Earlier this week, I took an overnight trip to New York City for a business meeting. I could have flown in for the day and hopped right back on a plane to come home, but I stayed with visit with my best friend who lives in Brooklyn, NY. We decided to visit a place I had wanted to visit for a long time, but had just never had the opportunity, Brooklyn Oenology. It is a winery that produces New York state wines from mainly Long Island, but also other various regions of the state like the Finger Lakes for their riesling. The venue was charming but slow on a dark, rainy Tuesday evening. At least it was happy hour when we got there. I didn’t know what to expect to see, but it was set up more like a bar meets a coffee house and gift shop boutique. It had a tasting menu with eleven currant releases by them and just as many to taste from other vineyards across the state, many of which I had tried before. But we were there to taste Brooklyn Oenology’s wines. We sampled a number of wines and there was one clear stand out of the bunch, the 2010 Merlot North Fork. The tasting sheet describes it as follows: complex, with lively flavors of dark currant and blackberry, with highlights of chocolate, savory spices, and black pepper, finishing with a subtle touch of vanilla. A blend of 96% merlot and 4% petit verdot, it’s a deep, rich, dimensional wine that’s great with food. I really can’t disagree with much written on their tasting sheet, except for black pepper, but palates vary. My friend even described the nose to have a smell like the permanent markers he sniffed when he was a kid; I am thinking he sniffed too many permanent makers as a kid. I picked up strong vanilla notes and a savory note I couldn’t put my finger on. It was a great visit.
I have always been a fan of Long Island merlot, from producers like Macari, Pellegrini, Bedell, and Wölffer. Perched near the same latitude as Bordeaux, the Long Island soils and temperature make for fantastic red wines. Merlot tends to be a late ripening red grape and the Long Island air temperature is controlled by the surrounding waters. As the air temperatures cools, the warmer summer waters around the Island keep the vineyards a few degrees warmer thwarting off impending frosts just long enough to ripen reds like merlot into perfection.
Researchers believe merlot is the offspring of cabernet franc and first noted in Bordeaux around 1784. The term merlot is the Occitan word for blackbird. The name was thought to have been given because of its dark color; or that blackbirds loved to feed on them in the southern French vineyards. The merlot grape itself has come a long way from the vineyards of Bordeaux and France. In fact, the life span of the grape thus far reminds me a little of rock & roll singer Elvis Presley. When it was first brought to the new world, it became a widely planted grape for churches, house wines, and widespread commercial use. It took to California soils well and commonly produced 100% varietal wines, along with adding its aid to red Bordeaux blends. Its popularity was rising, and rising quickly. In the 1980s, Merlot almost single handedly created the explosion of Washington state viticulture making the state a world class player. It gained more popularity among consumers in Australia, South America, and other new world regions into the 1990s, but unfortunately, with the explosion of popularity, a large majority of wines began to sink in quality. They became fat and flabby wines, extra ripe and jammy. As palates began to become more sophisticated in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the demand for merlot was waning while production was still high. It had reached its tipping point. Growers began to rip up merlot vines for more demanded varietals like cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. A lot of people will say that the coffin was nailed shut for merlot with the release of the critically-acclaimed movie Sideways, that bashed the existence of merlot and sang the overwhelming praises of pinot noir. Fortunately for us, a few regions and brave winemakers, never lost hope and continued on producing Merlot. Today, even after the final blow to its popularity, good bottles are still being made and now in the 2010’s it is on the rise yet again.
Washington state may still remain king of merlot as far as new world merlots are concerned, but smaller regions like Long Island, NY, and southern Chile are producing big, firm, austere, and sophisticated merlots. If you are on the east coast like me and you haven’t tried any Long Island merlot, do yourself a favor and give it a try if you can find when where you are. If you don’t see them on the shelf at your local wine retailer, ask them to find you one and special order it, that can and they will. I used to do it all the time for my customers in Virginia. If you are in Brooklyn do stop by Brooklyn Oenology to sample some wines. They wines are great, people were genuinely nice, funny, and can talk wine with you. They also serve local whiskies, cheeses, and pickles! I love NY.