Merlot has suffered a lot of abuse over the years, but talk to Frank “P.J.” Alviso and it’s one of his favorites – albeit most challenging – grape varieties.
This being Merlot Month, we spoke to Alviso because as vice president of Central Coast winegrowing for the vast Duckhorn portfolio, he has a good pulse on the merlot market. He manages grape sourcing for Duckhorn, a Napa Valley producer that never gave up on merlot in spite of flagging sales. Before joining Duckhorn in 2006, Alviso worked at Kendall-Jackson and grew up on a 400-acre vineyard in Amador County.
While many vineyard owners have ripped up merlot vines because of waning interest, Duckhorn is looking for more. Merlot has suffered in a public perception over the years, but the decline may be because the grape variety is difficult to grow. Alviso said when demand for merlot was rising, the “gatekeepers” were forced to grow it in areas they didn’t like to satisfy the public’s thirst for merlot. Quality went down and many dropped the program – it was a “thinning the herd,” Alviso said. Today, those who are making good merlot have zeroed in on the best areas and growing conditions.
“Merlot is fundamentally trickier to grow,” he said. “It’s a more finicky varietal than cabernet sauvignon which has less vintage variation and can deal with weather issues better than merlot. The French have known that for a long time.”
We went through more than a dozen merlots in the last few weeks and still found a lot not to like. Duckhorn Estate and its special Three Palms Vineyard merlots are exceptions. Mountain-grown merlot often produces the best, most long-lived merlot but most producers favor growing cabernet sauvignon in these choice locations. La Jota Vineyard’s extraordinary merlot is from Howell Mountain; Mt. Brave is from Mt. Veeder. Unfortunately, you’ll spend a lot of money to enjoy these merlots.
Here are a dozen interesting merlots we recently tasted:
Seavey Napa Valley Merlot 2018 ($65). Bill and Mary Seavey bought this historic Conn Valley vineyard in 1979 and since then have gained a reputation for making small-lot merlot, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. Only 450 cases are made of this well-balanced and age-worthy merlot. Generous strawberry and coffee aromas give way to fresh strawberry and raspberry flavors with layered nuances of vanilla, clove and rosemary. Good but fine tannins.
Lohr Creston Vineyard Paso Robles Merlot 2018 ($40). Blended into this jammy, fruit-forward merlot is 11 percent malbec and 1 percent cabernet sauvignon. Red fruit aromas with raspberry and strawberry flavors accented by tea, mocha and cranberry.
Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot 2018 ($56). This reliable producer has one of the most luxurious merlots in its Three Palm Vineyards version ($110), but the Napa Valley estate version is approachable, balanced and delicious. Unlike many merlots with muscular tannins, this wine can be enjoyed on release with fare such as short ribs and beef. Cherry aromas with layered plum, kirsch and blackberry flavors and a hint of cloves. Long finish. Duckhorn also makes a Stout Vineyard merlot.
La Jota Vineyard Napa Valley Merlot 2018 ($85). Winemaker Chris Carpenter takes advantage of the Howell Mountain fruit to craft a bold merlot that is blended with a bit of petit verdot and tannat. Although it shows promise for a long and illustrious future, the wine has approachable plum and blackberry fruit character. Nice dried herb aromas and long finish.
Mt. Brave Napa Valley Merlot 2018 ($85). Also made by Chris Carpenter but using grapes from Mt. Veeder, this merlot is lusher with forward, concentrated black cherry and cassis flavors with hints of cedar. Very delicious.
Rutherford Hill Napa Valley Merlot 2019 ($35). Blended with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot and syrah, this wine has generous blueberry and blackberry notes with a good dash of soothing kirsch and a hint of vanilla. Rutherford’s 2018 Oakville Merlot ($62) is a powerful wine with more complexity and tannin.
J.O. Sullivan Founder’s Reserve Napa Valley Merlot 2018 ($290). This blockbuster merlot comes at a high price but it shows what kind of merlot can emerge from the Rutherford AVA. It’s densely packed with plum and blackberry fruit with hints of chocolate, cedar and vanilla. It puts definition to full body.
Cakebread Cellars Napa Valley Merlot 2018 ($55). Black cherry and blackberry notes dominate this medium-bodied and fruit-forward merlot. Hints of graphite and black licorice. Moderate tannins make it quaffable on release.
Frank Family Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot 2018 ($45). The producer is back in the merlot business after a long respite and consumers should be happy. Some cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc help make this merlot complex but also juicy with generous blackberry flavors.
Decoy Merlot 2019 ($35). Drawing grapes from Sonoma County, this medium-body merlot is deceivingly complex. The floral nose seems simple, but on the palate, there are layers of blackberries, plums, raspberries and hints of vanilla and spice. The tannins are soft, thus making it a versatile wine to go with pasta, veal, pork and burgers.
Silverado Vineyards Mt. George Vineyard Merlot 2018 ($40). Smooth and easy, this medium-body merlot has black fruit flavors and hints of mint and chocolate.
Matanzas Creek Winery Alexandar Valley Merlot 2018 ($40). Dark fruit notes with hints of black licorice, olives and leather. Grapes from high elevation to render a medium body but serious merlot.
Flora Springs makes two wines with Halloween themes that unlike many gimmicky labels are actually very good.
The 2019 Flora Springs Ghost Winery Malbec ($60) is smooth and round with ripe blackberry flavors and a hint of cocoa. It’s really one of the best malbecs we’ve tasted from Napa Valley.
The Flora Springs All Hallow’s Eve Cabernet Franc ($60) is dense and unctuous with dark fruit flavors and a hint of mocha. Every year general manager Nat Komes commissions an artist to create a unique label for the wine. This year the artist was Marc Sasso from New York who has worked with Marvel and Topps Comics. It’s of witches dancing in the moonlight, brewing a wine potion.
Primus The Blend 2018 ($19). This is a broad blend of cabernet sauvignon, the native carmenere, syrah, petit verdot and cabernet franc. From Chile’s Colchagua Valley just 15 miles from the sea, it has a velvet texture with raspberry and strawberry notes.
Veramonte Chardonnay Casablanca Valley Chile 2019 ($12). This is a very reasonably priced chardonnay from Chile that will please a crowd. Simple tropical fruit and apple flavors, good structure and a soft mouthfeel.