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(Photo credit: Amy Zavatto)

Certain grapes on Long Island get the lion’s share of attention because, over the last 50 years, producers have figured out what grows well. Among the reds, the biggest flag bearers are merlot and cabernet franc. But there’s another classic Bordeaux grape variety that’s worth exploring here for its gorgeous aromatics as much as its textural generosity in your mouth: malbec.

You probably think of it as the poster grape for Argentina, and certainly it has the most land devoted to its vines in that South American spot. Here on Long Island, we’ve been growing malbec for awhile, too, but instead of the big-and-blousy blueberry expression of the grape from places like Mendoza, in eastern Long Island its innate and beautifully floral aromatics come to the fore and the fruit presents itself as fresher and brighter from our seaside-influenced vineyards.

Onabay Vineyards launched in the 1990s from then-owner Chris Miceli. He sold the vineyard to the Anderson family in 2006, who in turn did a ton of additional planting the following year, including the malbec they use to make the cleverly named Côt Fermented cabernet franc.

Onabay Vineyards uses only their own estate grown fruit to produce their wines. (Photo courtesy of Onabay Vineyards)

“2006 was our first vintage. My father, Brad Anderson, had one goal in mind: to grow the best French varietals on Long Island. He is an over-achiever,” says Chiara Anderson Edmands, now owner and careful caretaker of the family winery. Her mother, botanical illustrator Francesca Anderson, creates the label imagery (she’s won gold medals for her artwork at London’s Kew Gardens) and Edmand’s sister, Mia Anderson, is a poet and Fulbright scholar who penned the poem on the label. 

“Today, the grapes that are not set aside for Onabay Vineyards are sought after by other wineries out here,” says Edmands.

But they keep enough estate fruit for themselves, making some of the best, if a bit under-the-radar, wines in the area.

The Côt Fermented cabernet franc is a hard one to resist. It’s a play on words—”côt” is a name for malbec in France, but winemaker John Leo does indeed co-ferment the two grapes together.

The extracted, deep ruby color from the thicker skins of the malbec is gem-like, and the nose a treasure trove of spring and summer, all lilac and dried rose petals, fresh strawberries, red plums and a bit of that malbec-centric blueberry note. In your mouth, it hits all the right spots—fleshy but grippy, concentrated but fresh and juicy. It’s a wine that’s elegant and yet still has this just-right weightiness to it; a gravitational pull that keeps it from becoming fleeting or quaffably forgettable. The tannins are sweet but wonderfully drying and it tastes of dark cocoa powder and strawberries on the finish, which hangs in there. For a $20 wine, there’s an awful lot going on here. It’s the best of both grapes, even if the malbec makes up only a demure 12 percent—for malbec lovers, it’s there and it’s noticeable.

Winemaker Leo has been working on this particular co-ferment—that is, instead of fermenting one grape variety at a time and blending them after, fermenting two different grapes together at the same time—since 2011, when an under-achieving vintage of cab franc wasn’t quite where he wanted it. “Our best block of cab franc was tasty but not rich and deep,” he says. “I had co-fermented some of my own [Leo Family] wines previously and suggested we try adding some malbec to the ferment. The result was surprisingly complete and balanced.”

It helps that cab franc and malbec tend to ripen on the same timeline, too. “Even more importantly, while ripe cab franc can be forward in aromas and midpalate flavors, it benefits from the front palate personality and broad mouthfeel of malbec,” he says. “Together they make a fuller, darker, more charming wine.”

It’s aged for about a year or so in neutral French oak barrels (that is, a barrel that’s been in use for more than 3 years, so its woody influences are much-mellowed and not in the forefront of flavor), capturing a beautiful moment-in-time purity of the fruit.

“I really believe that it is the best representation of what the North Fork can do with a blended wine,” says Edmands. “The east end of Long Island is one of the most magical places on earth. To be able to grow and make something beautiful here is such a privilege.”

Onabay Côt Fermented Cabernet Franc can be found at several very smart shops on the South Fork, including Domaine Franey Wines & Spirits, Cork n’ Jug, Noyac Liquors in Sag Harbor, McNamara Liquors in Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor Liquor Store and Shelter Island Wine & Spirits.