By Rick Riozza
In the past few columns, we’ve figuratively filled your wine nook with a fun assortment of Italian wines. Chianti has always been a fine vino transition from the roses of summer to the solid red wines of the holiday season. But now, it’s time to raise our glasses to the mercurial moods of Merlot.
It’s been almost 20 years since Merlot was much maligned in the magnificent Sideways movie. These days everyone is back enjoying the original French Bordeaux grape that was named after the blackbird. Francophiles and Francophones argue whether the name came from describing the tiny, almost black-skin grape, or because the blackbirds loved to eat them straight off the vine.
Anyway—it doesn’t matter to us Americans, because, Merlot wine is so juicy and inviting and doesn’t usually have a bunch of tannins nor the scary streak of acidity to ruin a lovely afternoon.
The internet tells us that Merlot is now one of the most extensively grown grapes in the world, even if it is not the most popular. It is often used as a blending grape, but many well-known wine makers make 100 percent Merlot wines. Merlot has milder acidity than a Cab Sauv or Malbec and it generally has more of a fruit forward taste profile.
You can often find flavors of red and black fruits including cherry, raspberry, and plum. It also has softer and smoother tannins than other red wines, making it a good match for slightly spicy foods—there you go; chill it up and it’s perfect for the Mexican and Hot Asian fare. Merlots are also a great match for chicken, duck, and pasta, and of course a perfectly grilled steak.
While many wine enthusiasts only think about California Merlot—do realize that the famous Right Bank Bordeaux is filled with Merlot wine: Chateau Petrus for instance; and blended with Cab Franc: Chateau Cheval Blanc (of course the irony in the movie Sideways, was that even though the main character, Miles, hates & defames Merlot—indeed, Merlot was blended in Cheval Blanc, his favorite wine!)
But back to California: the 2019 vintage is excellent and one can feel liberated when purchasing any decent Merlot of that vintage. Unfortunately, the 2020 vintage is a different story: Wine Spectator (WS) recently wrote: “It was an extremely hot and dry year in Northern California, with a series of heat spikes during the summer. Then in mid-August, a succession of dry lightning storms set off wildfires throughout wine country from Monterey up to Mendocino. If that wasn’t enough, Napa’s devastating Glass Fire ignited in September caused large areas of the region to be covered in smoke for extended periods.
“Merlot is an early ripening red, which was an advantage in 2020, yet it wasn’t enough to salvage the vintage for many producers.” In vino veritas—so check things out before buying your favorite California wine of that vintage.
And now, some delicious Merlot wine we’re happy to recommend:
Duckhorn has been making wine in California since 1978 and Three Palms Vineyard is one of Napa’s best-made single vineyard Merlot. It has received much critical acclaim and in 2017 Wine Spectator chose the 2014 Three Palms Vineyard Merlot as “Wine of the Year.” It is one of the most desired Merlots and is always a valued and welcome gift for the holidays for those who love fame & wine.
Most of Duckhorn’s Merlot was in the winery before the Glass Fire started in September. But the winery is full of integrity, and they reported that, “We didn’t use fruit from Howell Mountain and Atlas Peak at all. Overall, about 40% of our Duckhorn vineyard grapes, including Merlot, were left in the field or were not used because they did not meet our quality standards.” Cheers to them!
2020 Duckhorn Merlot Napa Valley Three Palms Vineyard ($125). WS writes, Tense with structure, this red slowly reveals itself with savory plum and dried cherry flavors, highlighted by dusky spices and anise as this builds toward broad-shouldered tannins. 91 points.
2020 Duckhorn Merlot Napa Valley Rector Creek Vineyard ($110). “This version is handsomely framed, with a dense core of minerally tannins, and acidity highlighted by flavors of currant, licorice, and savory tea, which linger on the finish.” 91 points
2020 Duckhorn Merlot Napa Valley Carneros ($80). “Precise and attractive, with inviting black currant, tomato leaf and espresso details that build richness and tension toward fine-grained tannins. 91 points.
2021 Leonetti Cellar Walla Walla Merlot ($100). Leonetti was founded in 1977 and was one of Walla Walla, Washington’s first commercial wineries. The 2021 is deep garnet colored with aromas of red raspberry, Christmas baking spices, and freshly picked Bing cherry. It has rounded and elegant tannins with flavors of red plum, vanilla, and dark chocolate and a long, long finish. Absolutely tasty stuff!!
Another review states: The 2021 vintage provided incredibly concentrated, superb wines with smaller-than-normal yields. This extraordinary Merlot is dark ruby in color. The nose boasts vine-ripened boysenberry, huckleberry, and black raspberry backed by alluring background notes of baking spices, dark chocolate, and caramel.
The above Merlots are definitely a treat for the holiday season. Coming back down to earth with a very nice table wine for any occasion is the 2021 Fri Brothers Merlot Dry Creek Valley Sonora Reserve ($17). “Plump and generous, with jammy red currant, cherry, and toasty cinnamon flavors that linger on the sleek finish. 89 points.