Merlot is back! Over the past 10 years the Merlot grape has taken a beating. The movie, Sideways didn't help with that famous line about not drinking Merlot. Winemakers looked in the mirror and realized there was a lot of bad Merlot being made either by planting the wrong clones in the wrong places, or just taking their eye off the ball and flooding the market with below average juice.
This October wine lovers will have a chance to reintroduce themselves to one of the most popular grape varietals in the world. Check out #merlotme on any social media site or visit merlotme.com to see where to taste Merlot, who's participating and which wineries are getting involved.
Fall is a great time to pop some corks on Merlot because the foods we eat this time of year are a bit heartier and a bit richer. Nothing warms the soul on a chilly fall evening than some Braised Beef Short Rib Ragu or Filet Mignon with Blue Cheese Porcini Sauce. I've hand picked a few Merlots that demonstrate exceptional quality for the price:
Wente Sandstone Merlot $25 - Livermore, California
Merlot loves to grow in shallow sandy soil, and no place in the world shows that better than Bordeaux's right bank where the grape flourishes. Some of the world's best Merlots come from the Pomerol and St. Emilion, including Le Pin, Petrus and Cheval Blanc (made with Merlot and Cabernet Franc).
Here in America we have a region that isn't too dissimilar to the right bank. Livermore valley was California's first premiere wine growing region before Napa and Sonoma became household names. Whereas Napa and Sonoma benefit from volcanic and alluvial soils, Livermore has those sand and clay soils Merlot loves.
Wente is America's oldest continuous winemaking family going back to the civil war and California's gold rush. It's safe to say, they know how to farm grapes in Livermore and they know how to deliver wines people will love for not very much money. Look up 'merlot' in the dictionary and you're likely to see a photo of Wente's Sandstone offering.
L'Ecole No. 41 Estate Merlot $35 - Walla Walla, Washington
Walla Walla hasn't been around very long. In the early 1990's there were about a dozen wineries producing wine in the valley. Now there are a few hundred. For that reason, no one really knows how well wines from Walla Walla can age.
Luckily, a few early pioneers like Rick Small at Woodward Canyon and Marty Clubb of L'Ecole No. 41 started making good wine the right way, and they have older vintages to use for reference.
Washington state absolutely crushes it with Merlot—thankfully, winery owners like Marty never gave up on the grape. And like Wente in Livermore valley, Walla Walla has those shallow Loess soils on the hillsides and long, mellow growing seasons that provide Merlot vines with a climate they like. If you can't find some library releases, poke around online. Winemakers were using less oak back in the day, and they kept alcohol levels in check. The Walla Walla valley Merlot is good, but the Seven Hills Vineyard Merlot is even better if you can find it.
Matthiasson Red Hen Merlot $80 - Napa Valley
Of all the great wines Matthiason makes, Merlot is often left off the list. But don't be fooled, Steve Matthiasson hits it out of the park with this 100% Merlot bottling from block 3C of Red Hen vineyard, located in Napa's Oak Knoll district. At $80 a bottle, it better be extraordinary and it is—welcome to sit along side top tier wines from places like Saint Emilion where Merlot's benchmark resides.
Matthiasson shows his control as an artists farming vines in extra rocky albeit thin well-drained silty loam soils. Merlot never had it so good as the winemaker gets out of the way of the fruit with minimal oak intervention and a modest 13.5% alcohol.
This block was a favorite source for Christian Brothers in the 1950's through 1970's. I normally like red wines from Napa to have around 8 years in the bottle before drinking, so if you can't find the 2005 look for 2010 which is well structured and accessible now (but will be phenomenal with time).