Washington: The star of Merlot rises again
In the 1990s, merlot experienced a heyday in Washington. At the time, it was the young winemaker’s most produced red grape variety, with high notes and ceilings. Some have said that Washington is the best place outside of Bordeaux for grapes.
The attention was well deserved. The Washington Merlot is truly one of a kind.
People love the fatness and fullness of the Merlot on the palate, as well as the precision of the fruit, says Chris Figgins, President/Director of the Leonetti Cellar in the Walla Walla Valley. The latter, I think, is what makes Washington better than elsewhere. It has that lightness and precision of fruit.
It is native to the desert climate of eastern Washington.
You have a lot of nice warm days, but also cool nights, says David Merfeld, winemaker at Northstar Winery, which was founded in 1994 and focuses on Merlot.
These warm days give rise to aromas and flavors of ripe, lush red fruit. Cooler nights help to fix the acidity so the fruit stays sharp, which is a problem in some other regions with warm climates.
While merlot can sometimes be bland and simple, Washington’s offerings have much more texture. In most other regions, Merlot is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon to make it sweeter. The opposite may be true here.
Merfeld also uses a whole berry fermentation temperature and a cooler fermentation temperature to produce a stronger Washington variety profile.
It certainly helps alleviate guilt, he says.
At the turn of the millennium, Washington Merlot seemed to be on the verge of becoming a real star. It was spoken of as the state’s signature grape variety, the grape that could define its wines.
Then things got out of hand. According to Mr. Figgins, the 2004 film certainly harmed Merlot.
At the same time, Syrah, a relative newcomer to the state, made its way to the center of the stage. Other new varieties quickly attracted attention. Cabernet Sauvignon sales have been soaring across the country, and Washington growers and winemakers have noticed. By 2006, Cabernet production surpassed Merlot production, and the state never looked back.
But while the grape situation has changed, Washington Merlot remains as distinctive, high quality and remarkable as it was 20 years ago. The latest vintages remind us that diversity radiates from the terroir.
I don’t think anyone does better than Washington State for Merlot, Merfeld says. This is the place.
Merlot excels in a number of appellations, especially in the Walla Walla Valley.
The Walla Walla is slightly cooler than many parts of the [Columbia] basin, with heavier soils, Figgins said. The northern part of the Walla Walla valley is a particularly pleasant place for Merlot. It seems that energy and density are evolving there.
Washington’s offers stand out not only for their distinctive profile and quality, but often for their excellent price.
I’ve had some very good Merlots from Italy, France and other countries, but they tend to be quite expensive, Merfeld says. Washington has high quality Merlot at a variety of prices.
Wine lovers seem to be paying attention. More than 15 years later, people still remember what they loved about the Washington Merlot from the beginning.
People seem to be over the Sideways effect, and Merlot is pretty cool again, Figgins says. It’s like, oh, we forgot we liked it. -Sean Sullivan.
Photo by Tom Arena
Washington bottles for tasting
Mark Ryan 2018 Little sister Merlot (Red Mountain); 75, 94 points. Generous aromas of plum, raspberry, mocha, spice and herbs are accompanied by deliciously layered fruit flavors. There is a fullness and depth to the middle valley, but also a freshness. He’s hanging on for a long time. Give him time to get to the basement to see him at his best. Preferably after 2024. Basement selection. -C.S.
Cave Leonetti 2018 Merlot (Walla Walla Valley). 85, or 93 points. This wine is a 100% vintage that is a glorious example of Merlot. Aromas of black raspberry compote, plums, dark chocolate and cedar are accompanied by rich, layered flavors that add robust tannin to the backbone. Excellent acidity brightens it up. -C.S.
Prospect 2017 Merlot (Walla Walla Valley); $50, 93 points. This is one of the first releases from the cellar, with most of the fruit coming from Golden Ridge Vineyard. The aromas are discreet, with notes of dark chocolate, red fruit, earth and spice not quite ready to reveal their charms. The palace, on the other hand, shows all its texture, layering, structure, refinement and detail. It is removed with the extended nozzle. It’s an instinctive reaction. Give him more time in the bottle. Preferably after 2024. Basement selection. -C.S.
Luke 2018 Merlot (Wahluke Slope); $25, 92 points. A papaya aroma with hints of black raspberry, chocolate and cherry that shows a strong sense of varietal purity. This is followed by rich, layered, ripe fruit flavors, with acidity providing freshness and refined balance. He’s stuck at the finish line. Delicious and full of fruit, with lots of structure, this is hedonism at its best, an absolute delight for the audience. Give it a shot if you drink it soon. Editor’s Choice. -C.S.
Seven Hills Winery 2017 Merlot (Walla Walla Valley); $25, 92 points. The aromas are enticing, with notes of pure raspberry, currant, cooking spices and milk chocolate. The medium-bodied palate shows a gift for fruit and barrel aromas. It’s a great example of diversity. Editor’s Choice. -C.S.
Novelty Hill 2017 Merlot (Columbia Valley); $23, 90 points. Aromas of coffee, dark chocolate, cherry and spice add to the appeal. Then come the flavors of round fruit and barrel. Slightly grainy tannins provide support. Preferably after 2023. -C.S.
California: Keeping the Napa Valley cool
Has the Napa Valley long been famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon, the Merlot is a pillar of it. With 9% of the total acreage, it is the second most important red grape variety after Cab.
Merlot is often used in blends to soften the tannins of grapefruit, but is also an important grape variety in its own right for many producers like Duckhorn. It has been bottled at Three Palms Vineyard since 1978. Beringer, Chapelle, Palmeier, Mayacamas and La Jota Vineyard are other Merlot names to know.
Grapes are difficult to grow. It prefers stony, well-drained soil with little heat. The lively fruit aromas and soft, supple mouthfeel that make the wines so attractive are better developed this way.
Thanks to the rise of Cabernet (and Sideways, of course), winemakers dedicated to the grape made an effort to eliminate its former mediocrity. Increasingly grown in well-chosen locations throughout the Napa Valley, Carneros is distinguished by its cooler climate.
It stands out in the hills of the Hudson Vineyards, where Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Rhone also thrive. The Merlot in Arietta’s wine was planted here in 1986 from cloned material from Three Palms and is incredibly complex.
Grapes also grow at 1,800 feet above sea level at Bancroft Ranch in Mount Howell, a vineyard Beringer has owned since 1987. -Virginie Boone
Photo by Tom Arena
Napa bottles to taste
Arietta 2018 Hudson Vineyards Merlot (Napa Valley); $75, 95 points. This is a wonderfully memorable Merlot, young in tannins and oak, with a vegetal and earthy elegance that lingers on the palate. Dark chocolate, grains and beautiful dark fruit balance to give substance and style. Editor’s Choice. -WATER CLOSET
Beringer 2017 Bancroft Ranch Merlot (Mount Howell); $90, 92 points. Robust with chalky tannins and a broad band of currant, plum and cherry, this wine is powerfully structured and ripe, with notes of clove, mocha and black pepper. Thanks to its warm cuvée and mountain appellation, it will do well in the cellar; make the most of it from 2027 to 2030. Basement selection. -WATER CLOSET
Various Mark Sonoma finishes
Merlot accounts for about 4,000 acres of the 59,000 acres of vineyards planted in this diverse county, more than pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel.
It does well in the relatively warm, but not too warm areas of Bennett Valley, Chalk Hill and Sonoma Valley. Gundlach Bundshu has been cultivating it for generations. He harvests spicy red fruits from the cooler parts of his property and juicy black fruits from the warmer parts.
Pride Winery’s offerings show that Merlot understands structure and power. The grapes come from 2,000 feet of elevation on the side of the mountain from Sonoma to Mayacamas. The winery, which borders the Spring Mountain appellation, bottled its first grapes in 1991.
Calluna Vineyards’ winemaker David Jeffrey finds inspiration in another high altitude location in Chalk Hill, the Merlot district dedicated to Alain Renault in Bordeaux, with whom Jeffrey has worked in Pomerol and Saint-Émilion. Calluna is relatively cool and requires maximum sunlight, excellent drainage and minimal exposure to frost.
Along Westside Road in the Russian River Valley, Longboard Vineyards’ Oded Shaked produces the same sweet, supple and complex Merlot from his DaKine vineyard, blended with Malbec. This is an excellent example of the high value that Merlot continues to have in Sonoma County. Search for bottles from Kendall-Jackson, St. John’s, St. John’s, St. John’s, St. John’s, St. John’s. Francis Winery and Foley has De. -WATER CLOSET
Sonoma Tasting Bottles
Calluna 2017 Aux Raynauds Merlot (Chalk Hill); $40, 94 points. Composed with 14% Cabernet Franc, it is a spicy wine, classically structured with sustained elegance and class. The spicy and tangy red fruit is enhanced by the underlying acidity and surrounded by a haunting tannin structure that continues to unfold. Enjoy the year 2025-2030. Basement selection. -WATER CLOSET
Longboard 2017 DaKine Vineyard Merlot (Russian River Valley); $36, 90 points. Blended with 16% Malbec, this red wine is flavorful and colorful, with intense and concentrated layers of currants, cranberries and plums. The palate retains its energy and finishes with a hint of dark chocolate. -WATER CLOSET
The Central Coast regains its reputation
The central coast, specifically Santa Barbara, was the site of the largest ever attack on a grape variety. It was perfected by the hit movie Sideways, in which Merlot was defeated. This has put pressure on the market for Merlot across the country and sent most of the commonly available varieties to the mainstream store.
Since then, two types of Merlot have dominated the Central Coast: the cheaper, often bland, mostly mass-produced Merlot, which reinforces Sideways’ sensibilities, and the carefully crafted boutique bottles that showcase the grape’s delicate ability to translate terroir.
Steve McIntyre, whose Monterey Pacific operates more than 12,000 acres of vineyards, says the amount of land used for vineyards has steadily declined since then, but that 2020 could be a turning point. This season is the first time in 10 years that I’m really starting to see a demand, he says.
Santa Barbara merlot producers are being compensated a bit, let’s admit it, says Bradley Long of Grassini Family Vineyard. When he joined in 2014, previous winemakers had taken out most of his Merlot. But he saw potential, and today it’s one of the manufacturer’s most expensive offerings.
Merlot just shows a finer side of Bordeaux, he says. It doesn’t have to be the great red wine. I prefer fruity, floral and light wines to a big red wine any day of the week. Merlot exists in this region.
As General Manager of Au Bon Climat, Jim Adelman has been running the winery since 1991, with an emphasis on pinot noir and chardonnay. But Merlot, grown in the Bien Nacido vineyard in the cool Santa Maria Valley, is the centerpiece of his own boutique brand, Makor, which is largely available only in the region. He uses whole grapes in his fermentations, which he says are common in Bordeaux markets like Pétrus.
It adds a lot of complexity that modern Merlot lacks, Adelman says. -Matt Kettmann
Taste bottles from the Central Coast
Grassini Family Vineyards 2018 Merlot (Santa Barbara’s Happy Canyon); $80, 95 points. Aromas of black cherry and light clove mingle with a delicate layer of woody spice on the nose of this bottle that immediately draws attention and allows itself to be approached. There are tannins on the palate, but it’s still a generous wine, with bright red fruit, sandalwood and spicy toast, all surrounded by fresh, happy acidity. -M.K.
Broadside 2018 Margarita Vineyard Merlot (Paso Robles); $18, 93 points. Intense aromas of roasted black cherries, red currants, star anise and delicious foie gras fruit come through on the nose of this bottle. On the palate, the wine is ripe and offers a rich, dark character of cherries and blackberries, as well as white pepper and mentholated tarragon. -M.K.
Photo by Tom Arena
Imperial Merlot Condition
Merlot is grown in many New York wine regions, from the Finger Lakes to the Niagara Escarpment, but is especially prevalent on Long Island, where it accounts for about a third of plantings.
The eastern part of the island, about two hours from New York City, is dotted with bucolic farms interspersed with rows of vines, some of which have been there for nearly half a century.
This region is characterized by high humidity throughout the growing season and by the risk of hurricanes in late summer and early fall, which can make it difficult to achieve consistency from vintage to vintage.
However, the variable maritime climate and well-drained, sandy soils have proven hospitable to many Bordeaux grape varieties, including cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and malbec. No grape is more consistent than Merlot, one that reaches its maximum ripeness earlier and more reliably than the others.
Merlot grapes and blends can be found at nearly every winery on Long Island, with more than 70 wineries. The hallmark here is the most, soft tannins and rich, fleshy fruit, as well as a growing sense of place, which is interesting to see in an emerging wine region. -Alexander Pearl
Bottles to try in New York
Harbes 2015 Owner of Hallock Lane Merlot Reserve Inn (North Fork of Long Island); $48, 92 points. Dense aromas of black currants and dark plums with integrated accents of cocoa, menthol spice, and mousse in this structured Merlot. On the palate it is full of sensations, framed by velvety tannins and lively acidity. The plum flavors are mixed with a mixture of herbs and spices, while the energetic, lingering finish suggests this wine will keep well. Drink till 2028. -P.A.
Lenz 2015 Property Choice Unfiltered Merlot (North Villa Long Island); $35, 92 points. The dense, concentrated nose carries aromas of black plums, soy, crushed herbs and cocoa, creating a nice blend of flavors, earth and rich fruit notes. It is sweet, framed by brilliant tannins and an acidity that makes it very pleasant. Energetic plums, red berries and spicy flavors develop on the long finish, suggesting this wine has a long life in the cellar. Drinking to 2030. Basement selection. -P.A.
A long history in Virginia
Virginia’s wine industry has had many false starts and cracks since the early 1600s, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the region really began to develop.
When it comes to Virginia wine, the name of Thomas Jefferson is inevitably mentioned. The President of the United States, a Francophile and wine lover, founded the Jefferson vineyards there in 1774. It also almost went bankrupt buying French wines. Not surprisingly, traditional Bordeaux grape varieties like Merlot have been planted in the state’s eight American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).
The climate in Virginia is difficult. In winter it freezes, while in the growing season humidity and oppressive heat prevail. Careful selection on a vineyard plot is not only the key to success, but also to survival. All this heat gives the grapes more weight, and the Merlot here stays true to its Bordeaux roots, with sweet and generous fruit flavors. But he also has a breakthrough with broad angles and acidity, perhaps creating more interesting and complex expressions of the grape. -Fiona Adams
Virginia bottles for tasting
Narmada 2017 Merlot (Virginia); $35, 91 points. The expressive nose breathes raspberry, blackberry, and black currant crops combined with clove, holly, and forest floor, all with hints of vanilla and creosote. Juicy cherry and raspberry are quickly replaced by a decadent tobacco note. The acidity is mobile and the tannins are velvety and luxurious. The spiciness of the pepper at the end of the mouth extends the palate while the tannin and acidity continue endlessly. -F.A.
Williamsburg Wine 2017 Reserve Merlot (Virginia); $40, 90 points. The cigar box and patinated oak therefore scent vanilla and black raspberry aromas, but become less dominant with time in the glass. The aromas of fresh cranberries, raspberries and red apple skin are more generous. The gritty tannins provide structure, with hints of oak floating just below the surface. The finish depends heavily on the acidity of the cake, which brings out the tone of the apple crust and makes it linger. -F.A.
Approach to Fresh Colorado
Colorado may seem like the perfect place to grow wine grapes. A high altitude can help control humidity and provide warm, sunny days and cool, cold nights. But this height with maturity brings its own challenges. Some wines threaten to be as fine as the air. Nevertheless, Merlot thrives here and remains one of the most popular varieties.
Look for a light, chic style, with tangy red berries, as bright as Colorado’s relentlessly sunny days, and as inviting and casual, just with a good vibe. -F.A.
Colorado Tasting Bottles
Winery at Holy Cross Abbey 2017 Merlot (Palisades); $28.90 points. The nose, very typical, is at first lively and spicy, but ends up melting in the glass. It has bouncy notes of plum, cranberry and pomegranate with plenty of pepper. The fresh, lively cherry juice takes the lead and works its way to the finish, where flavors of pomegranate and raspberry merge with notes of cocoa powder and white pepper. The palate is silky, with a languid flow of acidity and light, powdery tannins. There is a hint of white pepper and vanilla at the end. -F.A.
Varaison 2015 Bin 3115 Estate Reserve Palisade Vineyard Merlot (Grand Valley); $85, 89 points.Medium ruby red with some brightness, there are spicy aromas of tart red berries, sweet Madagascar vanilla, black cherries, green peppers, and a deep cigar box undercurrent. Over time, aromas of plums and raisins appear in the glass. It opens with aromas of ripe plums, tart black cherries, tobacco leaves and vanilla. The tannins gently grip the middle finger and linger slightly, becoming pointed at the end of the mouth. -F.A.
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