Grape Expectations


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Figgins Family Wine Estates, Walla Walla, Washington (courtesy Figgins Family Wine Estates, by Andrea Johnson)

Lets play a little wine Jeopardy. A variety of Black Bord found in the Bordeaux region of France, what is merlot? Correct! These days, it seems harder to find really good Merlot and I dare say, even harder to find die-hard Merlot lovers. “On the street” or in the restaurants as it were, wine lists selections for Merlot are shrinking. But Merlot’s demise is horribly exaggerated. A Merlot was recently awarded No. 1 Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator magazine and Merlot will never lose its place in the pantheon of great red wines.

Historically used as a blending agent, great Merlot on its own can be utterly beguiling. The heady phenolics of plum, raspberries, black currants and figs. Th e velvety thick richness that sets it apart in the palate is akin to hot Valrhona chocolate milk. Speaking of chocolate, it can be evident along with certain herbaceous notes blended with the perfectly ripe berries found in the nose. When aged in new wood, it gains notes of vanilla and smoke. And when grown in the right soils, it can be reminiscent of freshly tilled earth or an early morning hike with dew beneath the trees. It can age gracefully for decades with the right stuffing and is one of the world’s most expensive and desirable wines.

So, what happened to Merlot? Crediting Paul Giamatti’s line in the movie Sideways would be missing the point. Basically, vine growers overproduced Merlot chasing the demand for it. Now much of the Merlot planted in California is going into red blends where winemakers craft a specific flavor profile using Merlot’s intrinsic characters along with other grape varieties. Some Merlot vineyards are being or have already been t-budded to Cabernet or some other variety that will make more money or is in more demand. What is heartwarming is that there are still plenty of sites from around the world that specialize in Merlot and are in no danger of being budded to anything else.

One of the great things about Merlot is that it is grown at a very high level in many places around the globe much like the other noble red grape varieties such as Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. Let us look first at sources closest to home. Washington State is becoming increasingly recognized for their red wine production and at the forefront of that for many years has been Leonetti Cellars whose Merlot may be the New World’s finest. In California, no discussion of the finest Merlot would be complete without mentioning Pahlmeyer whose Napa Valley Merlot is built to last, maybe even more Cabernet like its masculinity. Shafer’s Merlot is another benchmark as is Duckhorn’s Three Palms Vineyard (2017 Wine Spectator magazine’s Wine of the Year). And for me Selene Merlot, also from Napa Valley, made by the amazing Mia Klein is what Merlot dreams are made of in California-seductive, rich, complex and velvety. South America is more than worthy of mention for their Merlot. Casa Lapostolle Cuvee Alexandre from the Colchagua Valley represents a bridge between the New and Old World in style but still has that sleek personification of great Merlot.

As we hop over the Atlantic, Italy’s Tuscany takes center stage. Tenuta dell Ornellaia ‘Masseto’ is one of the greatest Merlots to pass my lips. I call it “the Petrus of Italy.” Le Macchiole ‘Messorio’ is Masset’s equal in quality but even more polished and just as hard to find. And to round out this trident of the top Merlot in Italy Tua Rita’s Redigaffi is an explosive wine that could be mistaken for a Pomerol from an excellent vintage. Which brings us to Merlot’s traditional home in Bordeaux. More specifically in the Right Bank of Merlot where it is used as a significant part of the blend in St. Emilion in such greats as Cha?teau Cheval-Blanc and Ausone. But Merlot is more exclusively used in an even smaller appellation called Pomerol. Here lies a unique terroir based on an iron-rich clay soil that gives life to the wines that every master sommelier, wine collector and billionaire would know. Cha?teau Le Pin is the “cult wine” of Bordeaux. With its pitiful production sought out jealously by those with deep pockets, Cha?teau Lafleur is an exquisite wine replete with fruit and herbs and this wonderful sense of place. It is located right across the street from the “Emperor” (if you will) of Merlot, Cha?teau Petrus. Petrus is the greatest Merlot on the planet. It has rivals but none that equal. It is legendary and expensive for good reason. To drink Petrus is a dance with the divine. No other Merlot tastes quite like it.

My name is on the list of Merlot lovers. Perhaps Petrus has that effect on drinkers. But one need not go to such expense to find enjoyment in Merlot. There will always be great Merlot and that little black bird will forever sing its song through the wine in the glass.

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