Why Does Long Island Produce So Much Chardonnay and Merlot?

Posted April 1, 2013 by Len Dest in Features

Regan Meador in his Kickstarter pitch for Southold Farm & Cellar indicated that he wants to plant some “weird grapes” on the North Fork of Long Island rather than more chardonnay and merlot.

The April edition of Wine & Spirits Magazine presents the results of a survey of the most popular wines served in U.S. restaurants. The trends are that the preference for chardonnay continues to decline from 27% to 12% over the past decade, while sauvignon blanc continues to increase and is now in the 8% range, while the preference for sparkling wines at restaurants is in the same 8% range. Among red wines, cabernet sauvignon has decreased in preference to 15%, while pinot noir has increased rapidly to 18%. Merlot is stable at 2% to 3% where it has been for years after a dramatic decrease some 10 years ago. With 200+ samples the data has reasonable credibility for restaurant preferences, and likely provides insight to the trends for popularity of wine types at retail stores, but may not necessarily reflect the popularity of wine types for wine clubs and tasting room sales.

Based upon this survey, as well as others released in the past year, it appears that there is a clear U.S. trend that for white wines, chardonnay is decreasing in popularity and sauvignon blanc is increasing in popularity. And merlot demand remains low as cabernet sauvignon declines and pinot noir increases.

At the same time — while not as devastating as Super Storm Sandy — Long Island is nonetheless flooded with local chardonnay and merlot. Nearly every winery produces at least one of each, and many wineries have multiple chardonnay wines. While both have been produced from the earliest days of vinifera viticulture on Long Island, in recent years it appears that there is or nearly is an oversupply of Long Island chardonnay and merlot, and that leads to the question, why does Long Island continue to produce so much chardonnay and merlot? (Same question could be asked for the Napa Valley and Central Coast in California, and other regions).

In my opinion the answers are the same but the solutions are different.

Let us start with chardonnay. Well the obvious answers are; 1) Despite the decreasing demand, chardonnay remains nationally the number one consumer selected white varietal wine, 2) when the majority of Long Island’s vineyards were planted chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot were top consumer wines, and thus the majority of Long Island’s white variety vineyards are planted with chardonnay. So from a business point of view, the investment cost in the chardonnay vineyards is a sunk cost that has likely been depreciated, so the relative cost basis to produce chardonnay is low, and since the demand has remained robust there is also a good annual revenue stream, and 3) Chardonnay, as other white varieties, can generate revenue quickly each year as steel-fermented wines can be on the market around four months after harvest.

But if there is excess capacity and/or demand continues to fall, then there is a business problem, as oversupply will result in either excess inventory costs or the need to move the product. To move the wine, wineries tend to lower prices. But to avoid brand damage, wineries often achieve sales by creating a lower priced chardonnay in their portfolio of wines or rebrand their wine with another name, or by creating a promotional wine.

Among the white varieties, sauvignon blanc and recently albarino, chenin blanc, friulano, pinot blanc and viognier are now the top rated Long Island wines. Long Island chardonnay is unquestionably drinkable and even rated reasonably well by some wine writers (In a 2012 article Howard Goldberg of the New York Times found interesting lower priced stainless steel produced chardonnays which are great values). In fact in a very few select years, at a handful of wineries, certain winemakers achieve the extraordinary and produce excellent chardonnays. However, in general there are few reviewers and wine critics who assess Long Island chardonnay as a great chardonnay.
And why is that? When assessing any chardonnay one inevitably compares it to three standards; crisp with minerality, such as a classic Chablis, complex and textured such a premier Burgundian Chardonnays from Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet or Meursault, or the lush buttery Chardonnays from the Napa Valley, which are currently out of favor.

Due to Long Island’s glacial soil having high fertility and rather low mineral content (other than saline minerality which works for some varieties and not for others), chardonnay like most other varieties does not have any significant complex minerality. As such, when made completely or significantly in stainless steel tanks, while it has delicate fruit flavor as do the other cool-climate chardonnays of Chablis and Burgundy, there is little additional flavors or complexity to make it comparable to any of the great chardonnays. Likewise when it made in the California fashion with a lot of oak, the fruit grown in Long Island’s maritime cool-climate simply does not have the depth and lushness that is derived from the fruit exposed to intense heat and sun found in California (even though Cutchogue claims to be the “sunniest spot in New York State”), resulting in some rather challenging flavor profiles.

Exactly what makes Long Island’s other white wines attractive, interesting, and even sometimes demanding of the drinker, is exactly what makes most Long Island chardonnays nice but seldom exciting. So while Long Island chardonnay is undoubtedly important to the business of Long Island wineries, it adds little to the overall reputation of Long Island.

And it is not only chardonnay that is being produced in large quantities. The same can be said for Long Island merlot in a period when consumer demand for merlot has dropped throughout the United States (but not elsewhere in the wine drinking world). But there is a big difference between chardonnay and merlot. The difference is that Long Island merlot remains one of the top rated Long Island red wines along with cabernet franc in the opinion of critics and writers. As Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy write in their excellent book American Wine; “Long Island is often called New York’s Bordeaux, as it excels in red grape varieties Cabernet Franc and Merlot.” When combined with cabernet sauvignon,petit verdot and malbec, these five red varieties individually or when combined into Bordeaux-styled blends are critically important to Long Island’s wine reputation.

With regard to production of merlot, while there is huge merlot vineyard acreage, due to wineries producing outstanding melots, as well as outstanding blends using merlot, both are doing extremely well today in both critical review and sales, and they will likely increase in being an attractive market going forward. As Carlo DiVito has recently posted, the promise of these high-quality Bordeaux style blends is very appealing to wine producers, and will be attractive to consumers.

And this leads to a possible broader solution given the substantial quantity of chardonnay and merlot vineyard acreage on Long Island, and the national trend of lesser interest in both varieties. That solution would be to use these grape varieties as the basis for some outstanding unique Long Island blended wines that would be a win-win solution. Some winemakers and wineries are already doing this with great critical success. A commitment by a number of wineries to such an approach, combined with a well-done marketing and sales campaign, could result in a Long Island version of the Rhône Rangers, which turned production of Rhône varieties on the West Coast into a most successful national wine style and great financial success.

But will Long Island winemakers and winery proprietors embrace such an approach? Or perhaps will the amount of chardonnay and merlot acreage decrease as vineyard managers select other grapes when expanding or replacing vineyards? Or perhaps will new wineries and/or winemakers push for other varieties that take advantage of the Long Island maritime, cool climate and fertile soil environment and plant more new varieties that produce interesting wines in Austria, Italy, Jura, Slovenia, etc. and these will replace the dominance of Long Island chardonnay and merlot?

Or perhaps will climate change indeed make the North Fork as hot as California, and all those hundreds of acres of Chardonnay and Merlot vineyards will become the new Napa Valley.