Musings on merlot

Note from Laurie: Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, I’ve continued to enjoy wine. Writing about it? Not so much. I managed to get through the various restrictions relatively unscathed – and healthy – but I just couldn’t summon much motivation to write. It’s a feeling that a recent New York Times article referred to as “languishing”: not depression, but a stagnant, blah feeling. Now that I’m vaccinated and things are returning to some semblance of normal, I’m going to make an effort to post more regularly. Stay tuned.  

California merlot has been in the doldrums for some years now. It’s the fourth most planted red variety in the state, behind cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and zinfandel, but the acreage has been declining for the past 15 years or so.

There was much written in the second half of the 2000s about how the decline was the “Sideways” effect – a reference to the 2004 movie and paean to pinot noir that memorably featured the line “I’m NOT going to drink any f—ing merlot!” by the main character. The movie may very well have had something to do with it – it certainly had the opposite effect on pinot noir. But I would argue that an important source of merlot’s woes was the preponderance of a lot of indifferent merlot.

Merlot can produce glorious wine. It’s one of the traditional grapes of Bordeaux and is especially prominent in that area’s Pomerol and Saint-Émilion appellations, on the so-called Right Bank. One of the world’s greatest and most famous wines, Château Pétrus from Pomerol, is all about merlot.

These days, merlot is grown all over the place, from Italy and Greece to New Zealand and Chile. In the U.S., it performs well in Washington state (especially the Walla Walla Valley) and Long Island. And, of course, it’s widely grown in California.

In California, merlot has often been grown in the same places as cabernet sauvignon. And there’s the rub: Many of the spots that are just right for ripening cab are simply too hot for merlot. The result is merlot that’s completely lacking in distinction. At the same time, if it’s planted somewhere that’s too cold, or it’s overcropped, it can have a nasty green character.

In 2020, there were just under 36,000 acres of merlot planted in California, according to state statistics. Much of it was planted in the Central Valley, but Napa, Sonoma and Monterey counties have sizable acreage, too. But the acreage has fallen since its peak in 2005 (the year after “Sideways”), when there were more than 54,000 acres statewide.

Despite the decline in quantity of California merlot, there are still some wines of tremendous quality. What follows are a few producers and bottles to consider.

Duckhorn Vineyards has long been known for merlot, especially its pricey single-vineyard bottlings like the one from Three Palms Vineyard in the Napa Valley. But its more general Napa Valley merlot ($56) is also quite good. Also in the Duckhorn family is the affordable Decoy brand; the 2018 Decoy Merlot ($25) from Sonoma County offers ripe red and black fruit with a note of cracked pepper and fine tannins.

Jackson Family Wines owns a couple of Napa Valley properties that produce stellar (if expensive) merlots. The 2016 Mt. Brave Merlot ($80) comes from Mt. Veeder, above the west side of the valley. The wine displays lively red fruit, baking spices, a savory note of cedar and firm but approachable tannins on its long finish. From across the valley, on Howell Mountain, there’s the 2017 La Jota Merlot ($85), which is dark and dense, with black fruit, anise, cedar and spice. It’s a big wine, but it’s still light on its feet, with good freshness.

Not much in the way of bargains so far, I know. But here’s a really great buy from Sonoma County: the 2018 Selby Merlot ($24), a savory, elegant wine with a brushy, wild herb note accenting the fresh red fruit and medium tannins.

Another wine that offers a lot of flavor for the price is the merlot from McIntyre Vineyards, a Monterey County winery better known for its pinot noir. I haven’t tasted the current vintage, 2016 ($28), but the 2015 vintage from Kimberly Vineyard in Arroyo Seco is structured, plump and concentrated, with dark fruit, a hint of mocha and a long finish.

Ridge Vineyards, known for its cabernets and zinfandels, also make a terrific merlot. There’s an estate merlot as well as the 2017 “Perrone” Merlot ($75), both from the famed Monte Bello estate vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Perrone is rich and ripe, with black cherry, baking spice and a hint of black olive. Its plump richness belies the wine’s 12.5 percent alcohol.

As noted earlier, the Walla Walla Valley in Washington state is the source of some wonderful merlots. A well-known producer whose wines I really like is L’Ecole No. 41. Although I haven’t tried the current vintage, 2018 ($36), past vintages have been lovely, with ample black fruit, mocha and some savory notes of tobacco and sage. There’s also a very good Columbia Valley bottling for $24.


2 thoughts on “Musings on merlot

  1. As a longtime Napa Valley Merlot (and Cabernet, SB) grower, your article nailed it. Merlot is a bit more challenging in Napa and the Sideways effect coincided with the over-popular moment Merlot had. Absolute crap was bottled, exactly as you stated, due to its rampant popularity (for about 3 years) and that was the problem. Too bad, really. A wonderful grape, in the right location farmed correctly.

    1. I am currently a viticulture student in Michigan. My professor still talks about how Sideways destroyed the Merlot market and everyone who doesn’t like Merlot is ignorant. It’s frustrating to listen to, because we know the wines being made in the lead up to that movie were just not very good. I believe someone at Sonoma State did a study showing the sales market for Merlot had already dropped by 3 or 5% before the movie came out.

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