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More than Merlot: Lesser-known grapes that may shape the future of Long Island wine

Merlot. Chardonnay. Sauvignon blanc. Cabernet franc. These are the workhorse grapes of the Long Island wine industry. Most vineyards grow them. Most every winery makes them. They thrive here in our soils, and Long Island’s wine reputation has been built with these classic grape varieties. Fifty years in, our local winemakers and vineyard managers understand these grapes well: where and how to plant them, how to consistently ripen them, and how to make expressive, distinctive Long Island wine from them. 

Unlike many European regions, however, where local regulation may dictate what grapes can (and can’t) be grown, Long Island vintners are free to explore and experiment — and they do.

Growers and winemakers continue to take all of their acquired expertise and the (hard) lessons they’ve learned about the region’s soils, climate and weather and apply it to other grapes that, while commonplace elsewhere in the wine world, aren’t as commonplace here. These are some of the grapes local wineries are growing and making wine from today that you may see more of in the near and distant future in their ongoing quest for deliciousness.


Albariño grapes at Bedell Cellars. (Photo courtesy Bedell Cellars)

“I planted the first albariño in 2007 as an alternative to chardonnay, the most popular white grape planted in Long Island,” says Spanish-born general manager of McCall Wines, Miguel Martin. “I believe Long Island may be blessed with similar weather conditions to Galicia. Albariño can handle the humidity very well and our sandy soils are perfect. We don’t share the same topography as Galicia but our climate is very similar.”

Best known in Martin’s native Spain and also Portugal, where it’s goes by alvarinho, albariño makes fresh, fruity-floral white wines that often have a distinct salinity. According to growers on the North Fork, it’s happy here too, though the wines are a bit different, as you’d expect. Martin notes that local renditions have “more ripe peach and tropical citrus than most of the styles I have tried from Vinho Verde, which have a racing acidity and very lean fruit.”

“What is going to make this a staple variety in this region is how well it complements our local cuisine,” he says. “One consistent characteristic that albariño has globally is that delicious saline quality that just screams to be paired with seafood. Give me a bottle of ice cold North Fork albariño on a hot summer day, a bag of deep water oysters, a perfectly ripe lemon and I would be a very happy oenophile.”

A handful of wineries already work with albariño with more going in the ground seemingly every spring. It’s going to become an ever more important grape here.

Local albariño to try: Bedell Cellars, Jamesport Vineyards, and Palmer Vineyards


Channing Daughters’ Blaufränkisch grapes. (Courtesy Channing Daughters Winery)

Hailing from Austria and sometimes labeled Lemberger in the United States, blaufränkisch is a red wine grape that Channing Daughters Winery has grown for many years. 

“We planted blaufränkisch in our Sylvanus vineyard in 1999,” says Channing Daughters winemaker and partner James Christopher Tracy. “We planted more with Steve Mudd in 2005 at the Mudd West vineyard in Hallockville.” 

Known for making peppery wines with dark berry and plum flavors, moderate tannins and noted acidity, Long Island examples tend to be a bit riper and softer, but still very food-friendly.

Tracy reports that it doesn’t require any special treatment in the vineyard or cellar, making it somewhat surprising that blaufränkisch remains a rarity locally. Wineries elsewhere in New York, particularly in the Finger Lakes, have embraced it and continue to plant it regularly.

Local blaufränkisch to try: Channing Daughters Winery

Chenin Blanc

Chenin blanc grapes from Paumanok. (Photo courtesy Paumanok Vineyards)

Like sauvignon blanc, which is already quite popular on the East End, chenin blanc calls France’s Loire Valley home, and while it remains a bit of an oddity on the North Fork, it’s been grown here for more than 30 years at Paumanok Vineyards.

“The original planting of chenin happened in 1982. Two acres from that planting remain. I believe it was not until 2000 that we added another acre, and then another four acres in 2005, three more in 2012, and then four more in 2019,” says Paumanok winemaker Kareem Massoud. 

An incredibly versatile grape, chenin is used to make a wide array of wines the world over — from brisk, dry white wines, to richer barrel-aged ones, to off-dry examples, to sweet dessert styles. At Paumanok, Massoud has used it to make most every style, including a traditional method sparkling wine. 

“I think our chenin is unique in the following sense,” he says, “We usually bottle it very early, either just before or after Thanksgiving. And we often release shortly after or upon bottling. Consequently, the resultant character is what I call a New World style: fresh, fruity, zippy, vivacious. Very citrus-driven in character, often strong grapefruit notes. But with time, it begins to transform and begins to resemble more classic Loire-style chenin with wet wool and honey notes. This is especially true of our minimalist chenin which we do not inoculate. Both are often around 11% alcohol, making them very light and easy to drink and another point of differentiation as chenin can get quite high in alcohol elsewhere.” 

So far, not many other wineries have invested in chenin, but there are some recent plantings on the North Fork, and it’s easy to expect that will continue. 

Local chenin blanc to try: Paumanok Vineyards, Harbes Vineyard, One Woman 

Melon de Bourgogne

Melon de Bourgogne from Bedell. (Photo courtesy Bedell Cellars)

Now we’re getting a bit more esoteric with another white wine grape from the Loire Valley — specifically the western region of Muscadet. Known for making higher-acid, minerally whites that are ideal pairings for the region’s local seafood bounty, particularly oysters. That combination alone sounds like it makes melon de Bourgogne a fit locally, but it goes beyond that.

“I’ve felt for a long time that this variety would be a good fit here as it’s historically been grown close to the Atlantic coast in the western Loire,” says Bedell Cellars winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich. “I traveled there a few years and the landscape felt similar to me. It’s a grape that grew up and evolved in a maritime climate so it seemed like it would be a perfect fit — and it is.”

As with any grape, Long Island melon de Bourgogne maintains certain qualities of the grape itself, but because it’s being grown here, there are differences too. “Both areas experience saline minerality by being close to the water. Our vines are still young when compared to Muscadet but the flavor profile is similar. I’d say we get a bit more acid as our area is somewhat cooler than the Loire,” says Olsen-Harbich. 

Asked if he expects melon to become a bigger, more important part of the local wine industry, “I hope it will be,” he says. “It’s a great fit for our climate, is pretty resistant to late season rain and rot and is a classic wine to serve with oysters which is now the North Fork’s most successful fishery.”

Local melon de Bourgogne to try: Bedell Cellars


Teroldego from Suhru. (Photo: Doug Young)

The Loire Valley isn’t the only European wine region local vintners are looking to for inspiration. Northern Italy, where teroldego calls home, is a red wine grape gaining its fans on Long Island. Producing fruity-spicy reds with fresh acidity, teroldego is known as a food-friendly grape variety no matter where it is grown. But, as with all of these grapes, if people are interested in less-familiar wine names, it doesn’t matter how well-suited they are to the region.

Luckily, that doesn’t seem to be the case for teroldego.

“Guests are curious and eager to try something new,” says Shelby Hearn Ulrich, general manager and partner for Suhru Wines and the newly acquired Lieb Cellars. “Over the past few years we have seen more and more guests gravitating to teroldego and our La Crescent — varieties that many have never heard of or tasted before walking through our doors. There is so much to learn when it comes to wine and we have seen a real hunger in guests for new grape varieties, they are excited to “try something new” and learn about a new grape.”

Hearn Ulrich’s father, Russell Hearn, is a long-time Long Island winemaker with a wealth of experience with just about every grape that’s ever been grown here. He’s excited about the grape because of how consistently it grows, fends off maladies, and ripens on the North Fork.

“It’s a grape you can produce every year, and ripen quality fruit regardless of whether it is a hot or cool year. The berries have thick skins and therefore are more resistant to the fungal and insect pressures that we see here on Long Island due to our climate,” he says, adding “I am very excited about teroldego’s future here on the North Fork. The wine has great color, and vibrant red fruit on the nose and palate. The soft tannins and bright acidity are perfectly suited to our style of food-friendly wines.” 

It’s not bottled by itself at many local wineries, but you’ll find it in small doses in many other wines to boost color and acidity.

Local teroldego to try: Suhru, Lieb Cellars (blended with lagrein)