Five Long Island wineries have teamed up to form the Long Island Merlot Alliance, a group that will promote Merlot as the region's signature variety and help its members improve the quality of their Merlot over time.
However the alliance's founding members--Pellegrini, Raphael, Sherwood House, Shinn Estate and Wölffer Estate--are off to a rough start. Up to 18 inches of rain deluged Long Island vineyards over the course of last week, when the region's harvest was only about halfway complete. While most of the white varieties had ripened and been picked, the red varieties were still hanging when the storm hit.
"The biggest hit was taken by Merlot," said Alice Wise, viticulturist at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. "There are yield losses probably from 25 percent to close to 100 percent." Merlot comprises roughly 30 percent of Long Island's total vineyard acreage.
The vintage isn't a complete wash for Long Island as a whole, though. The growing season had been ideal up until mid-October, with all the white varieties ripening well before the rains. In addition, the downpour didn't affect everyone equally. "I was out tasting berries, and the flavors were still pretty good," said Wise, who noted that there were differences from vineyard to vineyard and block to block. "I think younger vines with precocious, ripe fruit took a big hit." She added that older vineyards were likely to hold up, and that Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc seemed to fare better than expected.
Richard Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Raphael and one of the Merlot Alliance's founding members, said that his sandy, gravelly soils were able to drain away most of the water. "We're an unirrigated vineyard, so I believe that we have a different situation than a lot of others," he said. "Our vines have never been watered, and it was purposely done that way for them to develop strong root systems and encourage them to explore very deep into the soils. They were able to weather a lot of water quite well." Weather permitting, Olsen-Harbich hopes to keep his Merlot on the vines and harvest the grapes at the end of the month.
Ursula Massoud, who owns Paumanok Vineyards with her husband Charles, was similarly optimistic. Just after the storm, Paumanok's Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot fruit were all still hanging. "We had really wonderful ripeness before the rains came in, and the fruit is still holding up," Massoud said. "But it's not going to be a grand vintage anymore. The wonderful concentration we had before, it's definitely changed a bit."
Despite the damage done to this year's Merlot crop, the alliance is still planning on holding several educational programs and events in 2006, and will release a jointly produced wine this spring called Merliance. All member wineries will submit samples of their wines for lab analysis, a sensory evaluation and a packaging review, and will regularly taste and evaluate each other's wines. The alliance will also conduct research and development work with the help of the Cornell Cooperative Extension.
While winemakers will have to use all their skills and experience to make the best of this year's reds, there may still be some pleasant surprises. "People are sorting fruit and picking Merlot that looks and tastes like Merlot should at harvest," Wise said. "When I was tasting in the field, I thought, 'Wow, this really illustrates the resilience of grapes, to make it through 18 inches of rain and still taste like this.'"