2010 Great? Next Week Will Tell for Local Merlots



By Claire Walla

Every grape-growing region has its specialty.

Napa is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon.  Viticulturists in Oregon produce a healthy crop of Pinot Noir.  And Germans grow a nice Riesling.  But here in Long Island, hats go off to Merlot.

Choosing a region’s prime growing grape is not so much a matter of preference, as much as it’s dictated by the region itself.  Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, tends to mature better in late-season warm weather, which makes it a perfect fit for California’s temperate climate.  On the East End, where cool weather can set in as early as September, winemakers favor the red-skinned Merlot because it tends to mature much quicker than most other grapes.

And this year, according to early reports from the Long Island Merlot Alliance, the grape is shaping up to be supreme.

Roman Roth of Wölffer Estate Vineyards in Bridgehampton is the executive vice president of the Long Island Merlot Alliance. He said the grape growing weather was very cooperative in 2010.

“It was warm and there wasn’t much rain over the summer,” he said.  “Even the hurricane missed us!”

In fact, by August 12, Long Island had amassed 2,485 “average growing degree days” for the year to date. This number is calculated by adding up all temperature degrees above 50.  In other words, an average daily temperature of 60 degrees would earn an area 10 degree points. Compared to the 2,573 tabulated in California, that puts Long Island nearly on par with the Golden State for the first half of the year, which means that, by that point, all vines had ripened under the best of possible conditions.

Humidity is unfavorable for winemakers, as it sometimes causes plants to grow fungus and rot, which allows certain diseases to take hold. Normally, Roth said he drops about 10 percent of his crop each year for weather-related issues.  But this year he didn’t need to do that.

Donnell Brown, executive director of the Long Island Merlot Alliance, said the 2010 vintage is probably the best this region’s seen since 2007. Though each winemaker “barrels” his or her wine for different amounts of time, Donnell said most keep the deep-red liquid stored for about three years, so the 2010 vintage won’t be available until 2013.

Merlot is typically harvested in early October, which means that each winery’s Merlot cache is currently barreled and experiencing its first round of fermentation. In fact, on Friday, January 21, representatives from each of the seven members of the Merlot Alliance will gather for the first taste test of the year. Each will bring barrel samples from his or her 2010 Merlot so that the group can analyze the crop.

The group will test the wine for such scientific components as its Brix level, a measure of the wine’s sugar content, and its pH level, which will determine the degree of tannins (or acidity) in the wine.   After tasting each sample and comparing notes, the group will try to determine a profile for Long Island Merlot, which, the Alliance hopes, will eventually help give the wine a certain foothold in the national, and ultimately, the international market.

Because of Long Island’s cooler climate, it was thought at one point that the area might make a nice breeding ground for white wine, which tends to grow well in the cold.  But according to Russ McCall, newly elected president of the Merlot Alliance, white wine has a growing season that typically lasts about a year, making it less expensive than the reds, which sit for years in large oak barrels that come at a price tag around $1,000 each.  Because they aren’t aged, whites don’t carry the same bold flavor as the area’s reds.

In addition to touting the pure grape, McCall added that Merlot is a great blending wine.

“It creates a soft pad that all other wines sink into,” he said, noting that the bold flavor, often described as having the taste of cherry, current or plum, mixes nicely with other wines.  “It’s not just about Merlot. It’s about producing high-quality wine.”

“We believe that if you want to taste the Merlots of the world, Long Island Merlot needs to be in [the mix],” he said.  “We’re working hard to make it a real flagship on Long Island.”