I can say one thing about last weekend’s TasteCamp East, organized by Lenn Thompson for a group of about 15 bloggers (see the whole list here, with very personal notes from Dale Cruse) who enthusiastically went around the vineyards of Long Island. I’ve never had so much merlot in so little time.
Actually, I can say two things about TasteCamp East: I’ve never had so much merlot, and never before had I enjoyed it that much.
It’s not that I’ve never had good merlot – or at least, good merlot-based blends. For instance, I’ve enjoyed many good and some great Pomerols or Saint-Émilions where merlot was playing a leading role. But I tend to find more to please me in the Médoc, with cabernet sauvignon in the forefront. And years of being disappointed again and again by flabby or imprecise or just undistinguished varietal bottlings from the likes of California and Chile just brought my enthusiasm for merlot very close to ground level.
So what was I doing in Long Island, where merlot is king?
I had tasted a couple of really interesting wines from Long Island at the Wine Blogging Conference, thanks to Lenn Thompson, and a Wölffer Estate cabernet franc, in particular, had convinced me this was a place worth checking out. And besides, discovering new regions is always a great experience, especially when you do it in good company.
Now, although merlot certainly wasn’t the only thing to be excited about over the course of the weekend (fun chenin blanc, smashing petit verdot, delicious cabernet franc, amarone and ripasso-style reds, as well as many refreshing, original Friuli-style whites – more on that later), many of the best wines I tasted were indeed merlots.
Balance and vintage variation
With alcohol running around 13%, most of the time, the wines generally displayed a nice set of fruit (mostly red, mostly cherry) and spice flavors that opened up to leather-tobacco and earthy notes in older vintages. There was quite a bit of vintage variation (with 2004 and 2006 on the cooler side, and 2005 and 2007 on the warmer side), something which I loved, since it made the tastings that much more exciting and surprising.
The 2007s will be full of very ripe fruit, very big and yummy by Long Island standards, but I also had quite a liking for many of the 2004s I tasted, with their very classic Bordeaux profile and great balance. If I had the chance to get these wines on a regular basis, I would absolutely love to get the possibility of tasting all these styles.
Score one for cool-climate viticulture: these wines were food-friendly, pleasant, and highly drinkable, for the most part. And as our first tasting showed, many of these merlots were clearly age-worthy.
On the first night of TasteCamp, we came together at Raphael Vineyards for an excellent dinner, preceded by vertical tastings of merlots from the five producers that form the Long Island Merlot Alliance, an organization obviously devoted to promoting the virtues of merlot produced in LI.
The Merliance merlot, made for the Merlot Alliance by blending 100% merlot lots from each of the five wineries involved, was a good surprise from the get go. The 2004, from a pretty average, relatively cool vintage, provided a nice mouthful of spice, plum and dark cherry, with well-rounded tannins, and felt like it could still go on for several years.
The range of styles was also very interesting, from Sherwood House Vineyards‘ very classic, very Bordeaux cuvées (made by French winemaker Gilles Martin, who worked with Delas and Roederer, among others) to the more intense, expansive reds from Pellegrini Vineyards (put together by Australian winemaker Russell Hearn), with Clovis Point and Raphael providing something in-between. Pellegrini’s offerings went as far back in time as the 1993 vintage, a lovely wine that still felt well-rounded and lively, and that I wish I had had more time to ponder and taste more attentively.
My favorite wine of the evening was the 1998 Wölffer Estate Selection Merlot, which displayed aromas of blackcurrant, leather and tobacco, with a good touch of iodine, a bit of lead pencil, with great depth and complexity.
The fact that ten or even fifteen year-old wines from Long Island still show good fruit and freshness, even as they develop mature aromas and flavors, is a clear sign that some very serious stuff can be made there.
Further tastings of merlots over the weekend confirmed this first impression. The 2001 Estate Merlot from Lenz Winery, made by the incomparable Eric Fry, was delicious and complex and well-aged. Merlots and Bordeaux blends made by the Massoud family at Paumanok Vineyards showed very well, with a barrel sample of 100% merlot from Tuttthills Lane Vineyard showing a lot of beautiful ripe, even slightly jammy fruit, balanced by good acidity and structure. Highly promising.
A very pleasant 2005 Nine Barrels merlot from Shinn Estate Vineyards also showed well, as did the tasty, full-bodied Bergen Road 2004 from Macari Vineyards (a blend of 42% Merlot, 29% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Malbec, and 5% Petit Verdot). The efforts of these two estates, along with Jamesport, to go fully organic and even biodynamic have to be applauded as well.
Wölffer’s top cuvées, tasted on Sunday morning, did not disappoint either – but mind you, at around 100$, a Premier cru bottling had better not. The 2000 was long, flavorful, with tobacco, leather, dark fruit, a little pepper, good concentration and depth. Serious stuff, again.
There is a but
Now, it should be said that not everything is perfect in Long Island winemaking. Some wines showed a lack of direction that may come in good part from the fact that winemaking is still young in that region, and that many people who jumped in the game still need to balance their enthusiasm with a better understanding of the craft involved. Acidification and chaptalization are used in many places to shore up deficiencies in weaker vintages – it’s not a crime, but it’s a crutch, and winemakers should learn to do without these remedial techniques.
Some winemakers are looking to push the wines to show that they do serious work, when finesse and precision would do more to showcase seriousness than any use of an oenological megaphone. The 2006 Musée from Bedell Cellars, a 75% merlot with 13% cabernet franc and 12% petit verdot priced at 75$, felt to me like it was trying too hard, with much oak and extraction and toast, when a lighter touch would probably have worked better in this cool vintage.
Also, prices are frequently too high. I’m glad for the wineries that they have access to a large basin of well-to-do buyers who can afford reserve merlots at 100$ a pop, but I didn’t find that the level of quality always matched the price. To me, at least, some of the 50-60$ wines tasted like 30-40$ wines, and some bottles that I would have bought without hesitation at 20-25$ actually sold for 40$ or more.
It wasn’t always the case – some of the 20$ wines I tasted were very good deals – but clearly, there is a certain reach for bragging rights, built up for a market where high prices are too easily equated with high value and “serious” wine. (The “if-it-sells-for-a-hundred-bucks-it-must-be-great” approach to wine buying.)
With the exceptional 2007 vintage in the pipeline, temptation could be great to push the pricing envelope even higher, but Long Island should rather take advantage from this large volume of delicious, expressive wines to woo a larger audience. Return customers always pay more, in the long run.
In the meantime, can you pass the merlot? I’d love to taste some more.