Merlot has suffered from a bit of a tarnished reputation, which is often blamed on the 2004 hit film “Sideways." In the film, Paul Giamatti plays passionate wine snob Miles, who in one memorable scene screams, “If anybody orders merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any f---ing merlot!”
But while the film did damage merlot’s image, the wine industry also had itself to blame. In their great rush to market, wineries put a lot of green, young and thin wine into the bottle. Consumers wanted merlot, and so for a time it was king. But the public is a fickle master, and by the time “Sideways” came out, it had become cool to be a merlot basher.
However, I believe that this is a temporary setback.
Merlot can be voluptuous, fleshy and well-textured. The aromatics are leafier than cabernet. When made incorrectly, it can be downright green, but that can be addressed with good vineyard management and care in the winery.
Some of the best wines in the world are merlots. Chateau Petrus, from Pomerol in Bordeaux, France, was ranked as one of the best wines in the world in 2012. It sells for a mere $2,400. Yes, that’s per bottle! The Saint-Émilion and Pomerol regions in France are famous for their merlots and pretty much taught the world how it’s done.
Washington is my go-to for high quality-to-dollar ratio. Indeed, you need only spend $15 to $20 for great-tasting wines. High-end Washington merlots are lovely -- Quilceda Creek, Leonetti, DeLille, Abeja and Pepper Bridge, to name a few examples. If you can find them, be prepared to spend a Franklin or two.
In California, merlot is the fourth most widely planted grape variety, behind chardonnay, cabernet and zinfandel. Shafer, Pride, La Jota, Blackbird, Pahlmeyer, Duckhorn, Merryvale: These are all top-flight merlots that rival anything from Bordeaux. But California merlots are cheap compared to their cabernet counterparts. Napa or Sonoma cabernet at this quality can run $300 to $400 a bottle, but the merlots run $50 to $70. Are you starting to like merlot now?
Being in Alaska is wonderful, but life at the top of the planet has some drawbacks -- it’s hard to get everything you want and shipping is expensive. With that in mind, I have tried to pick and review some awesome merlots that you can actually go out and find in shops around town.
2009 Rutherford Hill Merlot, Napa Valley, California
Founded in 1972, Rutherford Hill winery’s original focus was merlot and Bordeaux varietals. Today, it is one of the few Napa Valley wineries devoted to merlot. Rescued by the Terlato Wine Group, the winery has seen huge improvements in equipment and vineyards, raising the quality manyfold. The 2009 is a Bordeaux style, meaning it’s not sappy, in-your-face fruit, but lighter, with cherry fruit and cedar-plank nuance both in the aroma and on the palate. Mild tannins add chewiness and firm acids give backbone, making a great canvas to paint food on. Costs about $30.
2011 J. Lohr Los Osos Merlot, Paso Robles, California
Founder Jerry Lohr must have had a crystal ball. He planted in 1972 south of the bay in Monterey. Oh, sure, everyone’s there now, but not then. I was fortunate enough to taste through the J. Lohr lineup recently. I’d had them all before, but when the merlot was brought out, I did a double take. The nose was pushier than I remembered, holding fragrant herbs and a generous cookie spice character. The mouth held delicious, juicy black fruit, mild tannins and balanced lifting acids. What a charmer this wine turned out to be. Costs about $18.
2008 Camaraderie Cellars Merlot, Washington
This one is special. Don Corson (owner and winemaker at Camaraderie Cellars) crafts this beauty from the very best Washington vineyards. The nose is full, with hints of black fruit, eucalyptus, mint, plum, fig and dates. In the mouth, succulent black cherry cola, cedar plank and lovely tannin combine for thrilling flavors. This dark wine is young yet. I would decant it for the best results. Better yet, put some in your cellar for three to five more years. Costs about $25.
2010 Miner Family Winery Merlot, Stagecoach Vineyard, Napa Valley, California
Every year, Miner Family Winery produces one of the most satisfying and complex merlots in California. This 2010 is lovely, with a deep ruby color and aromas of cedar, spice and herb. Once in the mouth, its complexity and subtleness become apparent. Strong fruit and persistent flavors quietly show off complexity and beauty. Mild tannins add texture for grip and resistance. Costs about $45.
2010 Velvet Devil Merlot, Washington
Velvet Devil’s whimsical name pokes fun at the seriousness of the wine trade. Creator Charles Smith’s irreverent behavior hides the fact that he is making some very, very good wines. Fruit for the Velvet Devil Merlot is sourced from excellent vineyards in the Wahluke Slope and Yakima AVAs (American Viticultural Area). Our bargain entry has deep colors and fresh black fruit aromas. The palate is, as the name implies, velvety smooth with fresh blackberry-cherry fruit and a modicum of complexity. Cost about $14.
Mike McVittie review wines available in Anchorage.