Sign up for our Newsletter

Workers harvest cabernet franc grapes at Macari Vineyards in Mattituck this past fall. Our Lenn Thompson said he is ‘in lust’ with the varietal. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Not every grape grown on Long Island can have a dedicated research and promotional organization the way merlot does with the Long Island Merlot Alliance. Even chardonnay, the region’s most-planted white grape, doesn’t have such an organization.

Not that it should, mind you. People know chardonnay. People also know cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. Same with pinot grigio, riesling and sauvignon blanc.

All of those grapes are important, in varying degrees, to the Long Island wine industry. In many cases, they are the workhorse varieties for most wineries. Most wineries make merlot. Most make chardonnay.

As great as those wines can be – yes, even local chardonnay – I’ve always been more intrigued by the grapes and wines a bit more at the fringes. The underdogs, if you will.

These are just a few of those lesser-known grapes that deserve more attention from winemakers, customers, shops and restaurants, too. They don’t necessarily make better wine than the standard grapes, although some are mind-blowingly delicious. Just remember that there is more out there to be discovered. Always.

Petit Verdot
Over the weekend, I had the good fortune to drink three different PVs with friends we had over for Father’s Day steaks. One was a sparkling rendition from Southold Farm + Cellar and the other two were single-vineyard bottlings from Paumanok Vineyards – one a 2010, the other a 2005. Petit verdot may not work as a standalone wine in every vintage from every vineyard site, but tasting these wines side-by-side-by-side was eye opening. It’ll always be an important grape for blending – it brings color, tannins, acidity and a peppery edge – but let’s not ignore its potential as a varietal wine.

Yes. I know that malbec is well known and could easily be included in the list at the beginning of this column – except most people think malbec is only grown in Argentina. Long Island malbec is a completely different animal from the cheap, often-oaky South American wines. It’s well-suited to our climate. It ripens earlier than most red grapes and the results can be outstanding. One veteran winemaker, who I can’t name because his bosses probably wouldn’t like him saying it, told me years ago that if he were planting a red wine vineyard anew, he’d plant mostly malbec because it’s a consistent performer.

Macari Vineyards and Shinn Estate are two names to keep an eye on with this grape.

Chenin Blanc
Nearly every time I see Paumanok Vineyards winemaker Kareem Massoud, I ask him, “Why hasn’t anyone else planted this yet?” He never has a good answer and neither do I. Here is a bright and just-off-dry $30 white wine that doesn’t seem to be any harder to make or grow than most other local wines. The Massoud family used to sell out of it before the high season ended. (A new vineyard that the family recently purchased enabled them to up production.)

Now, Massoud has added a new chenin to the lineup – a hands-off, neutral barrel-fermented stunner that accentuates the stony, minerally nature of the grape with added texture and a spine of nervy acidity.

Cabernet Franc
I know that I’m really pushing it by including cab franc. A lot of people know cab franc. A lot of wineries make it, too. It’s under-appreciated because for many years, Long Island winemakers have tried to take all of the cab franc-ness out of their cab franc. Either they let the grapes get too ripe or bludgeon their wines with oak – all to cover up the herby-bell pepper edge that is what defines the grape.

That’s changed a bit over the past several years. It’s being allowed to show off what makes it unique and – I think – some of the best red wine on Long Island.

Everything Else
Albarino. Muscat. Tocai. Gruner Veltliner. Refosco. Lagrein. Goldmuskateller. Teroldego. They are all grown here – mostly in tiny parcels. Some have already made some exciting wines – Palmer Vineyards’ Albarino and Channing Daughters’ Tocai come to mind. Others very well could in the future.

Experimentation is undervalued in Long Island wine country. It can be expensive to plant new grapes that just might not work, but it’s the only way to find new winners.