In France, Bordeaux’ right bank vineyards are devoted mainly to Merlot, (with Cabernet Franc not far behind). Chateau Ausone, St. Emilion’s most prestigious wine, is more than 50% Merlot. And in Pomerol, its neighbor, the vineyards are composed of nearly all merlot. Chateau Petrus, Bordeaux’ most coveted and costly wine, is 100% Merlot. However, you don’t have to travel to France to find terrific Merlot. Both California (think Duckhorn), and Washington State in particular, produce top-notch Merlot.
Merlot goes Sideways
The 2004 movie “Sideways” nearly toppled Merlot’s fine image. The lead character Miles (played by the brilliant Paul Giamatti) turns to his cohort as the two are about to enter a restaurant and bursts forth with, “If anyone orders merlot I’m leaving. I will not drink any f****** merlot!” (The film, which revolves largely around Miles’s unabashed passion for Pinot Noir, sent that varietal’s sales soaring but sadly, did nothing for Merlot.)
Undeterred by the film, Washington winemakers, both veteran and newcomers, have stayed the Merlot course. And that’s a good thing for wine lovers.
Walla Walla’s Pioneers
For two decades, Washington State’s pioneer wine growers—amongst them Leonetti Cellar’s Gary Figgins, his long time buddy Rick Small of Woodward Canyon, groundbreaking grower Norm McKibben of Pepper Bridge, and L’Ecole No. 41’s Marty Clubb, garnered consistent accolades both at home and abroad for their finely wrought Merlots. Thanks to their unwavering faith in Walla Walla’s unique terroir (silt/mineral-rich soil, a legacy of the Missoula floods, and a long growing season), they still do.
An earlier ripening grape than Cabernet Sauvignon, merlot leans toward more juicy aromas, lush texture, purity of fruit and more fine grain tannins than bigger, bolder Cabernet Sauvignon. And if you haven’t yet discovered Washington’s Merlot, you’re in for a treat.
Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine 2015
In 2015, the third annual Celebrate Walla Walla Wine honored Merlot. (In 2013 and 2014, the event hailed Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah respectively). Master sommelier Fred Dame and noted wine critic Stephen Tanzer kicked off the event at the Gesa Power House Theater. Each offered positive views on the state of Washington Merlot. While Dame enthused about Walla Walla’s “magical Merlots,” it wasn’t without humor. He stated that “Sideways” served at least to curb the wash of “cash-crop” stuff riding the wave of the quality Merlot. Tanzer touted Washington Merlot as ideal for Washington’s Bordeaux-style blends.
Washington Merlot—Where is it now?
I set to making my own mind up on the state of Washington Merlot. During four-days’ worth of vineyard visits, tastings and winemakers’ dinners, I was impressed with the state of Washington Merlot both as a singular wine and when blended with other grapes.
One sip of 2012 Norm McKibben’s Pepper Bridge Merlot convinced me that Washington Merlot is not going away anytime soon. Silky textured with layers of cedar/allspice/mocha supporting bright cherry and blueberry fruit, this was one delicious Merlot.
Close on Pepper Bridge’s heels was fourth generation farmer-turned-winegrower, Casey McClellan, who poured his Seven Hills 2012 Walla Walla Valley from Seven Hills Vineyard. The wine was at once supple yet structured, a delightful package of plum, nutmeg and cinnamon, with a seam of graphite (a quality I revere in a fine bottle of Bordeaux) running through it.
Doug Roskelley, who retired from a career in construction in 2007, says he “moved to where the grapes grow” to join the Washington winemaking throng. It was a good call. From his rambling front porch where wicker chairs share space with pots brimming with flowers and herbs and endless views of vineyards, we sampled 2009 Herb’s Block Merlot. Smoke and spice exuded from beneath rich, elegant fruit. The venue, Roskelley’s easy-going hospitality, and the delicious wine made leaving our seats rather difficult.
Decades back, I met Zelma Long, an iconic leader in lady winemakers, when she was at the helm of Sonoma’s Simi Winery. I was thrilled to discover that she and revered winemaker Chris Dowsett collaborate with owner Nina Buty of Walla Walla’s Buty winery.
Buty’s Conner-Lee Vineyard Merlot & Cabernet Franc 2013 is an almost equal blend of the two grapes. It’s rather like a New World version of St. Emilion and is pure understated elegance. The same is true for L’Ecole No. 41 Ferguson Vineyard where 33% fleshy Merlot brings robust Cabernet Sauvignon to a wonderful conclusion—again with that delicious seam of graphite.
Leonetti Cellar’s 1999 Merlot was a testimony to longevity. The wine had evolved exactly as I imagined with cedar and tobacco notes creeping into the lush fruit. Despite settled tannins, the wine drank well and was by no means over-the-hill.
Then there was Long Shadows Pedestal 1997, which brimmed with chocolate and cherry. It was like downing velvet with good bones.
Savory, Smoky, Spicy. Merlot’s Affinity with Food
The “smoky”, “savory,” “herbs and spices” flavors which underlie so many of Washington’s Merlots is akin to umami, that elusive savory quality that you find in foods like mushrooms, beef stock, or soy sauce. Tamarack Cellars, a woodsy rich 2005 Merlot had it in spades with more tamari than soy notes, as one fellow writer noted.
The elusive, rich taste was no doubt the reason that a selection of Walla Walla Merlots sidled up to grilled morel mushrooms, confit chicken breast with rosemary Merlot jus, and tri-tip steak so well at the Waterbrook and Seven Hills dinners. A more unconventional yet still utterly delicious pairing was matching Merlot to smoked chicken quesadilla with cilantro cream, and cactus, and the caramelized sweet Walla Walla onion tacos, both from local food truck, Andrae’s Kitchen.
When it comes to Walla Walla Merlot, the catchphrase “New World fruit, Old World acidity” is spot-on. As Celebrate Walla Walla weekend wound down, I thought about Dame’s and Tanzer’s comments regarding the state of Washington Merlot. As a single varietal, the wines are plush and vibrant. As blends, they’re a marvelous sum of their parts. I just had to sip a few more. — By Julie Pegg, RFT Senior Wine & Spirits Editor
Here are a few more recent vintage Washington State merlots of note:
- Bergevin Lane 2011 Wild Child Merlot/Wahluke Slope
- Canoe Ridge 2012 Reserve Merlot/Horse Heaven Hills
- Otis Kenyon 2012 Merlot/Walla Walla Valley
- Tamarack Cellars 2012/ Merlot Columbia Valley
- Va Piano 2012 Estate Merlot/Walla Walla Valley
- Walla Walla Vintners Yellow Bird Vineyard Merlot/Walla Walla Valley
- Woodward Canyon 2011 Merlot/Columbia Valley– JP
Celebrate Walla Walla Wine 2016
From June 16-18, 2016 Celebrate Walla Walla Wine (click on www.wallawallawine.com/celebrate for details) will once again honor the world of cabernet sauvignon. But you can bet there’ll be more than just a little merlot taming the bold in some of those bottles.