’s best wines?

“Best” is subjective, so to examine that question, let’s look at how two respected publications — Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast — have scored Long Island wines over the years.

The highest score for a Long Island wine by Wine Spectator is a 92 for Hargrave Vineyard 1981 Chardonnay, grown and made by my northforker colleague Louisa Hargrave and her then-husband Alex. Just below that, earning 91-point scores are two merlots from Grapes of Roth, another chardonnay (a 1988 from long-defunct Bridgehampton Winery) and three red blends: Bedell 2007 Musee (73% merlot), McCall 2007 Ben’s Blend (60% merlot) and Roanoke Vineyards 2010 Prime Number (25% merlot).  The 90-point wines in Wine Spectator show even more diversity. There are several chardonnays, merlots, red blends, sauvignon blancs, late harvest rieslings, cabernet francs, cabernet sauvignons, malbecs and sparkling wines.

Turning to Wine Enthusiast, the top-scoring wines (91 points) show some of that diversity at the top: Lenz 1997 Estate Merlot, Sparkling Pointe 2005 Brut Seduction, Anthony Nappa 2012 Dodici Red (67% merlot), Lieb Cellars 2009 Blanc de Blancs and Paumanok 2010 Cabernet Franc.

Looking at 90-point wines in Wine Enthusiast, we see chardonnay, more sparkling, more merlot, more red blends, petit verdot, sauvignon blanc, some rosé, white blends and late harvest riesling.

So does merlot make Long Island’s best wines? I don’t think it’s as clear cut as some believe, especially if you look strictly at varietal merlot wines (those with at least 75% merlot) which make up a relatively small percentage of the highest-rated wines – especially when you consider that as the most-planted red grape, there are probably more merlots submitted for review than others wines.

Looking at the list of the high-scoring wines, it’s easy to see that diversity is a strong suit for the still-young Long Island wine industry. People are experimenting and finding success with less-common varieties like albarino/alvharino, refosco, syrah, ribolla gialla, chenin blanc and a handful of other. Could one of those – or even some other variety – eventually, 100 years from now, be the signature grape for Long Island? Maybe.

I think the Long Island Merlot Alliance is more open to the region’s diversity than ever. Their message isn’t all about varietal merlot. Blends are a big part of their push. And just look at their newest member winery. Martha Clara has nearly 20 wines available on their website and only three are predominantly merlot.

Diversity and the ability to grow and make a variety of grapes and wines – and do it well – is a clear strength for our local wine industry. Push merlot if you must – it’s what you have in the ground already and need to sell, after all.

But I’m not convinced that Long Island merlot  will ultimately win the day – and the hearts of wine lovers – no matter how good it can be.

Lenn Thompson