Uncork the Forks: What red wine goes great when grilling?

A bottle of Bedell Cellars merlot. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

I’ve long been dubious with the idea of merlot — or any grape, really — being anointed the “signature variety” for Long Island wine country. But merlot does grow well here, meaning it ripens consistently. More consistently than varieties like cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. 

Growers know this. And they’ve known it for some time. 

When you’re on the East End, if you see grapevines, there’s a fair chance they are merlot, which makes up nearly 30% of the total grape plantings locally. Roughly 700 acres of local vineyards are dedicated to merlot, making it the most-planted red grape variety by far. Its dominance is on full display in local tasting rooms, too, where you’ll find merlot bottled by itself, as well as in many red blends and rosés — and a few wineries even use it in sparkling wine production.

The importance of merlot to the local wine industry simply cannot be overstated. It is a workhorse for the region, while also leading to some of its most lauded and adored wines.

And, after a recent “Aha!” moment with an assortment of grilled meats, I can say with confidence that merlot is perhaps undervalued as a summer wine. I mean merlot as a red wine, not rosé.

Cabernet sauvignon with steak is a tried and true duo, but merlot is a bit softer in the tannin department, meaning it can pair well with leaner cuts of beef as well as chicken, pork, turkey… you get the idea.

Long Island merlot has changed significantly in the industry’s 40-plus years. Through improved practices — in both the vineyard and the cellar — you won’t find the erratic quality from vintage to vintage and from producer to producer you once did. Under-ripe merlot with flavors of bell pepper or fresh-cut grass used to be easy to find, but not anymore.

Merlot isn’t just Long Island’s most planted red wine variety, it’s also Long Island’s best understood one. Vineyard managers and winemakers are homing in on what clones and sites work best in their vineyards in a way that they aren’t for other red grapes.

Putting vintage variation aside for a moment, Long Island merlot has never been better. Dependability and consistency are great, but they aren’t all that exciting — something that has been said about merlot for years (yes, even by me). But what has me more excited about local merlot than I’ve been in some time is how delicious it can be with grilled fare.

Personal tastes differ, of course, but if you’re a lover of Long Island wine, you probably have your favorite merlot producers already. For classic, complex Long Island merlot, I head to Lenz Winery or Raphael. For age-worthy merlot with a bit more oak and a bit more tannin, Wölffer Estate is my go-to. Looking for a fresher style? I usually suggest Bedell, Paumanok or Macari, where there is typically less new oak used.

We may not think of merlot as an ideal summer wine, but with the right grilled food, it’s nearly perfect.

Lenn Thompson has been writing about American wine — with a focus on New York — for nearly 15 years. After running newyorkcorkreport.com for 12 years, he launched thecorkreport.us in 2016 and The Cork Report Podcast soon after. He lives in Miller Place with his wife and two children.