Merlot! Merlot! Merlot! The argument has rambled on for decades among oenophiles (E-no-files – a fancy name for wine geeks like me). The argument? Whether our American styles are too bold, or too “mushy,” lacking in acid because of the warmer, northern California climate.
The 90s were the heyday of Merlot popularity. While there was a large amount of great Merlot grown in Northern California, many wineries would take the fruit grown in their hotter climate and make the wines more firm, tannic and heavily oaked, rather like a secondary version of the Cabernet Sauvignon. Still, many vineyards chose to pursue a more delicate, restrained, yet opulent style.
In the Old World, Bordeaux’s famed right bank is the unquestionable epicenter of the world’s finest Merlot production. The tiny area of Pomerol is home to the most famous Merlots; home to the world’s most expensive wine, Chateau Petrus (I touched a bottle once!). The larger area of Lalande de Pomerol also grows beautiful, supple, elegant Merlot-based wines at affordable prices.
Less than 100 miles north of Bordeaux, but close to halfway around the globe, lies another area famous for great Merlot production – the vast Columbia Valley region of Washington. The northerly Washington climate, like Bordeaux, allows for a slightly cooler and longer growing season with more hours of daylight than California, both promoting complete maturation of the fruit. Many associate Washington’s Pacific Northwest with Seattle’s rain and mist. The Cascade Mountains cut an angular swath across the state, separating the northwestern corner from the other two-thirds. The southeastern reaches are arid with rolling hills in the rain shadow of the Cascades, creating growing conditions with abundant sunshine and low annual rainfall, perfect for fine wine grapes.
The key differences between the Merlots of Bordeaux and those grown here are the average rainfall (Columbia Valley around eight inches annually; Bordeaux 3-5 inches monthly) and the composition of the soil. Bordeaux’s soil is more clay based, while the Columbia Valley is more volcanic. The extra effort this makes the American vines put forth results in more structure, intensity, finesse and complexity of flavors in the glass. Meanwhile, the far less expensive real estate translates directly to bargains on store shelves and restaurant wine lists.
The modern Washington wine industry, second only in production to California, began right after prohibition with the predecessors of Chateau Ste. Michelle, the state’s oldest winery. Their Chateau Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley Merlot shows fresh cherry and raspberry in the nose leading into like flavors along with blackberry and date. Good acidity with moderate, soft tannins and a velvety finish. This wine is a perennial crowd pleaser!
The Merlots of Pomerol may be pricey and hard to find, but bargains and quality abound in Washington’s Columbia Valley. The rich, restrained elegant fruit of California’s more judicious producers also makes beautiful wines in a fruit-forward style and a price-point somewhere in between. From the famed Stags’ Leap district in Napa Valley, the Stags’ Leap Winery Merlot (a categorical stalwart for decades) opens with a nose of black fruit and spice, leading into rich supple flavors of black cherry, black currant and blackberry fruit with a touch of vanilla, whispers of clove and anise gliding into a long, elegant finish.
As you plan your holiday celebrations, think American. We have excellent options here. If you have the means and access to do so (and really love your friends), buy and serve the Petrus. Oh, and if you do, please send me an invitation – our editor will share my address! Happy holidays!