(This article will appear in an upcoming issue of Dan's Papers)
The Making Of Mr. Merlot
Winemaker Kip Bedell Pours History Into 17 Glasses, One Year At A Time
By Lenn Thompson
I’ve been lucky enough over the past several years to attend some noteworthy wine tasting events at various venues on our beautiful North Fork. They are always deliciously wonderful experiences and I’m always on the lookout for bigger and better events. So when I was invited to Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue for its “17 Years of Merlot” tasting, I knew this would be a benchmark experience for this still-young region.
After navigating the Riverhead traffic to get to this 50-acre former potato farm, my fiancée Nena and I were a little hungry and beyond eager to begin tasting. A vineyard’s entire Merlot history awaited us, and this was no regular, run-of-the-mill Merlot. This was Merlot handcrafted by “Mr. Merlot” himself, Kip Bedell, founder and winemaker of Bedell Cellars.
A few nibbles of assorted cheeses and a glass of the 2003 Viognier greeted us as we settled into our chairs beneath a large tent, looking out over the sun-drenched vines on a spectacular August Sunday. The Viognier, a rich, melony example of this increasingly popular Chardonnay alternative was a delightful and refreshing prologue to our 17-chapter journey through the history of Bedell Merlot, which could really be called the Making of Mr. Merlot.
As the last sips of the Viognier were enjoyed, 17 vintages of Mr. Merlot’s namesake wine – from the 1987 all the way up to a 2003 barrel sample that is at least two years away from being released – were brought out. Just seeing all the bottles, a slice of Long Island wine history, was a thrill. But this was only the beginning.
Obviously, when tasting over a dozen different wines in a single sitting, the pours are small – just an ounce or two. Just enough to properly admire a wine’s color, study its aromas as it twirls in your glass, and finally, savor every nuance as it dances along your tongue.
While all of the wines were tasty and well made, it didn’t take long at all for one of them to reach up out of the glass and take hold of me. The 1988, made in a year Bedell dubbed “probably our most outstanding year,” was pure pleasure. Brick red and less fruity than the 1987, the 1988 was well balanced, smooth and full of plummy spice with an exacting amount of oak.
“A very good year,” the 1991 vintage was actually helped along by the heavy rains Hurricane Bob dumped on Long Island that August. A darker, slightly more concentrated wine, it filled my nose with earthy cedar before giving way to well-balanced tannins and dark berry.
Bedell feels that one of my three favorites, the 1993, is “still developing” and if that is true, I can’t wait to try it again in a few years. Dark and inky in the glass, this was an extremely dramatic wine. A touch drier than most of the others, it also displayed blueberry and chocolate spice. When the tasting was over and the wines were left on the table for us to enjoy with lunch, this is the wine I made a beeline for first.
The 1995, called a “benchmark Merlot” by noted wine author Jancis Robinson in the Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America, was even bigger and more concentrated than the 1991, with a boldness and long finish that reminded me a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon. The next truly remarkable wine that we tasted, from 1997, was another favorite and another I enjoyed with my lunch. A cherry crimson in the glass, its tannins and blackberry flavors were balanced and enhanced by a unique vanilla-caramel flavor. It was outstanding and, if I had to pick a single favorite, this would be it.
The last of my three favorites, the 2000, was “saved by our best October ever.” Also the youngest of the Merlots currently available for purchase, it featured spicy oak aromas followed by cherry and cocoa flavors and a smooth, rich finish.
The final three wines of the flight, 2001, 2002 and 2003, are not yet available for purchase, and their youth was evident. The 2001, which will be released this fall, is very close to being ready and it promises to be a charmer. Concentrated cherry as a youngster, I think it will be delightful as it ages. Keep an eye out for its release.
The 2002 grapes were almost lost to frost when the buds broke ten days earlier than usual. Still suffering from a touch of bottle shock, its fruit was subdued and it was very tannic up front. 2002 was a “nice year” for growing grapes, so I expect this wine to balance out and be delicious.
The final chapter of this flight through the Bedell world of Merlot, a 2003 barrel sample, was light and, funky from fermentation, today it is dry and tannic. But, despite a less-than-perfect growing season, Bedell believes that his experience handling poor growing seasons will result in a good wine.
Most wine lovers know that certain years of certain wines are better than others, but a tasting like this one really drives that idea home. Moving from year to year, with changes in weather serving as the primary variable, I learned more about wine in an afternoon than I could have imagined. I found it remarkable just how profound a difference the weather can make in the end results.
Mr. Merlot’s passion for wine and extensive knowledge is indisputable, even though Eric Frye, the extraordinary winemaker at neighboring Lenz Winery, wore a shirt with “Kip Bedell’s Winemaking Coach” written on the back as he tasted along with us at the next table over. Kip Bedell, with or without a coach, has earned his title. And on a recent Sunday afternoon he also earned a new devotee of his wines – me.
Bedell Cellars is located at 36225 Main Road in Cutchogue and its tasting room is open daily, year-round. To find out more about upcoming events, visit www.bedellcellars.com.