Dan Berger

Washington Merlot underrated and thus under-priced

Unlike many wine writers who are basically Merlot curmudgeons, I truly love Merlot – especially when it is made with excellent fruit and by a skilled winemaker.

As with many such high-caliber wines, such conditions can be expensive (including the use of new French Oak barrels) and thus the wines usually cost more.

An awful lot of wine that is called Merlot and sells for a lot less than the premium stuff does not have the basic varietal aroma or taste of true Merlot and thus the wines can be bland and innocuous. Which is why Merlot got such a bad reputation about a decade ago.

Of course at $5 or so, very few people seek actual varietal character. It is when the wine reaches $20 or more that the distinctiveness of the grape variety becomes an issue.

The problem here may well be laid at the feet of millennial buyers who never had the basic training to be able to identify why a bland red wine that says Merlot on the label basically is generic in both aroma and taste. As a result they tend to blame grape variety.

And producers of $5 Merlots are perfectly happy to make a wine that has little distinction, as long as it sells.

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The evidence is in the fact that an awful lot of under-$10 Merlot continues to sell. I suspect those buyers are satisfied as long as the wine is drinkable, even though it is completely unremarkable.

The basic aromatics of great cooler climate Merlot include red cherry, bits of green olives, mint, tea, and other faintly herbal aromatics. These can be married with some of the classy maturity that time in the barrel gives a quality red wine.

And for a time the bigger-is-better school of winemaking infected a lot of Merlot that became popular with millennials who didn’t really care about varietal character anyway. We began to see this in the early 2000s and noted that the trend even began compromising some of Washington’s state’s best Merlots. The good news is that for the most part, we have come to our senses. What has occurred in the last six or so years has been a saner approach.

As evidenced in the results of the platinum judging of the last three years, tannic and slightly overripe Merlots are now considered obsolete by a growing percentage of Pacific Northwest winemakers, who realize that Merlot’s best format is drinkability.

Indeed, for decades consumers who loved Cabernet, but not its tannins ended up buying Merlot - as tannic as it might be, because the grape actually does make a wine that is noticeably less tannic than Cabernet.

What was so appealing about this switch to a more moderate style was the wines’ more ready-to-drink-ness, which allowed consumers to enjoy the wine sooner without the cellar aging requirements of Cabernet or the harsher Merlots of a decade earlier.

The great news here is that winemakers clearly have made a conscious effort to keep alcohol levels under 14%. Not only does it save money (there is added tax for a 14%+ alcohol wine) but the wines do not display the harshness of a higher-alcohol product.

Winemakers are also now aware that tannins may be necessary, but in a far less aggressive way.

So we now have a better template on which to build a new visage for a great wine grape that makes a wine that can be better than the wines of decades ago, especially from a popular movie about a wine lover -- and perpetual loser -- that was so comical yet had such a negative impact on you Merlot sales.

We know that Washington is a blessed place for world-class Merlot, and this new form in which it is being seen gives winemakers different target and consumers a far better drink to pair with their meals.

But there is a bonus here. And that is what happens more to Washington state Merlot than happens in California. It is in the way they age.

Part of this may well be due to the fact that the majority of California Merlots tend to be a bit riper off the vine and thus do not have the proper acid and pH levels to age properly.

Not that aging is essential for most Merlots, but I have long experience with Washington state Merlots that took on remarkable characteristics in the bottle.

It all began for me in 1989 when I first tasted the 1986 Gordon Brothers Merlot, and decided it was a candidate to improve in the cellar. So I bought six bottles (all I could get) and stashed them at home in very cool conditions.

Over the years I have judiciously opened all but one of them, and they have all proven to be simply remarkable in the depth and complexity that they offered.

Over the years, it was evident that many Washington producers’ Merlots also had this ability to deliver complexities in time that made them remarkable and fortunately different from Cabernet.

I now think of Washington as a place where Merlot more often can be made to reflect the grape variety with a lot more distinction than most other places on the planet.

I have had a similar experience with Merlot from southern Tuscany, from parts of New Zealand, and even South Africa. But Washington seems to have developed more reliability with Merlot that almost any other region I can think of, and that includes some areas of Bordeaux that are widely acclaimed by wine collectors.

So is Washington Merlot underrated and thus under-priced? I believe so, but this view would never be reflected by the majority of scores you will see in glossy magazines or on the Internet.

Because to some degree, Merlot is still under-appreciated.

And as for my last bottle of the 1986 Gordon brothers in my cellar, I fully believe it is in great shape.

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