By Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr
October has been declared “merlot month,” presumably by people who want to promote the sales of merlot. It is not an insurmountable task to promote a grape variety unduly maligned as much as merlot – but it is difficult.
Merlot production in California is a fraction of what it used to be, partly because of its portrayal in the movie “Sideways” but also because merlot made in the 1990s was pathetically weedy, vegetal and atypical of what was being made successfully in Bordeaux where it is the most widely planted grape. The reason may be that California producers wanted to achieve the success of the French and picked their merlot early to capture acidity and red fruit flavors. But along with that came the vegetal notes. The California merlot made today adopts an international style that calls for a late harvest to capture dark, full-bodied wines with plum notes and velvet tannins.
We love the merlot being made by Duckhorn, for instance. This Napa producer continues to outperform many of its competitors because it specializes in the grape variety.
Other quality merlots are La Jota and Mt. Brave, both proudly made by Chris Carpenter. These wines exemplify what can be done with the grape when it is grown in the right places and by the right winemakers. Although it is primarily a blending grape, these producers have made merlot the dominant if not the only grape in their wines.
Perhaps one of the best regions for merlot is Washington State. Chateau Ste. Michelle has a great lineup of merlots under its Northstar and H3 labels. Another good one from this state is L’Ecole.
In recognition of the month, here are a few tasty California merlots we recently enjoyed:
Sequentis Paso Robles Reserve Merlot 2019 ($52). From Daou Family Estates, this limited-edition merlot has all the qualities that make merlot a great wine in the right hands. We liked the copious aromas of dark fruit and spice followed by forward plum and rich raspberry compote. Hints of cedar and espresso with firm, fine tannins.
Cuda Ridge Wines Livermore Valley Merlot 2018 ($37). From a Livermore producer who focuses on Bordeaux-style blends, this merlot has a muscular feel with fresh red berry flavors and a generous floral nose.
Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot 2019 ($57). Blended with other Bordeaux grape varieties, this classic merlot is fruit forward with copious cherry and plum noes and a rich, luxuriant mouthfeel. For a real treat, step up to Duckhorn’s Three Palm Vineyard Merlot.
Decoy Merlot 2019 ($25). Made by Duckhorn, this easy, drinkable merlot with a broad California appellation has classic black cherry and plum flavors.
Mt. Brave Napa Valley Merlot 2019 ($95). Winemaker Chris Carpenter draws the best from the grapes grown in Mt. Veeder’s high elevations through rocky soils perched on steep slopes. Big in body, rich in style, it has dense blackberry and mineral notes.
La Jota Napa Valley Merlot 2019 ($100). Grown in volcanic soils on Howell Mountain, this long-living giant has dense plum and raspberry flavors with floral aromas and herbal, mineral notes that are sure to evolve with a decade of aging.
Markham Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot 2019 ($29). Fifteen percent of other red grapes round out this layered estate merlot. Jammy and generous plum and coffee aromas with jammy black cherry and plum flavors. Very drinkable but rich. We also liked Markham’s 2019 Yountville Ranch Merlot ($65), which is much more tannin and dense.
Lohr Estates Los Osos Merlot 2019 ($15). This producer keeps its red wines lush and forward. The merlot is no exception. Opulent plum and floral aromas with bright raspberry, strawberry and blackberry flavors.
J.O. Sullivan Founder’s Reserve Merlot 2019 ($280). Yeah, we know you won’t be buying this by the case but the wine demonstrates what can be done with merlot when left in the right hands. Very complex, textured and expressive. Cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc is blended with the merlot to create a world-class wine. Aged 22 months in new French oak.
Rutherford Hill Napa Valley Merlot 2019 ($30). Easy drinking but subtly complex, this wine has lush plum and kirsch notes, long finish and velvet tannins.