By Don Clemens
Who doesn’t love Merlot? I would suggest that if you just cannot tolerate red wines, you might find yourself in that camp. However, if you enjoy red wines that originated from the European Continent, North or South America, South Africa, Asia or Australia, you are likely to be a Merlot lover. How can I say that? Well, I hope to answer that question in this article.
First, a little history is in order. Merlot has its origin firmly placed on the European Continent. And the likely home of the “original” Merlot is France. Merlot has been identified as a cross of Cabernet Franc (“Dad!”) and a rather obscure grape called “Madeleina”, or “Raisin de la Madeleine” (“Mom!”). This grape gets its name because it tends to ripen and be ready for picking around July 22nd, the Feast Day of Mary Magdalene. Later, as its connection to Merlot was better understood, the grape became officially registered as “Magdeleine Noire des Charentes.”
Merlot’s first printed appearance was in 1784, by a Bordeaux official who labeled wine made from that grape in the Libournais region as one of the area’s best. Then, it was listed as “Merlau”. Later, in 1824, the grape was identified as Merlot in an article on Médoc wine. In that article, it stated that the grape was named after a local blackbird called “merlau” in the local dialect that liked eating the ripe grapes still on the vine.
By the 19th century, Merlot was being regularly planted in the Médoc on the “Left Bank” of the Gironde River, the home of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, in the Bordeaux region of France. The Merlot vines found a delightful home there and is notable for producing some of the finest red wines of the region. From these beginnings, the Merlot grape has virtually exploded internationally. At the beginning of the 21st century, Merlot was thought to be the third most grown grape variety at 260,000 hectares (640,000 acres). As of 2015, the area has increased to 266,000 hectares (660,000 acres) and does not show any signs of stopping.
So, what makes the Merlot grape so popular? I would suggest that its ability to be blended with other wine grapes and improve the combination is incredibly significant. There are almost NO 100% Merlot wines of any consequence. Arguably, Château Pétrus is the finest example of Merlot’s possible quality. Only since 2010 has this world-renowned property been 100% Merlot, after many decades of blending in small amounts of some other red wines such as Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon. It is one Chateau out of many hundreds in Pomerol that has the perfect soil and microclimate conditions to allow this standard. In the U.S., you’re more likely to find near-100% Merlot wines coming from the Pacific Northwest, such as Walla Walla, Washington’s Leonetti Cellar’s 2016 Merlot, which is 95% of that variety, with the remaining 5% being Cabernet Sauvignon.
Another reason for Merlot’s popularity is fairly obvious. The grape can produce an elegant, plush, “juicy” wine that most people find quite easy to drink and enjoy. The Merlot grape is relatively low in tannins and high in fruit flavors, which vary greatly depending upon the soils and climate where the grape is planted, so there is a wide range of flavor profiles that can be found in the resulting wine.
Generally, Merlot is a grape with medium tannins. When grown in a cool climate, the resulting wines will often show aromatic and flavor profiles of strawberries, other red berries, plum, cedar and tobacco. When grown in a “medium” climate, the wine will likely display blackberry, black plum and/or black cherry notes. When grown in a “hot” climate, the wine will likely display fruitcake and/or chocolate notes. These factors might influence your expectations of what flavors to look for when you order that bottle (or glass) to go with your meal in a good restaurant. I think that it would be instructive to line up a few glasses of Merlot from different climates. I would probably select a Bordeaux Pomerol as my “cool climate” prototype, a Washington State “Horse Heaven Hills” as an example of a “medium” climate and a version from the California’s Napa Valley, Argentina’s Mendoza Valley or Australia’s Barossa Valley as my “hot climate”. I would expect the differences to stand out proudly.
Some of the characteristics of Merlot that distinguish it: 1.) Relatively thin-skinned (thus lower in tannin than Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec or Tannat, for example), 2.) early ripening (usually at least two weeks earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon), 3.) partial to heavier, cooler soils (i.e., clay is not the enemy here), and 4. [not the last].) its ripening ability can lead to high sugar loads (the choice is: sweet or high alcohol…).
Which leads to an anecdotal story about Merlot, and other similar types of wines that consumers gravitate toward. Many of you will have seen or heard of the movie, “Sideways”. The chief protagonist, Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, thinks that the Saint-Émilion, Château Cheval Blanc is the greatest wine ever. And, he says many times how much he despises Merlot, opting instead to savor Pinot Noir. The inside joke, of course, is the fact that Château Cheval Blanc is a blend containing a majority of Merlot, with Cabernet Franc being the other primary grape in the wine. This very popular, Oscar winning movie had an impact on the sale of Merlot in the US. If my memory serves (I was working with the owners of both Rutherford Hill Winery and Sanford Winery at the time), Merlot sales took a severe hit after the movie kept growing in popularity. Rutherford Hill is known for its estate-grown Merlot. Sales dropped by about 20% when “Sideways” hit so many screens. It took several years to regain its position. Happily, it grew back to a strong market position.
To conclude, I will quote from the book, Wine Folly: “Merlot is loved for its boisterous black cherry flavors, supple tannins and chocolatey finish. On the high end, it’s often mistaken [for] Cabernet Sauvignon and commonly blended with it.” I hope that you find a Merlot to make you happy; it shouldn’t be that difficult!
2016 Pahlmeyer Merlot: Trial attorney Jayson Pahlmeyer was fascinated with Bordeaux varietals and determined to create a “California Mouton.” Legendary winemaker Helen Turley was instrumental in the development of Pahlmeyer’s high elevation Napa estates vineyards and early success. His proprietary red gained critical acclaim. E & J Gallo bought this luxury brand in 2019. The 2016 Pahlmeyer Merlot is the featured super star. Sourced from the Pahlmeyer estate vineyards, this wine is 96.5% Merlot with a touch of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. It has a stunning aromatic entry of fresh mulberry and boysenberry marmalade. It is viscous and silky at the same time with enough stuffing for the long haul. This Merlot is all about texture. Drinkable now, but will evolve gracefully for a decade or more. Wph
2018 Louis Martini Napa Valley Merlot: Opaque with a purple stained rim. This wine opens with shy aromas of field flowers and cedar. There are fresh orchard cherries and blackberry liqueur-like fruits within the core. It continues to maintain its poise as layers of dark melted chocolate and freshly ground espresso emerge. This concentrated gem is well composed and rich with finely grained, ripe tannins. Wph
2018 J Lohr “Creston Vineyards” Paso Robles Merlot: This wine unveils itself with a deep ruby color with a purple rim. This single-vineyard Merlot is packed with plenty of ripe dark cassis, cinnamon and brown spices. The black raspberry foam in the core caresses the palate and begs you to return. After some time open, this wine oozes with chocolate covered cherries. This fruit-driven wine has plenty of ripe tannins and is immediately approachable. Wow, this is the standard on how Merlot should be judged. Wph
2017 Seavy Napa Valley Merlot: Bill and Mary Seavy acquired this 40 acre rocky, hillside parcel in Conn Valley in 1979. This 100% Merlot is very dark ruby in appearance. There is an explosive bouquet of violets and spring flowers. This is a tightly knit and classically structured Merlot with an essence of Napa terroir. There are notes of mixed berries, black tea and earth that lead you on a journey across the mid-palate. All the pieces come together into a memorable finish. Wph
2016 Northstar Columbia Valley Merlot: Washington’s premium grape varietal is Merlot and Northstar, located in the Walla Walla Valley was founded in 1994. Deep ruby in color, this is a softly textured Merlot with attractive briary red plums and black raspberry jam. This wine remains lush and silky around the edges with ripe, finely grained tannins and is easily approachable. Wph
2016 Les Cadrans de Lassegue St Emilion: The 2016 Les Cadrans de Lassegue is a blend of 90% Merlot with the remainder of Cabernet Franc. It shows deep color in the glass, nearly opaque. Aromas of dark cherry, espresso, hint of spice and violets leap out of the glass. On the palate the flavor is exuberant showing rich chocolate, velvety, textured and is polished. The tannins are finely integrated and finishes with fresh acidity. The Merlot and Cabernet Franc harmonize beautifully in this wonderfully crafted second label from Chateau Lassegue from St Emilion. PM
2016 St Supery Merlot Rutherford Estate Vineyard: Blended with small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot, the color in the glass shows deep shades of reds and purple. This wine from Rutherford displays aromas of black cherry, coffee, toasted oak with a hint of vanilla. On the palate the flavors come together with fine tannins that are elegant and a silky mouthfeel. A very enjoyable Merlot from this Rutherford estate. PM
2017 La Jota Vineyards Co. Napa Valley Merlot Howell Mountain:
This is a classic expression of Mountain Merlot, blended with 89% Merlot, the remainder of Petit Verdot. The color in the glass is deep red and dark plum leaning toward opaque. The aromatics are what you would expect from a wine of this quality and pedigree showing black cherry, rich dark chocolate, licorice and cinnamon, slight earthiness. The palate has weight and is full bodied with layers of dark fruit and luscious round tannins. The minerality drives through to the very end which is long and luxurious. This Howell Mountain Merlot should age gracefully and show more elegance with a few more years in the bottle. But why wait? It is beautiful to drink now! PM
2017 L’Ecole No 41 Columbia Valley Merlot: This is a serious Merlot! The color is deep ruby. The aromatics are very pleasant revealing ripe dark fruit, cedar, tobacco and licorice. The palate has a rich texture, peppery, firm tannins and enough acidity that gives this Merlot a tartness. On the finish is graphite and minerality that is persistent to the end. An impressive effort from this estate and represents a good value. There is enough structure is this Merlot to age for many years in the bottle. It would be fun to see how it develops over the years! PM
2017 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot, Napa Valley:
Appearance and Aromas: Deep purplish, with hints of ruby; youthful aromas of black cherry, blackberry and hints of vanilla. Flavor profile: Dry, medium-bodied, fresh with round, medium tannins underlaying a well-balanced, flavorful wine with notes of black cherry, black raspberry, black plum and vanilla. The finish is moderately long. Aromatic, palate-pleasing, still youthful. Food pairing: Grilled ribeye steak, sauteed duck breast, mushrooms and aged cheddar. DC
2018 Chelsea Merlot, Goldschmidt Vineyards, Alexander Valley:
Appearance and Aromas: Medium ruby, clear and leaning toward purplish with aromas of black cherry and hints of vanilla. Flavor profile: Dry, medium-bodied with youthful aromas of black cherry and vanilla. Good balance, with moderate tannins and powerful flavors of black cherry and a hint of vanilla. Long finish. Very pleasant, somewhat rich and mouth-filling. Food pairing: Pot Roast, Braised Short Ribs, hard cheeses (Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano) DC
2017 Markham Vineyards Merlot, Napa Valley:
Appearance and Aromas: Deep, clear ruby leaning to purplish. Youthful aromas of black cherry jam, black plums and toasted oak barrels. Flavor profile: Dry, medium-bodied, smooth with medium tannins. Good balance of acid and tannins, with moderate cherry preserves and cola taste. Fairly rich, lengthy finish in a mouth-filling, modern style. Food pairing: Grilled skirt steak, lamb chops. DC
2016 Peju Province Merlot, Napa Valley:
Appearance and Aromas: Medium deep ruby red color; clear and almost opaque. Aromas are reminiscent of a freshly baked cherry tart; showing some maturity. Flavor profile: dry, medium-bodied and somewhat crisp, with medium dry tannins. Shows tart flavors of cranberry. Medium long finish. Food pairing: Something with some heat, like chili, enchiladas, tacos and tamales come to mind. DC
2016 Rutherford Hill Vineyards Merlot, Napa Valley:
Appearance and Aromas: Deep ruby, clear; youthful aromatics of red fruits (cherry, plum) and hints of oak toast. Flavor profile: medium-bodied, dry with medium soft tannins, well-balanced with loads of juicy fruit jam, black fruits. Long finish, medium weight, fleshy (jam-like) with cherry pastry notes. Food pairing: Standing rib roast, braised short ribs, medium intense cheeses like Colby or young cheddar. DC