April 2009

On April 19, we held a Taste-to-Learn for Washington Merlot.  There were eleven people tasting, and we tasted nine wines, including the control.  Attached are the notes that I read when we got started, and below are the results. -Dawne Swanson

#1- 1999 Three Rivers $28

#2- 2005 L’Ecole 41 $37

#3- 2004 Columbia Crest $6

#4- 2003 Kalimar $20

#5- 2006 Alexandria Nicole $20

#6- 2006 Three Rivers $20

#7- 2005 Silver Lake $10

#8- 2004 Goose Ridge $20red-grapes

The most famous region for Merlot has historically been the Bordeaux region of France, where Merlot is the leading grape in terms of production.  Merlot means little blackbird in French.  Merlot was first commercially released in Washington State in 1976, and by 2000 had become the most planted red grape.  Merlot madness really hit in the early 1990’s, however, after CBS’s 60 minutes reported an overall lower incidence of heart disease in the French despite their high fat diet.  In addition to being a stand-alone wine, Merlot is often blended with Cabernet and other Bordeaux varietals.

Cashmere is the ultimate in luxurious texture.  This sensuous material embraces us with its softness and warmth.  We buy it when we feel the urge to splurge.  When Merlot is good, it’s nothing short of cashmere.  Supple and plush, it simply feels good to drink.  Layer on the juicy fruit flavors typical of Merlot, and you have a wine that’s hard to resist.  In the past decade, Merlot has become the darling of wine drinkers because of these obvious charms.  Not only is it easy to pronounce, but Merlot’s velvety soft smoothness and easy-drinking style has made it simple for white wine lovers to slip into savoring reds.

Merlot is generally medium bodied, medium dry, and inherently less tannic than Cabernet, because the grapes are bigger and thinner skinned.  And while Cabernet is one of the “noble” European grape varieties, Merlot is not.  Cab is more astringent in its youth, tougher to tame, and therefore longer lived.  Merlot, on the other hand, is smoother in texture, rounder, softer, and more approachable.  Higher in sugars, lower in tannin and acid than Cab, Merlot offers what Jancis Robinson calls a brazen lusciousness.

California Merlots can be extremely light on the varietal character, and Merlot’s reputation had suffered from the ordinary quality of California Merlot at its most basic, as a sort of red Chardonnay.  Washington Merlots are generally higher in acid than California, and are often more dense and dark.  It seems as though, by some magical osmosis, they’ve been infused with the primal, lush berryness of the wild Northwest blackberries, boysenberries, raspberries, cherries, black cherry, and plum.  That lushness carries over into the texture of the wines, which is at once supple and seamless.

In young Merlots, look for cherry, berry, and ripe plum flavors, often tempered with vanillin, chocolate, mocha and smoke character.  In older wines, the aromas and flavors mellow, into supple subdued fruit with nuances of chocolate, mint, dried tobacco leaf, leather, smoke and notes of spicy oak.  In cooler climate regions, there may also be a touch of herbal aromas.
Merlot should be served between 60 & 68 degrees, and pairs well with tangy, tomato-based sauces, lentils, potatoes, mushroom, eggplant, bell peppers, blueberries, plums, cheddar/swiss/gorgonzola cheeses, carmelized onions, tarragon and fennel.