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Time for merlot to take its spot at top

WEDNESDAY, FEB. 24, 2010

It’s baaaack.

The wine that wine geeks love to hate. The wine that famously was drunk out of a spit bucket in the movie “Sideways.” The wine that new research shows “has the single largest consumer base of any varietal wine in the U.S. and … is the one most closely associated with high quality at an affordable price.”

Yes, merlot, that much-abused, rarely defended all-purpose red wine. In a detailed report released this month from Blackstone Winery and The Nielsen Co., merlot turns out to be the most-purchased wine variety – red or white – in the country. In Washington, it remains the fourth most widely-grown grape, behind chardonnay, riesling and cabernet sauvignon.

More important, merlot in Washington is a different breed of critter than merlot from almost anywhere else. In order to be labeled merlot, a wine need only be 75 percent merlot. The rest can be anything. In the cheaper (under $15) bottles from California, it is not unusual to find a high percentage of other grapes to add color, tannin and substance to what is often a rather thin, wimpy wine on its own.

But here in Washington, merlot doesn’t need that kind of support. It ripens so well here, many winemakers have told me that they reverse the usual blending procedure – adding merlot to their cabernet to beef it up, rather than vice-versa.

I say it’s time for merlot to raise its battered flag and reclaim its position as the broadly fruited, texturally satisfying, food-friendly red wine it can be. Especially in times when many other red wines are still rather pricey, value-oriented merlot deserves a place on your table.

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 Rolland.

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 Cold Creek and Sagemoor in the Columbia Valley. And yes, there are certainly others equally deserving of praise.

One of the great pleasures of merlot is its accessibility. Young vintages drink well, yet the bigger (generally pricier) bottles will also prove cellarworthy. At recent vertical tastings of Canoe Ridge and Walla Walla Vintners merlots, it was startling to see how well even the oldest wines were drinking.

Out of a total of 36 wines tasted – 13 from Vintners, 23 from Canoe Ridge – an aging pattern emerged. The oldest wines, from the mid-1990s, were still balanced and showed mature, soft flavors. The sweet spot was reached when the wines were eight to ten years old – the 1999, 2000 and 2001 vintages showed especially well. My favorites were the 1999 and 2000 merlots from Walla Walla Vintners, and the 1996, 1999 (regular bottling) and 2005 reserve from Canoe Ridge.

What should you try? New merlots from Caterina and Robert Karl were spotlighted in last month’s column. Here are some other recommended Washington merlots in a range of prices. I’ve listed suggested retail, but you may often find them selling for less.

• Snoqualmie 2007 Merlot ($10) – a steely, herbal, high-acid style, with pale red fruit flavors of cranberry and currant.

• Columbia Crest 2006 Grand Estates Merlot ($11) – a strong tannic spine supports flavors of cassis and coffee, boysenberry and chocolate.

• Hogue 2007 Merlot ($11) – this light and fruity merlot might be mistaken for a gamay, with its pretty cherry candy fruit.

• Powers 2007 Merlot ($14) – Solid and varietal, its substantial, mouth-filling plum and black cherry flavors combine with streaks of licorice, coffee, chocolate and smoke.

• Milbrandt 2007 Traditions Merlot ($15) – smooth and silky, with strawberry and raspberry fruit swimming in a mocha lake.

• Boomtown 200y Merlot ($15) – pomegranate and cranberry, with sweet oak giving a dusty, mocha finish.

• Three Rivers 2007 Merlot ($19) – excellent depth, mixing black cherry and cassis flavors with whiffs of smoke, espresso and cedar.

• Hard Row to Hoe 2007 Shameless Hussy Merlot ($20) – berries, cassis, coffee liqueur, vanilla and coconut. Shameless indeed!

• Canoe Ridge 2006 Estate Grown Merlot ($25) – Dark and plummy, with the vineyard’s characteristic black cherry fruit and a streak of toffee.

• Sineann 2008 Champoux Vineyard Merlot ($35) – tight, bright and spicy with sharply-defined flavors of red berries and red licorice.

• Northstar 2006 Columbia Valley Merlot ($40) and Northstar 2006 Walla Walla Valley Merlot ($50) – both excellent. The CV is silky, deep and rich; the WWV notable for the floral and citrus high notes, over cherry and cassis, coconut, chocolate, coffee, tar and tobacco.

Paul Gregutt is a freelance wine writer based in Seattle. His column appears in The Spokesman-Review on the last Wednesday of each month. He can be reached at paulgregutt@me.com. Visit www.paulgregutt.com for Gregutt’s blog and his latest tasting notes.


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