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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Long Island wineries are smaller, younger and have less experience than their French counterparts, but some local vintners think the Merlot wines they produce compare favorably with those made in Bordeaux.
Many different types of grapes flourish in island vineyards 90 miles east of New York City and are used by the area's 56 wineries. But the one grape that is universally suited for all of them is Merlot.
“Merlot is our signature grape,” said Australia-born winemaker Russell Hearn, of the Premium Wine Group’s facility in Cutchogue, on the North Fork of Long Island.
John Leo, of Long Island’s Clovis Point vineyards, thinks the island's best Merlots are as good as those from France.
"When we think of Bordeaux wines, we don’t think of the 4,000 wineries that are just in Bordeaux. We think of the 10 or 20 or 30 names that polish their reputations," he said.
"If you taste our best 1 or 2 percent and you taste them blind, I guarantee you’ll have them in the same category as classified Bordeaux.”
The French have been making wine in Bordeaux since the Romans invaded, while wine makers on Long Island didn't get into the game until the 1970s.
On Bordeaux’s right bank, on the east of the Gironde Estuary, the vines planted on land ranging from well-drained gravel and limestone to sandy soils are primarily Merlot.
Wines from Bordeaux's left bank, which include those from Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion and Mouton-Rothschild, are more Cabernet Sauvignon.
Roman Roth, the winemaker for Wölffer Estates near the eastern tip of the island, describes it as “basically a 20,000-year-old sand dune.”
Roth, a winemaker with Wölffer since the 1990s, is spear-heading the Long Island Merlot Alliance (LIMA), a group of wineries determined to raise the profile of the region.
Winemaker Richard Olsen-Harbich of Bedell Cellars said the Long Island Merlots are “really well balanced, having moderate levels of alcohol" with a clean, fruit component.
But some Bordelais wine makers think it would be impossible to confuse the wines from the two countries.
Frédéric Borderie, who owns two small French estates, Château Les Combes and Château Vieille Dynastie, said his vines are about 30 to 40 years old. But weather conditions and the soil make the difference in quality.
Frédéric Faye, winemaker for Chateau Figeac, a premier grand cru of St. Emilion, has tasted wines from Long Island. He said they are medium or light-bodied, but cannot be compared to the wine of the right bank of Bordeaux.
“They are two different styles. The wines of Long Island and the wines of the right bank," he said in a telephone interview from France. Even so, Faye says, consumers benefit.
"When they want to drink a Merlot that is more fresh, that is younger, they may choose Long Island. And when they want something with a lot of flavors, something that is 20 years old, they can have a Bordeaux,” he said.
Editing by Patricia Reaney and Dan Grebler