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California Merlot: Dissed but Wrongly Dismissed
By Ed McCarthy
Mar 3, 2009
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Not too long ago, in the 1990s, Merlot was the "hot" California varietal red wine.  After the "French Paradox," which declared French red wine drinkers heart-healthy despite high-fat diets, many wine consumers switched from white and blush wines to red wines, or in many cases started drinking red wines for the first time.  Consequently, the relatively soft, easy-drinking Merlot, which once played the minor role of a mere blending wine in California Cabernets, found new popularity.  It seemed then that every time I was dining in a restaurant or at a bar, almost everyone not ordering Chardonnay was drinking Merlot -- especially by the glass. 

Ah, but Merlot -- or many of the people producing it -- could not deal with its new-found popularity.  A familiar story: lots of Merlot was newly planted in the wrong places, such as California's Central Valley; yields were prolific, and many of the resulting wines rushed to market were poor imitations of this potentially noble wine. 

When Miles, the protagonist in the popular 2004 film "Sideways," lashed out at Merlot  while praising his beloved Pinot Noir, many of the viewers in the audience laughed in agreement.  But Miles, of course, erred in condemning all Merlot wines.  Being the wine geek that he was, he should  have remembered the wonderful Pomerols from Bordeaux's Right Bank -- such as Château Petrus -- which are almost 100% Merlot.  (Ironically, the treasured wine that Miles was drinking at the end of Sideways was not a Pinot Noir; it was a Bordeaux from St.-Emilion--Château Cheval Blanc, made from Cabernet Franc and Merlot).

Sales of California Merlot did decline after Sideways hit the silver screens in 2004, and not just because of the film's success.  Consumers recognized that many Merlots, especially those retailing for under $20, had dropped dramatically in quality.  Yet Merlot maintained its third position in California red wine sales, behind Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel (much of the latter 'white' Zinfandel), and still well ahead of Pinot Noir and Syrah.

Frankly, I am disappointed with many California Merlots today, but I can certainly make the same statement about California Pinot Noirs, Syrahs/Shirazes, and even Cabernet Sauvignons.  Merlot, like Pinot Noir, is very site-specific.  It demands cool climate, well-drained soils, and a fairly even, long-ripening growing season.  Warm climate and fertile soils will never produce good Merlots -- or good Pinot Noirs.  Merlot grapes grown in less than optimal conditions produce wines that are thin and lack concentration of flavor. Such wines might appeal to those who want an easy-drinking red wine whose tannins are soft, but they fall short of Merlot's potential.

But let's not bury California Merlot quite yet.  Do not despair, Merlot lovers; there are good -- and even excellent -- varietal Merlots still being produced in California today.  Many of the wineries making them either are located in Carneros, the cool region making up the southern end of Napa Valley and Sonoma -- or source their grapes from vineyards in Carneros.  If you've been to Carneros, you know it can be cool -- downright windy, in fact, even in the heart  of the summer -- as the winds come whipping in from the Pacific through San Pablo Bay, directly south of Carneros.

Other regions have had moderate success with Merlot, such as Stags Leap District in Napa Valley, and parts of Sonoma County.  But Carneros is the 'Pomerol' of California in that it produces the mother lode of fine Merlot wines.

Merlot at its best is a deeply colored red wine -- full-bodied and dry, with soft, velvety tannin and aromas and flavors of ripe, dark plums, a hint of chocolate, and a slight toasty note of oak.  It fills your mouth with its fleshy texture and its plump, fruity flavors, yet it's not too soft; it has enough firmness to give it definition.  That's the experience of California Merlot at its best.  And who wouldn't love such a wine?  Its plumpness, richness, and softness are the reason that Merlot became popular in the first place.

Most Merlot wines are not 100% Merlot.  Just as Cabernet producers often blend in a bit of Merlot to give their wine softness, Merlot producers often take advantage of their '25% other-grapes allowed' option in California to blend in some Cabernet Sauvignon and, occasionally, Cabernet Franc.  The more Cabernet that a Merlot wine has blended into it, the firmer and less 'round' the wine will be.

One of the advantages of researching a wine book is that it demands that the writers thoroughly re-acquaint themselves with the subject matter -- in this case, California  wines -- for our (Mary Ewing-Mulligan's and my) forthcoming California Wine For Dummies.  In tasting through a great number of California Merlots, I have come up with a list of my favorite wines -- Merlots that exhibit all the finest characteristics of this varietal wine.

I list 22 wineries for their Merlots; most are in Napa Valley or Carneros.   The wines are listed according to their wine's average national retail price -- from the lowest to the highest.  My recommended wines' prices start at about $20.  In most cases, I'm basing my recommendations on the excellent 2005 vintage, which is still mainly available -- although 2006's are starting to appear.  In my opinion, 2006 is also a good vintage for Merlot, but not quite as good as the very cool-climate 2005:

--Franciscan Oakville Estate (Napa Valley), about $20
--Havens Wine Cellars (Napa Valley) $25; Havens Reserve (Carneros), $35
--Schug (Sonoma Valley) Estate $25; Schug (Carneros) Estate, $28
--MacRostie Winery (Carneros), $27
--Clos du Val (Stags Leap District, Napa Valley), $28
--Truchard Vineyards (Carneros), $27-$30
--Trefethen Family Vineyards Estate (Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley), $30
--Swanson Vineyards (Oakville, Napa Valley), $30-$33
--Stag's Leap Wine Cellars (Stags Leap District + Napa Valley), $30-$35
--Chappellet Winery Estate (Napa Valley)…$33
--Matanzas Creek (Bennett Valley, Sonoma), $33
--Turnbull Wine Cellars (Oakville, Napa Valley), $34
--Frog's Leap Winery (Napa Valley), $35-$40
--Grgich Hills (Napa Valley), $40
--Newton Vineyards 'Unfiltered' (Napa Valley), $45
--Rubicon Estate (Napa Valley), $45
--Selene, Frediani Vineyard (Napa Valley), $45
--Shafer Vineyards (Stags Leap District + Napa Valley), $45
--Nickel & Nickel, Harris Vineyard (Oakville, Napa Valley); Suscol Ranch (Napa Valley), both about $50-$55
--Duckhorn Vineyards (Napa Valley), $50-$55; Three Palms Vineyard (Napa Valley), $85-$110
--Cakebread Cellars (Napa Valley), $60-$65
--Pahlmeyer (Napa Valley), $100

From my limited experience with aging California Merlots, I'd say that the best time to drink them is between five and ten years from the vintage date.   They don't appear to age as well as Cabernet Sauvignons.   I recently drank a 15-year-old Merlot (1994) from my cellar and it was definitely past its peak, rather lifeless.  On the other hand, I just finished drinking both Nickel & Nickel 2002 Merlots, the Harris Vineyard and the Suscol Ranch, and they were superb!  The Harris Vineyard was particularly stunning.

My conclusion is that there are still many California producers who never lost faith in Merlot, such as the ones I've touted above.