A couple months ago, I devoted my column space to what has become the de facto “signature variety” for Long Island wine country: merlot. There are approximately 700 acres of merlot planted on Long Island — roughly 30 percent of the total vineyard acreage — and there are reasons for that. It grows and ripens dependably and consistently, even in all but the most horrid of vintages. That’s important here and why it’s the backbone of the industry.
But the East End isn’t like many parts of Europe where regulations dictate what grapes can be grown where. Long Island growers are free to plant most anything they’d like. Many stick with the grapes that have become traditional here — merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc — maybe with some other Bordeaux varieties grown in small quantities for red blends. There are good wines made from these grapes across both forks — among some of the very best — but there is so much more out here to explore.
I won’t devote much time to one “other” grape, chenin blanc, which Paumanok Vineyards has had success with. They get a lot of attention for it and deservedly so. Instead, I’d like to highlight a few wineries and grapes that you may be less familiar with, at least when it comes to the Long Island varieties.
Malbec: Most wine drinkers know Malbec, but only from Argentina or maybe regions like Cahors in France. Though it’s one of the aforementioned Bordeaux varieties initially grown for blends, it’s increasingly more than a bit player, even ending up bottled alone. These wines (look for bottlings from Anthony Nappa Wines, Influence Wines and Macari Vineyards) are more lithe and floral than the brooding Argentine samples. They are very versatile and pretty. I’ve been enjoying them quite a bit of late.
Albariño: Pioneered on the island by Palmer Vineyards’ winemaker, Spanish-born Miguel Martin, this Iberian white grape seems well-suited to Long Island because the weather here and our proximity to the ocean is similar to that in Galicia, where albariño is the most-planted grape. Long Island albariño is floral and hugely aromatic, similar to riesling or viognier, but has a distinct saline minerality all its own. Since Martin planted his vines in 2007 other wineries have planted some, too, including Bedell Cellars.
Petit verdot: The other Bordeaux variety blender that is becoming more prominent on its own, petit verdot is a late-ripening grape with small, thick-skinned berries that’s still mostly used to add color, acidity and tannin to red blends. On its own it can be monolithic — big, chewy and in your face — but its combination of intense black- and blueberry flavors and peppery spice is pretty compelling. Paumanok Vineyards and Shinn Estate produce my favorites. Southold Farm + Cellar even made a sparkling one last year that was pretty tasty with a burger.
Gewürztraminer: I’m not sure that gewürz quite fits on this list. Several vineyards grow it, but it makes the list because of just how good the wines are, without the fanfare of many other grapes. Some don’t like the intense rose-petal qualities and others find it difficult to pronounce, but these are wines that deserve more attention. The benchmark Long Island gewürz is made by Eric Fry at The Lenz Winery, but wineries like One Woman, Pellegrini and Bedell Cellars also make fine examples.
Pinot blanc: Though perhaps a bit less distinctive than the other grapes on this list, pinot blanc is another interesting “other” grape you’ll find in a few places. In the vineyard, it looks and acts much like that Long Island white staple, chardonnay. In fact, pinot blanc’s leaf structure, clusters and berries so closely resemble chardonnay that there are many vineyards in Europe where plantings of the two grapes are intermingled. At Lieb Family Cellars, where it’s an important part of the reserve portfolio, they grow 13 acres of what once were thought to be chardonnay vines. Instead, genetic technology has proven that they are pinot blanc, originally from Alsace. Lieb’s sparkling and still pinot blancs are the standard bearers, but Palmer also makes a delicious still rendition, and at Channing Daughters it’s used as a component in some blends — they just call it by its Italian name, pinot bianco.
Other Italian varieties: Speaking of Channing Daughters, it’s impossible to talk about grapes outside of what’s traditional locally without listing some of the grapes Christopher Tracy works with in Bridgehampton. He works with things like Tocai Friulano, ribolla gialla, refosco, Lagrein — all varieties that trace their origins to Italy. These are some of the most interestingly delicious, food-friendly wines on the East End. Regan Meador at Southold Farm + Cellar has planted Lagrein and another Italian grape, teroldego, in his vineyard as well, with the first wines from them slated to be released this year.