During the month of October, the Wine Pairing Weekend bloggers (#WinePW) set their sights on American Merlot, using their tasting and writing skills to remind the world just how good it is. Many of us started out loving Merlot, enjoying the ripe fruit and silky tannins that make it go down easy. It’s a charming wine and makes such an amiable partner at the table that it’s difficult to understand how it fell out of favor.
Yes, Miles from the movie Sideways threw a forestful of shade on the wine when he professed his abhorrence of it. But those of us who knew the truth about Merlot weren’t swayed by his opinion. We scoffed at his disdain for the grape, especially when he later professed passion for a trophy French wine dominated by Merlot. We dismissed his generalization as rubbish, but how much Merlot were we actually buying? Speaking for myself, not much. Why?
Maybe I’m an outlier but, although I considered myself a fan of Merlot, not much made its way into my shopping cart. Where was the disconnect? Looking back at my wine journey over the past 15 years, I think I can identify the root of my inconsistent approach: an abundance of choices. Pursuing that theme, I guess you could call it Fear of Missing Out on the latest, weirdest wine capturing the attention of the hip sommeliers across the country. There was nothing wrong with Merlot but, in my quest to track down obscure grapes and taste the latest “must-have” wine, I simply forgot about it. Merlot, the trusted friend, loyal to the end, even after being relegated to second-class status. I don’t deserve you.
It’s Not You, It’s Me
The weird thing is, when I’d go out for dinner with folks new to wine, I’d always choose an American Merlot to accompany the meal. While I would have ordered the varietal Petit Verdot or gritty Grignolino for myself, when trying to please others I looked to Merlot. The wine’s ample fruit, soft tannins, and affinity for a range of food made it a hit with newcomers hesitant to try something they didn’t know. Never did a bottle of Merlot disappoint my guests. And, I must admit, I was pretty happy with it, too.
Over the past couple of years, though, my appreciation for Merlot has been reawakened. I’ve tasted some excellent bottles through #winestudio (The Meeker Vineyard comes to mind.) And our Wine Pairing Weekend group has participated in #MerlotMe, a program intended to elevate the public’s awareness of Merlot. I tasted three incredible wines last year and was fortunate enough to receive three more bottles this year. My conclusion? To paraphrase Miles: We should all be drinking more f’ing Merlot!
2015 J. Lohr Estates Los Osos Paso Robles Merlot (13.9% abv; $15 SRP)
A combination of Merlot (91%) and Malbec (9%) this concentrated wine is the product of a warm dry vintage that saw 30% of the Merlot crop lost to a cold snap in May. The remaining crop had ideal conditions in which to ripen. Multiple harvests were conducted, bringing in grapes that had achieved different levels of ripeness: grapes picked early ensured that the finished wine retained varietal character; those picked later contributed depth and intensity. Los Osos Merlot underwent whole-berry fermentation, initially in stainless steel tanks and was finished in barrel. After the Malbec had been blended in, the lot aged in new oak barrels for 12 months.
Color: Deep violet hue; I can’t decide if it’s more ruby or purple, so violet it is.
Nose: Red fruit aromas of plum and currant; black cherry and chocolate; a hint of sweet vanilla. As it opens, notes of baking spices emerge.
Palate: Cherries and plums, ripe but not jammy. Just a sprinkle of clove and cinnamon. Medium acidity and tannins. The long finish is a mix of cherry, chocolate, and dirt – in a good way!
Verdict: Such a pleasant surprise – especially at the under-$20 price point. Enjoyable on its own or with food. We paired it with a sliced NY strip steak and an arugula salad with walnuts and pears. Heaven!
2014 Novelty Hill Vineyards Columbia Valley Merlot (14.4% abv; $23 SRP)
The 2014 vintage in Columbia Valley, Washington, was warm and dry, giving the grapes ample opportunity to ripen. Toward fall, cooler evening temperatures moderated the heat, ensuring the retention of acidity – key to making a fresh, balanced wine.
In crafting this wine, Mike Januik blended barrels from the winery’s Stillwater Creek estate vineyard with a few select barrels from the best lots north of the Tri-Cities area. Novelty Hill’s Columbia Valley Merlot spends 20 months in new and one-year-old barrels, 65% of which are French oak. The resulting wine is complex and richly textured.
Color: Bright ruby red.
Nose: Loads of red fruit aromas, especially plum, cherry, and kirsch. My husband swears he detects blueberry (I can’t, but the official tasting notes list it as well. Score one for him!) Sweet notes of vanilla.
Palate: Red velvet fruit, with some milk chocolate and vanilla essence. There is tart acidity and tannins are smooth. Give this baby time to open and you’ll be rewarded with a delicious sip of mocha and black cherry.
Verdict: I snacked on a few chunks of Parrano cheese as I sipped this wine and was very happy. (Parrano is a Dutch cow’s milk cheese touted as a cross between Parmigiano and Gouda. Parm flavors, Gouda texture. Yum!)
2015 Goldschmidt Vineyards Alexander Valley Chelsea Merlot (14.5% abv; $20 SRP)
This was the only wine I tasted that was 100% Merlot. Go big or go home! It’s named for Nick Goldschmidt’s eldest daughter, and it delivers on the wow factor. The vintage was a challenge, as several heat waves near harvest accelerated the picking schedule. As with wines produced in other drought years, the harvest was smaller, but the fruit was deeply concentrated, with deep pigmentation and optimum sugar and acid levels.
Goldschmidt ferments the wine in barrel and ages the finished wine for 12 months in oak, 25% of which is new. He employs a variety of barrels from different sources, to imbue the finished wine with a range of oak influences: French oak (60%); American oak (20%); and Hungarian oak (20%).
Color: Deep, dense ruby, all the way to the rim.
Nose: Fragrant red fruit, with a profusion of spice and pepper. Vanilla makes its way to the forefront, followed by a hint of cinnamon.
Palate: Sweet, black fruit, like a freshly baked pie without all the sugar. This is a smooth, velvety wine with moderate tannin and acidity. The finish is long, with notes of rhubarb, baking spice, and a whisper of licorice.
Verdict: A lot of bang for the buck. Goldschmidt categorizes this wine as “Merlot made with Cabernet Sauvignon drinkers in mind.” I can see that. Pair it with grilled lamb chops with a blackberry-cassis glaze. You can thank me later.
Thirsty for More #MerlotMe Wines?
Here’s a list of what the other #WinePW bloggers tasted and what they paired with their samples. You’re sure to find something that strikes your fancy!
- Wendy from A Day in the Life on the Farm shares “Celebrating the Harvest with Eggplant Lasagna and J Lohr #MerlotMe”
- David from Cooking Chat shares “Pork Tenderloin with Blackberry Merlot Sauce”
- Camilla from Culinary Adventures with Camilla shares “A Paddling of Duck(horn)s”
- Gwen from Wine Predator shares “3 Merlot from Sonoma with Colorful Fall Pasta #WinePW”
- Sarah from Curious Cuisiniere shares “Individual Beef Wellington Paired With Merlot Wine”
- Jeff from FoodWineClick! shares “Grill Braised Brisket with Duckhorn Merlot”
- Nicole from Somms Table shares “Many Merlots Make Marvelous Mediterranean Meal”
- Jane from Always Ravenous shares “Roasted Pork Loin with Brandy Prune Sauce Paired with Merlot”
- Nancy from Pull That Cork shares “A Fall Pairing for Merlot”
- Jill from L’Occasion shares “Merlot, the Busy One”
- Cindy from Grape Experiences shares “#MerlotMe and Savory Chicken and Mushrooms”
- Michelle from Rockin Red Blog shares “Celebrating Napa and Sonoma with #MerlotMe”
Note: I received these wines as samples through October’s #MerlotMe promotion. Opinions expressed in this post are my own fault!