For those who enjoy discovering on-the-rise varietals – a regular practice here, and by Chicago-based sommeliers and wine directors – what follows departs a bit from the theme many readers have come to expect.
Merlot. This word can be anathema to those trying to start a creative wine conversation. That is, unless people recount Paul Giamatti’s anti-Merlot hissy fit in the film “Sideways.” When Giamatti’s line thrashed the concept of product placement with more violence than a grape crusher at harvest, the grape’s purveyors shuddered. Theater-goers, having experienced a decade-long tsunami of mediocre Merlot, roared with almost-weary laughter – especially if under the influence of another varietal!
It was a backlash that was somewhat expected. The New World, especially California, took a lovely grape and, in many instances, overplanted it. The extra plantings were exacerbated by too much residual sugar and oak. Worse than the vapid versions found on Amtrak or in the sky, some of it can be sweet enough to pour on a stack of pancakes
Merlot has regal roots in Bordeaux – where it is grown on the right bank of the Gironde River. Its most celebrated guise there is as the virtually unassailable (and expensive) Pomerol.
Enter the Merlot of Washington state. It was propelled by an early 1990s confluence of the 60 Minutes segment, “French Paradox,” a state Wine Commission Conference that had chosen Merlot as its focus, and easy pronunciation.
Although Washington produces a lot of Merlot, its climate and latitude allow it to achieve more of the Bordeaux style. In fact, Washington’s Columbia Valley and the Bordeaux region share virtually the same latitude: 45-46° North. This means that the vines receive about two more hours of sunshine per day than lower-latitude vineyards. Thus, the Merlot grown in Washington tends to be more balanced, and has a drier, more European style.
But because this northwestern state does not have the same publicity machine, its wines – even top-of-mind varietals – often can’t command the same prices as its southern counterparts. Perhaps that’s why Wine & Spirits Daily declared, “Washington offers a better value.
And value is obviously what this space is all about. Want a merely cheap wine? Take a ride on Amtrak. This column’s search is always for wines that display a sense of place – with prices that aren’t artificially inflated by those who never touch the fruit.
What follows is just a sampling of what this ascending American wine region offers in terms of value-priced Merlot:
Waterbrook Winery Merlot-Cabernet Walla Walla 2007: As with Pomerol, where Cabernet Sauvignon is used as the mixing grape, this Merlot-majority (56 percent) heavily influences the wine’s lovely smoothness. There is a mix of dark- and medium-red-berry fruit on the nose, with ripe cherry and balanced acidity on the palate. The finish lingers nicely, with a most interesting bit of dark chocolate. A versatile red, it’s great for grilling, whether the meal is herbed, bone-in chicken, or a New York Strip steak. $13.
Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells Columbia Valley 2007: Soft and a bit on the lighter side, this Merlot has a European accent – despite a creative twist by the winemakers, who have added some Syrah for structural support. “The Indian Wells is really well balanced,” says Charla Sweeley of Highland Park’s Wine Discount Center. The flavors are of pomegranate, cranberry and mocha, and the tannins are supple. This is a grilled chicken wine, for sure. $14.
Barnard Griffin Washington State 2007: Aromas are of cedar, black tea leaves and plum. Bright, red cherry on the palate, it’s fruity – yet it stops short of the hard-candy wines that the Merlot varietal often produces in California. Tannins are round; no edge whatsoever. Grilled meatloaf.