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Superstar Merlots

by Steve Pitcher

Merlot often gets bashed by wine writers nowadays. 'Too much of it is being planted, much of it in the wrong places,' some complain. 'Wineries are over-reacting to consumer demand by churning out vast quantities of mediocre Merlot,' others insist. 'Today's Merlot doesn't age and it lacks depth,' chime in a few. Yet, it's difficult to deny that among consumers, Merlot is extremely popular, sometimes for the same reasons that the critics dismiss the wine. Who cares whether it ages? It's going to be consumed the same day it comes home from the supermarket. It may lack depth, but at the same time it doesn't have those big tannins that come with new-release Cabernet Sauvignon. The fact that there's lots of Merlot on the market -- not only from California and Washington, but also budget-priced bottles from Chile and the south of France -- keeps the prices low compared to Cabernet and even many Zinfandels.

I have to admit that, from time to time, I've added my sour notes about Merlot to the discussion, too. But, every so often, I come across a bottle of Merlot that restores my faith in the varietal. For example, for the last two years, the Masters of Food and Wine at the Highlands Inn in Carmel, California, one of the world's most prestigious gourmet affairs, has focused on the top Merlots of France, particularly those of Pomerol. In 1997, it was Chateau Le Pin presented by proprietor Jacques Thienpont. In 1998, it was Chateau Petrus presented by Christian Moueix. In both cases,
vertical tastings were offered of these legendary wines, new
releases of which jockey for position as the world's most
expensive red wine. For example, 1995 Petrus was priced at $895. A bottle. One bottle. And it quickly disappeared from the retail market.

This year's vertical at the Highlands Inn was particularly
memorable: a legendary tasting of eight vintages of Petrus
spanning the years from 1971 to the current-release 1995. Even with tickets priced at $495 each, the event was quickly sold out. The opportunity to taste eight vintages of Petrus -- even at the equivalent price of about $60 per glass -- was an irresistible lure for those in the audience. "Even I rarely have the chance to sample so many of these wines at the same time," the 51-year-old Moueix exclaimed. At this price level, it's understandable that spit buckets were not to be seen.

Tasting Petrus

A product of unique terroir, Petrus has long been described as a wine of incredible power, depth and richness, yet possessing an exquisite balance that facilitates its remarkable longevity. It is equally famous for its silky texture. Going back to my tasting notes, I can see how I became caught up in the moment; the 1989 vintage was my favorite of these wines: "1989 Petrus -- A perfect Petrus, with everything one would expect from this producer offered up in harmonious balance and exhibiting exquisite finesse. Powerful and deep on the palate with perfectly ripe black fruits, tobacco leaf and green olive herbaceousness intertwining in complex layers of flavor that almost defy description. The aromatics of the wine are true harbingers of the flavors to follow, focusing on black cherry-black berry fruit, cocoa, vanilla and a hint of smoke, enhanced by the attractive herbaceousness. A gorgeous, complete, extraordinary wine that combines power, depth, texture and concentration in a seamless expression of the uniqueness that is Petrus."

And what about the most recent Petrus? Of the 1995 Petrus ($895), I wrote: "Dark purple and opaque in appearance. A slow-to-open nose of black cherry-berry fruit, cocoa, warm spice and a hint of smokiness. Smooth and luscious in the mouth offering ripe, extracted black fruits, vanilla and a note of tobacco leaf. A full bodied wine with medium-full tannins, the just-released 1995 Petrus is still very much a work in progress, with obvious extraction and depth, but a slight dilution in the finish, the consequence of September rain."

In this country, Merlot can aspire to such greatness, but only in the hands of a talented winemaker who truly respects the grape variety and has access to exceptional fruit, and who wants to make the very best wine possible from that fruit. A recent Vintners Club panel tasting of American Merlots generally considered to be among the best the New World has to offer, confirmed that, indeed, France does not have a monopoly on awesome Merlot.

Excellent Budget-Priced Merlots

Before going into the specifics of those wines, it's appropriate
to note here that there are some less-expensive Merlots that
offer great value for the money, and might be more readily
available than the superstars. At the top of my list is the 1995
Chateau St. Jean Merlot, Sonoma County ($15), which offers aromas reminiscent of berry-cassis fruit, chocolate, clove spice and vanillin oak. On the palate, the wine is wonderfully rich and generous, with medium tannins and lots of varietal fruit that is concentrated and deep. Also impressive is the 1995 Gallo of Sonoma Merlot priced at $9.00, which shows more bramble-berry fruit and moderate oak, and which can clearly age for another three years, if you can restrain yourself from drinking it now.

Also worth seeking out are 1995 Draxton Cellars Merlot, Farrow Ranch, Alexander Valley ($22.50), Gainey Vineyard Merlot, Santa Ynez Valley ($19), Geyser Peak Merlot, Sonoma County ($16) and 1995 Clos du Bois Merlot, Sonoma County ($17). Journey Merlot from Matanzas Creek On the other end of the price spectrum is the fabulous Journey Merlot from Matanzas Creek Winery, the first release of which was from the 1992 vintage, priced at a breathtaking $125 per bottle! The winery justifies the price on the basis of the time and work that went into the wine's production. After the merlot fruit was pressed, 13 barrels out of a total of 330 were scrupulously selected for quality and character, aged on their lees for three years and three months in French oak, and evaluated once again.

The final product of 100 percent Merlot, taken from only six
barrels, is an unfined, unfiltered wine of extraordinary
vibrancy, profound complexity and excellent balance. Only 144 cases were produced.

When I last tasted the wine in October 1996, I noted that the
1992 Matanzas Creek Journey Merlot, Sonoma Valley ($125), was dark in color and opaque in appearance, and offered a true-to-the-varietal nose of ripe black cherry and berry fruit enhanced by warm spice. Deep, concentrated and well defined on the palate, the wine offered ever-expanding flavors of ripe black fruits accented by hints of white pepper. Very flavorful and luscious with a medium-long finish, I felt the wine then deserved at least four or five years of cellaring to show its true potential.

The 1994 version of Journey Merlot came from a primary selection of 19 out of 339 barrels of Merlot, of which only eight of the 19 barrels were bottled as Journey. It was released in October 1998 at $155 per bottle. I haven't yet had a chance to taste the wine.

Stay tuned.

Tasting Notes


FIRST PLACE

1995 Chateau Ste. Michelle Merlot, Horse Heaven Vineyard, Columbia Valley, Washington ($31)
A luscious, generous wine with a silky texture, this
impressive, single-vineyard Merlot offers complex, fragrant
aromas of blackberries and ripe, red cherries accented by smoky cedar, vanillin oak and hints of nutmeg spice. In the mouth, the bright cherry-berry fruit mingles nicely with spicy, new French oak and extends into a long, lingering finish. An elegant and finely structured wine that drinks well new, this Washington State charmer should gain some more complexity over the next couple of years.

SECOND PLACE

1995 Pahlmeyer Merlot, Napa Valley ($50)
Wonderfully fragrant scents of ripe, spicy black cherry-cassis fruit, vanilla, coconut and a touch of intriguing green olive herbaceousness. Concentrated and well©stuffed with mediumĀfull tannins, the Pahlmeyer is a Merlot on a grand scale, exhibiting wonderful dark cherry-cassis fruit, cedar spice and a good dose of vanillin oak. Requires a couple of years in the cellar, but can be enjoyed now if decanted and allowed to breathe for an hour or more. This wine was equally impressive when presented earlier this year at the 12th Annual Masters of Food and Wine at the Highlands Inn, where Jayson Pahlmeyer referred to it as his "industrial strength Merlot."

THIRD PLACE

1995 Lewis Cellars Merlot, Reserve, Napa Valley ($45)
Slow to open, but eventually offers deep aromas of cassis
and cherry cola, chocolate, cedar and plenty of new French oak. On the palate, the wine is rich and massively proportioned, with extractive dark cherry fruit that is concentrated and deep. Densely packed and not for the faint hearted, the Lewis Cellars Merlot deserves at least three or more years of ageing to show its true potential.

FOURTH PLACE

1994 Northstar Merlot, Columbia Valley, Washington ($50)
California's versatile and highly talented Jed Steele teamed up with winemaker Gordy Hill of Columbia Crest Winery in Washington to produce the initial release of this ultrapremium Merlot, named "Northstar" to symbolize merlot's starring role in Washington's vineyards, particularly the Columbia Valley. The blend of 76 percent Merlot and 24 percent Cabernet Sauvignon yielded a big, broad wine with aromas of black cherries, raspberries and chocolate, accented by smoky oak and tobacco leaf. Round and seamless with muscular, medium-full tannins, the wines flavors replicate the nose, joined by vanilla notes and a pleasant hint of leather. Slightly harsh and aggressive in the finish, the wine needs 3-4 years of ageing.

FIFTH PLACE

1995 Geyser Peak Merlot, Reserve, Alexander Valley ($30)
Fragrant, slightly floral scents of vanillin oak, ripe black
cherry-cola fruit and peppery spice are replicated on the palate, where the flavors are deep and intense with a lavender note. Medium tannins frame the fruit, and the oak is quite noticeable, but time should tame this big Merlot.

SIXTH PLACE
1994 Matanzas Creek Merlot, Sonoma Valley
($34)
Distinctive nose of ripe cherries and strawberries with a pronounced note of green olive or bell pepper. Soft and round in the mouth with medium tannins, the wine offers sweet red fruit flavors accented by a pleasant herbaceousness and slightly toasty French oak.

SEVENTH PLACE
1994 Beringer Merlot, Bancroft Ranch, Howell Mountain
($40)
Forward, very attractive aromas of smoky oak, black cherry-cassis fruit, warm spice, cedar and vanilla. A wine of enormous proportions, the Beringer Howell Mountain Merlot is both opulent and densely packed with fruit, exhibiting high-extract black fruits, dark chocolate and plenty of vanillin oak. Rich and delicious, with full tannins and a velvety texture. A wine of this size and weight requires several years of cellaring to reveal its inherent complexity and to allow the tannins to
resolve, although the depth and concentration are clearly evident now.

EIGHTH PLACE
1995 Duckhorn Merlot, Selby-Saviez Vineyard, Napa Valley
($50)
A dark, opaque wine with enticing scents of cinnamon and
mocha, black cherry fruit and vanilla. Smooth and silky in the
mouth, and exhibiting fine balance, this special bottling from
Duckhorn is Merlot in the classic style, elegant and refined,
with a core of ripe cherry-berry fruit and medium tannins.
Delicious now, but patience will be rewarded if the wine is aged for another three to five years, as is always the case with Duckhorn Merlots.

NINTH PLACE
1994 Arrowood Merlot, Sonoma County
($38)
A sound and tasty Merlot that, while not as exciting as some of the others in this group, nevertheless offers varietal black cherry fruit, smoky oak and warm spice in both aromas and flavors. Easy to drink now because of its medium tannins and silky texture, the Arrowood Merlot will probably reach its full potential within a couple of years.

TENTH PLACE

1995 Mietz Cellars Merlot, Sonoma County ($21)
Appealing nose of sweet cherries and strawberries with a slight herbal edge. Smooth and silky with medium body, the Mietz Merlot is generous with its ripe black cherry fruit, enhanced by a hint of mushroomy earthiness.

ELEVENTH PLACE

1993 Chateau St. Jean Merlot, Reserve, Sonoma County ($40)
Blended with small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Malbec, this reserve Merlot spent three years in oak -- the component wines were aged for two years in small French barrels, and then the most outstanding barrels were blended and given an additional year of ageing before bottling. Some of this oak appears in the nose, but more impressive are the wine's vibrant black cherry fruit and pleasant cinnamon spice. Drinking nicely now, with a soft, silky texture and ripe, medium tannins.

TWELFTH PLACE

1995 Clos du Val Merlot, Napa Valley ($28)
The moderately intense nose of black fruits and dried herbs
leads to similar flavors on the palate, where the fruit shows
adequate depth and concentration, although the structure is more angular than broad, and the acidity seems somewhat high. Medium full bodied with medium-full tannins, the Clos du Val Merlot finishes with a hint of dusty eucalyptus.

Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.



Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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