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Great Northwest Wine: Merlot continues to merit acclaim in Washington

By Eric Degerman Great Northwest Wine

Many of the Northwest’s most storied producers used merlot to help establish their reputation regionally and internationally.

And in many cases, the wines produced featuring this red Bordeaux grape variety are crafted for the cellar and meant to be cherished over time.

During the rise of the modern wine industry in Washington, merlot has become a workhorse variety. A decade ago, it was the state’s most harvested wine grape.

It now ranks No. 3 in terms of production, trailing cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, and is still a favorite of growers and winemakers. Merlot ripens dependably and early. On Red Mountain, merlot vines often are among the first harvested.

In recent years, Washington merlot has made delicious in-roads in Texas, where consumers appreciate its bold structure as a natural complement for well-marbled steak as well as its affordability compared with cabernet sauvignon.

Merlot also has become the foundation for many of the Northwest’s most-recognized proprietary red blends.

At this year’s Cascadia International Wine Competition, merlot was one of the most decorated categories, and below are several of the top-rated merlots, each one having earned a gold medal.

Find the full results at greatnorthwestwine.com. Ask for these at your favorite wine merchant, or order them directly from the winery.

Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2018 Umiker Vineyard Merlot, Lewis-Clark Valley, $28: From Wine Press Northwest magazine’s 2020 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year.

This merlot serves as another example of the award-winning wines Karl and Coco Umiker are producing from their estate in the Lewis-Clark Valley.

Rich dark fruits of cherry and blackberry along with a touch of minerality make for a full-bodied merlot with a long, palate-caressing finish of velvety tannins.

Hightower Cellars 2017 Merlot, Red Mountain, $30: Year after year, co-winemakers Tim and Kelly Hightower produce some of the Northwest’s most balanced wines. Their use of petit verdot (7%) and cabernet franc (7%) in the blend creates magic.

Blackberry, dark cherry and a hint of cedar lead into a full, rich palate of more dark fruits and blackberry pie. Abundant and well-integrated tannins make for a long and generous finish.

Orenda Winery 2017 Merlot, Columbia Valley $33: Tucked away in the historic dairy town of Carnation, Washington, Orenda Winery reached across the Cascades into the Columbia Valley for the fruit for this merlot.

Xander and Samantha Kent opened their young winery just last year, and this merlot was one of three gold medals the Kents received during Cascadia.

Fans of Columbia Valley merlot will find it matches their expectations, offering floral and herbal aromas on top of black and blue fruit. In the mouth, it is a fulsome drink of blackberries, dark plum and blueberries that lead to well-managed tannins and a long finish.

Browne Family Vineyards 2017 Merlot, Columbia Valley $35: Walla Walla Valley winemaker John Freeman crafted this merlot from grapes sourced from the Columbia Valley.

Black cherry, blueberry and dried herbs fill in the aromas, followed by a full and rich structure of dark purple fruits with blueberry skin tannins and chocolate on the finish. Enjoy alongside lamb rubbed with thyme and sage.

Mt. Hood Winery 2016 Dry Hollow Vineyard Reserve Merlot, Columbia Valley, $52: Rich Cushman in Hood River, Oregon, crosses no state line for this opulent expression of merlot, which he pulled from Dry Hollow Vineyard just upriver in the Dalles.

Black cherry, sugarplum and ripe blackcurrant please the aromatic senses. On the palate, you will find blackberry, blueberries and more blackcurrant. The soft oak tannins integrate nicely with the rich dark fruits, making for a delightful finish.

Brian Carter Cellars 2016 One Merlot Willard Family Vineyard, Yakima Valley, $85: Brian Carter, who has built a reputation in Washington with blended wines, tapped just one source – Willard Family Vineyard in the Yakima Valley – for this One Merlot project.

The result is a 2016 Merlot that delivers power and finesse. Black and blue berries in the aromatics open in the mouth with blackberry and blackcurrant, then ends with blueberries and blueberry skin tannins in its long, satisfying finish.

Eric Degerman operates Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at greatnorthwestwine.com.

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