Merlot has been so unfairly maligned over the years. Sure, it once was vegetal and overly ripe, but much of today's merlot is equal in quality to any other red grape variety. While some people hold on to outdated assessments for one of Bordeaux's noble grape varieties, others are willing to give merlot another chance.
And you should, too. You can look to Petrus -- the Bordeaux wine that is a model for merlot producers -- to see what can be accomplished without the help of cabernet sauvignon. Merlot can be complex, long living and full of rich, layered fruit. It is even more versatile than many heady cabernets -- a match to wild game and lamb but pasta and hamburgers too.
The relatively recent path to redemption has been led by several California producers, including Pride, Duckhorn, Shafer and others. Unfortunately, if you want quality merlot, you have to open the wallet wider.
Good merlot starts in the vineyard where yields are reasonably low and the canopy is well managed. Bad sourcing and poor vineyard management can lead to vegetal and unbalanced merlots. Unlike cabernet sauvignon, merlot is more sensitive to uneven ripening and mildew, so location and climate are critical. Some of the best merlots are coming from vineyard with high elevations and cooling fogs.
Here are a few top-drawer merlots we recently enjoyed:
Ehlers Estate Merlot 2013 ($55). Winemaker Kevin Morrisey learned his skill in Pomerol, so he knows a thing or two about the grape. This wine from Napa Valley, blended with a small amount of cabernet franc, brings out the lusciousness one expects from merlot. Raspberry and currant flavors with hints of licorice and chocolate. Chewy tannins demand a hearty meal, like stew or game.
Swanson Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot 2013 ($32). We recently reunited with this classic merlot after a long, unintended hiatus. We’re glad we did. It’s a voluptuous, concentrated wine that exceeds its price in quality. Blended with some cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot, this full-bodied wine has oodles of plum aromas and plum, blackberry flavors with a dash of cedar and herbs. When a producer makes merlot its centerpiece, this is the quality you get.
Mt. Brave Mt. Veeder Merlot 2013 ($75). Napa Valley is a top source for quality merlot grapes and it doesn't get any better than Mt. Veeder. At these high elevations, the vines struggle to produce fruit, but what they produce is intense and concentrated. The Mt. Brave, blended with a dash of malbec, is complex with plum and black berry flavors and a bit of mineral.
La Jota Howell Mountain Merlot 2013 ($85). This wine and the previous Mt. Brave are hand-crafted by Chris Carpenter. This one from Howell Mountain has a distinct cocoa powder that we just loved. Bright cherry and plum fruit character make it ridiculously delicious.
Matanzas Creek Winery Merlot Sonoma County 2013 ($28). This is a very well put together merlot with an intense ripe cherry and plum nose. In the mouth very soft tannins and mouth filling plum, cherry and spicy cinnamon flavors dominate. Delicious by itself or with red meat dishes.
Miner Stagecoach Merlot 2013 ($40). With 11 percent cabernet franc in the blend, this Napa Valley merlot has good grip and ripe, rich black fruit with noticeable spice and oak.
Markham Vineyards Merlot 2014 ($26). Markham is celebrating its 35th vintage of this wine. We liked the texture and complex cherry, chocolate flavors. Known for its merlot, Markham is in full-stride with this anniversary edition.
Viansa Sonoma Heritage Red Blend 2013 ($40). From Sonoma County, this blend uses sangiovese as the foundation and adds cabernet sauvignon (30 percent), malbec, petit verdot and merlot for breadth. Generous aromas of plums and herbs with blackberry and ripe plum flavors.
SAVED Red Blend 2013 ($25). Perhaps the best yet made by this producer, this is a delicious and more complex blend of merlot, zinfandel, syrah, petit verdot, Malbec and souzao. Black cherry flavors with a good dose of cola and licorice.
Hess Collection Lion Tamer Red Blend 2014 ($40). If you don’t like your malbec unblended, this combination may be the compromise you are looking for. We often find malbecone-dimensional, so this is a refreshing approach. Blended with zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah and merlot, the Lion Tamer malbec takes on breadth and depth. Very velvety in texture yet powerful, it has a perfumy nose with layered plum and blackberry fruit with a dash of chocolate.
Peachy Canyon Petite Sirah 2014 ($32). This Paso Robles producer is well known for its reasonably priced zinfandels, but we thoroughly enjoyed this delicious petite sirah. Classic deep red color, juicy blackberry and plum flavors with a hint of chocolate and fine, youthful tannins.
Don Miguel Gascon Reserva Malbec 2014 ($25). Ripe plum flavors with a bit of chocolate and spice.
Frank Family Napa Valley Petite Sirah 2013 ($35). Rich, complex and classically dark. No need to blend this gem with any other grape varieties as its profile is aromatic, rich in sweet blueberries and coated in chocolate.
The Hess Collection Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($65). Using grapes from high elevation, the vines struggle to produce a scant but concentrated juice for this complex and layered cabernet. Rich blackberry and herbal notes with a dash of black pepper and fine tannins.
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