By Rick Riozza

I know—a lot of you red wine drinkers are jonesin because all we’ve been writing about this season are summer white and rosé wines. So to keep our egalitarian wine community happy, let’s indeed take a break from that coverage and plunge into what we can call summer red wines.

So let’s say there are at least two types: Red wines that can be chilled when served—maybe not as chilled as a refreshing white, but chilled up none-the-less without affecting the varietal taste of the wine (like sparkling Shiraz, Beaujolais Villages, Bardolino & Valpolicella). And, those reds that are served at the summer dinner table where the classic red and black fruit profile is present, but the wine is more medium-bodied and not a heft on the lighter cuisine of the season.

We red wine lovers can handle some pretty full-bodied stuff—and we love it! But we may be a bit over the edge if we’re cajoling with Chateauneuf du Papes, Barolos, and full-bodied heavy duty Napa Valley Cabs when it’s over 100 degrees out! And we know a few of you die-hards are doing just that! But I’ll tell you, some of those 15.5% to 16% alcohol levels in the boot-strapping Zinfandels can take you down. Nothing like bloating up & checking out at dinner time!

Our love affair with California Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is incessant. Yes, we know to pay homage to Bordeaux where these varietals were originally from, and the usual red wine blend there in France is some combination of Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and maybe there’s still some Carménère around. (Cheers to Chile and Argentina where Carménère and Malbec, respectively, are dynamic.)

At its best, Cabernet Sauvignon produces wines with deep, dark colors that offer complex scents and concentrated flavors ranging from blackberries, crème de cassis, black cherries, boysenberry, blueberry and chocolate when young, to fragrances of tobacco, truffle, cedar wood, earth, lead pencil and leather when mature. The wines can be rich and concentrated, as well as tannic.

And after quite a few decades of California living, Cal Cabs have shown the ability to age extremely well when grown in good soils and allowed ample time to ripen.

I remember in the 80’s, Merlot wine was the sweetheart of the “new wave” of young wine aficionados who loved to drink a wine a little mellower than the tannic Cabernet Sauvignon. And they loved not pronouncing the “t” in the word. The first vintage of the Marilyn Merlot wine brand with its black label and the sultry Marilyn on it, was a hit—I bought a few bottles and should have kept them as they became a collector’s item.

The Merlot grape brings a range of fresh flavors such as plums, cherries, blueberries and blackberries mixed with cocoa and black pepper tones. The tannins—those strong puckering qualities are typically mellower than a Cab and the fruit flavors are more forward—a wonderful quaff for those who are just getting into red wines. And for those of us who’ve been drinking the stuff for more years than we can count, Merlot can offer some fabulous flavors.

As mentioned in Bordeaux—so too in California, Merlot typically blends with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. By blending Merlot with Cabs, each varietal works on the other: Cabs are softened, mellowed a bit and the Merlot relishes more structure and definition.

Recently I had the pleasure of enjoying a couple of Franciscan Estate Wines, the 2011 Napa Valley Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and they are the perfect red wines for the summer meal. Both wines are medium-to-full-bodied, as expected—but nothing heavy or bloating. Both wines match beautifully the meal—light cuts of meat, chicken, Asian-style pork and plates with grilled fruits abounding.

Taking pleasure in a grilled steak dinner, our family had the Merlot which showed aromas of cassis, tobacco, vanilla and baking spices around sweet herb notes of sage and marjoram. Then a layer of deep black cherry and plum came wafting alongside anise and leather. You could “nose” this wine all evening. A flavorful tasting of dark berries and black currants with mocha, clove, and hints of rosemary carried this velvety vino into elegance with a great finish of blackberry and a touch hazelnut.

Definitely a “Cab-lover’s Merlot for its richness. For around $20 a bottle at Pavilions in Rancho Mirage, I challenge anyone to present me a Merlot that can match this quality and price.

The Cab was of course a bit more full-bodied but stylish and Bordeaux-like. I’ll cover this wine in a later up-coming Cab article.

But a quick note on Franciscan Estate. It was established in 1973 and began producing wines of true character from their Oakville estate in 1975. I know—so many of you wine country travelers always perk up when you hear about a Napa Valley Oakville Cab.

The appellation is located in the heart of Napa Valley and within this small district you will find the greatest concentration of preeminent producers of Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Oakville Winegrowers association writes, “The Oakville district of Napa Valley is so influential that a simple recitation of prominent Oakville winegrowers, from pioneers Robert Mondavi and Joseph Heitz to powerhouse brands Groth, Far Niente, Opus One and Joseph Phelps, through “cult Cabernet” producers Dalla Valle, Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle, tells the condensed story of Napa Valley wine.”

With winemaker Janet Myers at the helm at Franciscan Estate, we get to link up with premium quality Oakville wine at the most reasonable prices. Cheers!

Rick is the Wine Steward of Rancho Mirage and somm-about-town entertaining at wine events & tastings. Contact