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Merlot's Sweet Spot
By Robert Whitley
Oct 4, 2011
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Foraging through the wine cellar, as I often do before dinner, I’ve discovered recently that over the years I’ve tucked away a fair amount of Merlot. You heard that right, Merlot, the wine that was so famously bashed in the Academy Award-nominated movie, Sideways
You may wonder what I was thinking, given that interest in Merlot waned and sales tanked after it became cool to diss Merlot. Call me an opportunist. I’ve always thought Merlot grown in the right location is capable of producing world class red wine
The clay soils of Pomerol, in the Right Bank of Bordeaux, would be the best example. That is where Petrus, the most sought-after and expensive Bordeaux, is made. And Merlot is the dominant grape in neighboring Saint-Emilion. So much for the illogical conclusion of many, drawn from the movie, that Merlot is a mediocre grape.

Tuscany is another part of the world where Merlot thrives. You may not have noticed, but since Merlot was added to the list of permitted grape varieties the Chianti region has had fewer disastrous vintages. Because it ripens earlier than Sangiovese, Tuscany’s most important grape, Merlot has become Tuscany’s hedge against the sometimes cold, wet harvests that can ruin the Sangiovese crop.

That brings me to California, and more specifically the Napa Valley, the sweet spot for Merlot in America. While Cabernet Sauvignon is king in the Napa Valley, there is no doubt Merlot is part of the royal family.

Napa Valley Merlot is like no other California Merlot, and the best compare favorably with top wines from Pomerol and Saint-Emilion.
OK, so that’s just my opinion. Recent tastings, however, have only strengthened my belief that Napa Valley Merlot is some of the finest red wine in the world.

Example No. 1: The 2000 St. Supery Napa Valley Merlot, which probably retailed for less than $25 when it was released sometime in 2002. Of the older Merlot I’ve tasted over the past couple of weeks, this was the best. While there was ample primary fruit in evidence, secondary aromas of coffee, black tea and cedar were beginning to emerge. The core fruit was sweet and supple, with silky tannins and a long, perfumed finish.

Example No. 2: I shouldn’t have been surprised, but the 2003 Swanson Napa Valley Merlot was a stunner, which I wasn’t really expecting. Swanson had a major focus on Merlot when the winery opened a couple of decades ago with aspirations to compete with Duckhorn and other top Napa Valley Merlot producers. This Merlot from a vintage The Wine Spectator found wanting exhibited bold, lush, ripe fruit with firm tannins, and it’s my bet it has another five to seven years before reaching its peak. It probably cost around $40 upon release.

Example No. 3: My greatest surprise was the 2001 St. Clement Napa Valley Merlot, which, if memory serves, I found a bit too oaky and underwhelming when it was released. The strong aroma of wood from its youth has been tamed, allowing the sweet aromas of black cherry and plum to shine. The tannins have rounded out, too. This seriously good Merlot was probably priced between $25 and $30 when it was released in 2003.

Example No. 4: Despite its age, the Niebaum-Coppola 1999 Napa Valley Merlot had the most heft of the older Merlots tasted over these past two weeks. It remains ripe, robust and powerful, a delicious tasting experience and a good wine overall despite lacking the elegance of the other three. Stylistically this isn’t my favorite, but others might go gaga over the opulence. I’m guessing the price was about $35 when it came on the market.

My takeaway from all this is that Merlot continues to be one of the best values in red wine from the Napa Valley. Generally speaking, Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa is considerably more expensive than Merlot. There are exceptions, such as Duckhorn and the Beringer Howell Mountain, that can rival Napa Cabs in price, but most of the time Merlot from Napa will provide the biggest bang for the buck.

The following are ten of my favorite Napa Valley Merlots, based on tastings over the past 20 years:

1. Duckhorn has been at the top of the heap for quite some time.
2. Beringer Howell Mountain was a benchmark Napa Merlot from the first moment then-winemaker Ed Sbragia laid eyes on the vineyard.
3. Chappellet is revered for its long-lived Cabernet Sauvignons, but for my money the Merlots have been just as good.
4. Clos du Val Merlot is the essence of elegance.
5. Shafer, like Chappellet, is known for its Cabernet, but its Merlot is always first-rate.
6. Nickel & Nickel has two Merlots I absolutely love, the Suscol Ranch and the Harris Vineyard. You can’t go wrong with either one.
7. Twomey is perhaps the most atypical for the Napa Valley, with Bordeaux sensibilities, meaning a firmer structure and less opulent fruit.
8. St. Supery has always been strong on Merlot, and obviously it cellars exceedingly well.
9. Swanson made its mark with Merlot under the guidance of the splendid winemaker Marco Cappelli, who has since moved on. Swanson Merlot is still very, very good.
10. Silverado Vineyards is known for many things – Chardonnay, Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc come readily to mind – but its Merlot has always been its ace in the hole.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.