whipping boy

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Merlot has become something of a whipping boy for me – at least the California stuff – and it’s because I’ve been spoiled by the quality of the wines labeled merlot that come from Washington state. But prejudice is prejudice, and from time to time a palate check is in order.

So last night I rounded up a dozen or so merlots from the great state of California. These were unsolicited samples sent from the wineries, and collected over a period of months. I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with them to tell you the truth, until I hit upon the idea of lining them up, tossing in some representatives from Washington, and seeing how they fared.

I did not do this as a blind tasting, but I did invite Mrs. G and two good friends to plow through the group and pick out favorites and least favorites, without regard to price or status. We spent several hours at this, and although some might say that unless it’s blind it’s “never mind”, I think that the wines get a better look if you know what they are, go back and forth, and watch them open up over a period of hours, rather than taking one quick pass through.

Anyway, results were interesting. The pricier wines did not always win accolades. There were also two slightly older wines, and although I thought they were excellent, my friends did not find them as interesting as I did, perhaps because the primary fruit was beginning to fade. Here are the wines, listed in order of my (final) preference, with some comments from the group. I have listed prices where I had them; most of these wines were in the $25 to $45 range.

1) Pepper Bridge 2003 Merlot – a very fine bottle from my cellar, though no one but me had it as the best wine, due to some hints of green in the tannins. Terroir I thought, but others wanted more fruit.

2) Pedestal 2003 Merlot ($45) – this Long Shadows wine, made by Michel Rolland, is aging quite nicely, with smooth development of secondary fruits.

3) Beringer 2005 Bancroft Ranch Vineyard Merlot ($50) – from a favored site on Howell Mountain, this wine showed lots of concentration (rare in Napa merlot), full-throttle tannins, and barrel flavors of vanilla, almond paste and milk chocolate.

4) Indian Wells 2006 Merlot ($17) – a crowd favorite, this excellent merlot was satiny smooth and supple, with a density missing from most of the California wines. And it sells for a fraction of the cost of the wines listed above.

5) Gloria Ferrer 2006 Merlot ($19) – from Carneros, this stylish, spicy wine brought tangy wild berry fruit together with rock, cedar and leather. Complex and lean, and the best value from California in the tasting.

6) St. Clement 2006 Merlot ($28) – a manly wine, I wrote, again from Carneros fruit, loaded with dark chocolate, black cherry, licorice and raspberry jam.


The rest of the wines were less impressive. They included a K-J 2006 Grand Reserve ($28); Matanzas Creek 2005 Bennett Valley ($35); Freemark Abbey 2005 Napa ($25, started out well, then got into some sulfurous scents); Chappellet 2006 Napa ($38, surprisingly thin given almost 15% alcohol); Cartlidge & Browne 2006 North Coast (chalky); Rutherford Ranch 2007 Napa ($17, not in the same league as the Indian Wells); least favorite was the Duckhorn 2006 Napa ($52 – what are they smoking at Duckhorn?).

Am I missing some great California merlots? I am sure that I am. But bottle for bottle, I think the Washington wines have more concentration, more structure, and more detail at every price point.


Wawineman said...

Milk chocolate?? That's a new one. Nestle or Hersheys? :P

PaulG said...

Chocolate of some sort - dark, bitter, baker, milk, mocha, etc. is often used as a flavor descriptor. It's even on the "official" aroma wheel.

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