Revenge of the Clones

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Back when the first vineyards were planted on Long Island, many people “in the know” didn’t believe our region could successfully grow European wine grape varieties like Chardonnay and Merlot. After all, before Long Island, all of the wine produced in New York was in the upstate districts of the Finger Lakes and the Hudson Valley – places that had trouble growing European varieties in the past. Forty years later, we have proved the critics wrong many times over. Today Long Island remains one of the most innovative and creative producers in the world of these two wines. We started producing Chardonnay without oak on the East End long before the trend took hold in the rest of the country. The North Fork was also early to the Merlot dance, planting the first vines in 1974.  For a time in late 1980’s, Long Island was not that far behind California in total acres planted to Merlot. Merlot is the grape that put Long Island wine on the map, has generated the highest level of critical acclaim from local and national critics and was even the wine selected to be poured at the last Presidential Inauguration – a profound achievement for our industry. Chardonnay remains the highest scoring wine (red or white) from Long Island in the Wine Spectator and has achieved more 90-point ratings than any other white grape grown in our district.

Without these two varieties, the face of Long Island wine would be far different and in my opinion, much less successful. Both of these classic varieties have provided a foundation of excellence on the East End, whether as single varietals or as the consistent, solid base onto which many of our best blended wines are crafted.

Any lover of Long Island wines will tell you that the wines we make today are better than what we made in the past. The fact is, even with all of our success, our wines will continue to improve in quality in the coming years. The reason?  Some of it of course is due to experience and know-how and an ever increasing understanding of our terroir. But there’s another big reason - clones.

Over the past 10 years, grapevine clones have shown themselves to be of increasing importance in our vineyards. Simply put, clones are a genetic variant of a particular variety. The Chardonnay grown on Long Island decades ago is not the same vine we have today. Plantings since that time – especially in the past 10-15 years, have benefitted from a wider selection of available plant material. Back in 1990, if you wanted to plant Chardonnay, you had one choice. Today there are more than 70 registered clones of this noble white grape being grown throughout the world and they all have their particular nuances and characteristics. Many of these clones are already in existence in Long Island vineyards – from the tropical and aromatic Musqué to the classic and alluring Dijon clones from Burgundy. Although these are all Chardonnays, each exhibits their own distinctive character.

This fact is also true of grapes like Merlot and Cabernet Franc, where profound differences in wine quality can be seen between clones grown in the same vineyard, on the same soils. Over 50 clones of Merlot have been identified in Bordeaux. Pomerol alone has over 35 clones of Cabernet Franc. Newer French clones, long kept overseas as tightly held trade secrets, are finding their way into the United States. In most cases these new clones are better suited to our maritime climate. Often these clones will ripen earlier than the older selections we used to have. Some are more resistant to disease. The ultimate result is higher quality wines. I’ve seen clones so different from each other that you would think the wines were made from another variety entirely.

All this brings me to my point. Long Island has recently been criticized for producing “too much” Chardonnay and Merlot. Some have said these grapes just “aren’t sexy right now.” Although I don’t think one should need a grape to ignite their libido, I believe there is much to say in defense of a stable, long term varietal relationship. This is especially true when there is so much more to do, so many more clone/rootstock combinations to explore and so many more wines to make. The best is truly yet to come.

Don’t get me wrong – there are a lot of great wines being made on the East End from other varieties. It’s always exciting to have something fresh and new to the market – especially with a name that no one can pronounce. But let’s not forget the partner that we first went to the dance with – who’s a pretty good dancer by the way.

Chardonnay and Merlot remain the most popular and best-selling wines in the world for good reason.  These grapes are known as classic noble varieties – a moniker attributed to only a handful of varieties in the world. Most importantly they’re delicious and when done well rank among the best (and most expensive) wines in the world. These are the wines that helped make Long Island famous and they continue to produce some of the best wines in the world. In particular, Long Island remains one of the only places on the East Coast that can successfully grow and ripen Merlot on a consistent basis, producing extraordinary wines – something that was unheard of in this part of the country before we did it. There’s something to be said for new and fashionable – but there’s also something to be said for steadfast dedication and time–honored success.

I think it’s important to recognize that from a vineyard and winery perspective, wine fashion is something we need to be careful with. Chasing fads is a consistent approach for many New World regions –a strategy that is surely lucrative for wineries in the short term but is not a sustainable pathway to maintaining a quality wine district. Let’s be honest, the big reason Chardonnay and Merlot have lost some of their trendiness is because of overproduction (and resultant overexposure) in New World areas like the West Coast and Australia. Millions of gallons of plonk made from these two grapes have flooded the marketplace over the years –a greedy response to the growing demand.

The latest fad (inspired by the rap artist Drake) is Moscato. Do we really want Long Island to go after this trend? What’s after that? Port? Wineries that chase fads are like a dog chasing its tail – in doing so it can be easy to forget what made one successful in the first place. Thankfully, we’re not making these kinds of wines and have instead gone in the other direction, focusing on sincere and real wines that are original works – not copies. We encourage low yields, minimal use of oak, elegant extraction and in particular, creative blending that allows our fruit to truly sing a local song.

Its true there is lots of Chardonnay and Merlot made in the world – but not with the tastes and style that only we can make on the North Fork. These varieties are popular here for a good reason – they grow well and have shown they can thrive and succeed year after year in our

sometimes harsh maritime environment. Merlot and Chardonnay are survivors and they’ve been grown long enough that it is from these 2 varieties that we can begin to describe the characteristics of our terroir. Most importantly, with the availability of new clones, these wines can be looked at in a new light. Their success and affinity for the North Fork will just continue to increase alongside our ability as winemakers to bring out the best in the fruit. Oh yeah I almost forgot - they also make some really tasty wines!

Of course there’s plenty of room for diversity. The fact remains that our North Fork climate can support a number of different wine grape varieties from all parts of the globe.  I’m especially excited about Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc – two other classic varieties I believe make some of the best wines on Long Island. (more about them later) We’ve also had great success with Malbec and Petit Verdot – two varieties that will make our red wines even better going forward. Other less renowned varieties can be grown with success on the East End. These can be delicious and fun and give the wine drinker some new taste experiences. However there are good reasons why we don’t see more obscure varieties in the greater wine marketplace. Some are very difficult to grow, are highly susceptible to disease or are inconsistent producers. Others simply make wines that just aren’t very interesting.

Instead, I would argue that it’s not the grape alone that provides a unique wine drinking experience - the main quality that sets Long Island wine apart is not varietal makeup. It’s not the fact that we can grow lots of different varieties. On the North Fork, it’s our overall regional style that sets us apart. It’s about the flavors derived from the East End environment and how this is reflected in the wines that we make – no matter what that variety or blend happens to be. These are wines that can be made with moderate amounts of alcohol, crisp, juicy acidity and intense aromatics - wines that are not following a fad but are instead, finding their own voice. With our interpretations of the classic varieties of Chardonnay and Merlot, we’ve helped create a whole new sound.  But no matter what the variety, our terroir will always provide the loudest instrument in the ensemble.