(This column appeared in the 12/17 edition of Dan’s Papers)


When someone says “Long Island wine,” what comes to mind? Cheap, syrupy-sweet blends and blush? Over-priced plonk from large producers that is more hype than heaven?

Well…you’re right, but not completely. While there are plenty of wines out east that fall into those two, less-than-complementary categories, there are almost as many that don’t.

Visit the right wineries and try the right wines, and you’ll find delicious, bright Chardonnays that are far from California in style but not quite Burgundian either. Merlot, as you’ve probably heard, does exceptionally well in our Bourdeaux-esque climate. Cabernet Franc, in my opinion, does almost as well in the hands of good winemakers. Stick to some of the western most vineyards on the North Fork and you can even find full, ripe Cabernet Sauvignon, too.

Wade further through the quality wines and you can even find spectacular, high-end pours that are worthy of a spot in your cellar – right alongside wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and California.

If you like sparkling wine, Lieb Family Cellar’s 2001 Blanc de Blanc ($35) is one of my favorites. But, for the ultimate in Long Island bubbly, look no further than Lenz 1991 Cuvee RD ($50). 70 percent Pinot Noir and 30 percent Chardonnay, this recently disgorged (thus, RD) wine offers a tantalizingly yeasty nose and pronounced honey and caramel flavors. It’s perfect for any occasion, not just New Year’s Eve.

To many, Merlot is the grape on Long Island, and there is a ton of wine made from it here. But, there are three high-end examples that have recently made me stand up and take notice.

Richard Olsen-Harbich, managing director and winemaker for Raphael in Peconic, is one of those leading the Merlot charge on the Island. His upper crust Merlot, 2000 Raphael First Label Merlot ($35) is a rich, complex wine, with black raspberries layered under cedar, supple tannins and slight mineral character. Hold this bottle for five to ten years and watch it grow.

No discussion of Long Island’s premier Merlots would be complete without a trip to the Hamptons for a taste of Wolffer Estates’ 2001 Premier Cru Merlot ($125). Extremely “big,” this full, concentrated wine features amazingly smooth tannins (especially considering it was aged in 100 percent new oak) and rich, luxurious berry flavors with faint lead pencil notes. The finish is War and Peace long with subtle sweet spice flavors of cardamom and cinnamon. It’s a pricey splurge, but I think everyone should experience this wine at least once. It’s that memorable.

Another stellar, cellar-worthy Merlot, for significantly less money, can be found at North Fork newcomer Roanoke Vineyards, owned by Wolffer vineyard manager Richard Pisacano. The Roanoke Vineyards 2000 Merlot ($38) is toasty and spicy on the nose with lush berries and a subtle note of mint. Not quite at the Premier Cru’s level, this is one of the next best things and a relative bargain.

No one argues that Long Island has some great Merlot, but the wines that excite me right now are all the Meritage-style red blends popping up.

Macari Vineyards’ Alexandra ($75) is mostly Merlot (69 percent) with Cabernet Sauvignon (26 percent), Cabernet Franc (4 percent) and Malbec (1 percent) blended in as well. One of the pricier local blends, it offers a dark, rich ruby color and lots of black cherry, blackberry and white pepper on the nose. On the palate, the blend is soft and smooth with berries and chocolate up front with layers of spice and slight herbal notes, all framed by well incorporated tannins.

Paumanok Vineyards 2000 Assemblage ($36) is equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with a splash of Cabernet Franc added to the mix. It is interesting, ripe and complex with dark fruits, and is highlighted by an elegantly long finish that stands out even in this group.

Lieb Family Cellars’ 2001 Meritage ($55) is primarily Merlot with both Cabernets (Sauvignon and Franc) and 17 percent Petit Verdot added. One of my favorite wines over 40 dollars, it is dark crimson in the glass with an inky purple hue. Raspberries and black cherry dominate with hints of smoke and dark chocolate. I expect this wine to develop exceptionally with cellar time. This is the wine I’ll drink at my own wedding next summer.

Martha Clara’s entrant in the blend fray, the 2000 Martha Clara 6025 (Old Word Meritage, $35) is a new-found favorite. Its luxurious nose of blackberry pie and vanilla hooked me right away and it’s smooth, well-balanced palate kept me interested. The inclusion of 25 percent Syrah brings layers of fruit to play against expertly balanced tannins. The lingering finish is nice as well.

Bedell Cellars, known primarily for its delicious Merlots, took a different approach for its Long Island blend. Instead of focusing on Merlot, the 2000 Bedell Cellars Cupola ($40) is 40 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 40 perecent Cabernet Franc, just 15 percent Merlot and 5 percent Petit Verdot. This Cabernet-centric approach leads to a meaty, lush wine with loads of cherry and raspberry jam alongside hints of dark chocolate and spice.

Many of these wines are available for tasting at the various tasting rooms. You may need to pay a little extra, but it’s well worth it. These are the wines that will make Long Island famous on the world wine stage.

Lenn Thompson is a contributing writer for Dan’s North Fork. Email him at lenn@lenndevours.com