washington wine grapes: merlot

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Part three in this week's quick tour of the five most essential varietals grown and made in Washington. I say it’s time for merlot to raise its battered flag and reclaim its position as a broadly-fruited, texturally satisfying, food-friendly red wine. In truth, the wine never lost its popularity, just its cachet. The reasons are easy to spot: the impact of “Sideways,” the glut of watery plonk labeled merlot, the emergence of other, trendier Bordeaux varietals. But all that said, merlot still warrants a place in your cellar. Because when it’s good, it’s very good.

Though I do not have the most updated figures, if memory serves the two most popular and best-selling merlots in America are made by Blackstone and Columbia Crest. CC made 285,000 cases of the Grand Estates 2006 bottling alone, and though the blend includes 7% syrah, 5% cabernet franc, and 3% cabernet sauvignon; that’s still 85% merlot, which qualifies it as a legitimate varietal.

Merlot in Washington state has had superstar bottlings for decades. Leonetti, Andrew Will and Quilceda Creek are three that spring to mind immediately (though sadly, Quilceda is no longer producing a varietal merlot). Northstar was founded specifically as a merlot specialist, and the lineup of high-profile wines at Long Shadows includes the Pedestal merlot, made under the supervision of Michel Roland.

More than one Washington winemaker has offered some thoughts in answer to my question “why does merlot taste better in Washington?” The best Washington merlots seem to start where most others leave off, with ripe flavors of sweet cherries that reach well beyond simple and fruity, adding plush, packed, textured flavors of mixed red and black fruits and berries. The best of them play out broadly across the palate, with smooth, supple tannins and plenty of lively natural acid. They happily embrace the flavors of new oak (toast, espresso, vanilla and chocolate), but first and foremost they taste of rich, ripe fruit.

Marty Clubb, who owns L’Ecole No 41, notes that “the key to Washington doing merlot right is that it’s the thinner skin varietal, and like sémillon it tends to plump up with rain at harvest. We don’t have that problem [it doesn’t rain in eastern Washington vineyards during harvest]. In my mind that is a key reason why we can make such extracted, aromatic, spicy, nicely balanced merlots. We control the water.”

My list of the best Washington merlot vineyards includes Ciel du Cheval, Klipsun and Kiona (on Red Mountain); Pepper Bridge, Spring Valley and Seven Hills (in Walla Walla); both Canoe Ridges and Champoux (in the Horse Heaven Hills); DuBrul, Sheridan, Red Willow and Boushey (in the Yakima Valley); and Ste. Michelle’s Cold Creek. Here are the benchmark and icon examples:

Benchmark: Columbia Crest Grand Estates 2006 Merlot; $11. Pure and deep, with a strong tannic spine, and flavors of cassis and coffee, boysenberry and chocolate.

Icon: Pedestal 2006 Merlot; $55. The blend includes 8% cabernet sauvignon, 4% petit verdot and 2% malbec. Dark, toasty scents and flavors are wrapped into ripe black fruits, while the generous (85% new) French oak aging brings in clove, licorice and smoky spice. As with all top Washington merlots, here the fruit has the muscle and breadth necessary to keep it all focused and harmonious.


Anonymous said...

Awesome, Paul! It IS about time Merlot reclaim its prominence. Merlot helped make Washington a great wine region (although now known for much more). This post is spot on. Thanks for providing the benchmark and icon information in this series...very helpful!


P.S. Be on the lookout for a fun twitter tasting featuring Washington Wine in March!

Anonymous said...

Grower pride is at play in this comment. As a proud grower for Long Shadows line-up of wines, I could not help but notice the lack of mention of the vineyards in the Pedestal wine featured as your Iconic example of Merlot in Washington. Since 2003, each vintage of Pedestal has had either Weinbau or Dionysus Vineyards in the blend, both vineyards managed by Sagemoor Vineyards. If you take the time to go to the tasting notes on the Long Shadows website you will see other iconic vineyards noted. That said, I totally agree with your other choices listed above and I applaud your efforts to raise the Merlot awareness factor. Kudos on your blog.
Kent Waliser, GM, Sagemoor Vineyards

PaulG said...

Kent, no slight at all was intended. Trying to keep entries brief, entertaining and to the point makes it impossible to be comprehensive. Thanks for adding some valuable insights to the post!

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