Ken Robertson

Merlot: The Northwest’s quiet crowd pleaser

Back in the spring of 1998 when Wine Press Northwest magazine published its inaugural issue, we chose Merlot for our first-ever judging of Northwest wines. At the time, Washington Merlot was riding a wave of justified popularity and was battling with Oregon Pinot Noir for red wine supremacy in the Northwest.

“The rising star of Washington,” noted the late Bob Woehler, who at the time had been writing about Northwest wines for 20-plus years and was arguably the dean — at least in longevity — of Northwest wine scribes.

Chateau Ste. Michelle, with its standard bearer Canoe Ridge Vineyards, regularly cranked out some of the best, supplemented by many others because Merlot was a consistent winner. In that tasting, Canoe Ridge 1995 tied for second, beaten by a 1993 Preston. Others tied for second were the 1994 Columbia Crest and the 1995s from Kiona, Walla Walla Vintners, L’Ecole, and Columbia Milestone from Red Willow Vineyards. All were judged gold medal quality.

Eighteen years later, Merlot has become the Rodney Dangerfield of red wine. It gets no respect. Which is a shame, because it has soldiered on through the decades, regularly producing shining examples of red wine when standing on its own. And when blended into Bordeaux-style wine, it stands quietly behind “King” Cabernet Sauvignon, smoothing his faults, integrating seamlessly with more recent immigrants to our vineyards, including Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot.

And we mustn’t forget that Merlot just sighs (again, quietly, of course) when enterprising winemakers break with convention and slip a slug of Syrah into what we Northwesterners often call a “Washington Bordeaux” blend to remedy a saggy midpalate.

That first judging conducted by Wine Press Northwest had its faults, but the choice of wine varietal was not among them. Many of the 45 wines judged were outstanding, though I suspect if we could bring the gold medal winners forward in time without any aging and match them against the gold medal winners of 2016, we would rank this new crop as a bit better on average. That’s because our region’s growers and winemakers have learned a lot about how to produce great wines over the years.

Interestingly, most of those Merlots, which were from the 1993-96 vintages, cost $15 to $20, Woehler wrote. Astoundingly, a fair number of gold-medal quality Merlots still fall into that same price range roughly 20 vintages later. And quite a few more of equal quality sell for $20 to $25.

So, why has Merlot’s star sagged in the intervening years? Well, our universe of wine has expanded with its own big bang, with new grape varieties planted and coming into production every year since. Wine lovers are swamped with new choices.

And, there was that curious California phenomenon some years back, when an uproariously funny movie called “Sideways” took an undeserved swipe at Merlot and promoted Pinot Noir at its expense. Afterward, Merlot sales shrank. You would think that a movie — which featured a Pinot Noir worshipper who drinks from a dump bucket and his soon-to-wed buddy who’s off for one last philander and ends up running down the road naked — would not have, shall we say, much street cred. But it did.

So, many wine lovers willingly stock up on $40 to $60 or more bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. When often they could buy a Merlot of equal quality for about half as much, maybe even less. That’s why my cellar contains a lot of Merlot.

Yes, I love an ostentatious Cab or a voluptuous Pinot. But my budget won’t manage a $40 or $60 wine every time I want to drink an excellent red. So, I turn to a dependably fine Merlot, often costing $15 to $25. It’s a wine I’m always happy to hang out with. Typically, it will display nice oak aromatics of spice, blackberry, blueberry and perhaps cherry, then show the same qualities in the mouth and finish with firm tannins and a touch of chocolate.

If you haven’t sat down with a fine Merlot like that recently, you should. In this edition, we’ve made it easy to find one to suit every palate and pocketbook. We tasted and rated 100 of them. Among the $20 and under gold-medal winners were Seven Falls Cellars 2012, a product of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, and Barnard Griffin Winery’s 2013. And several more of the 21 gold-medal Merlots were $25 or less, which means you likely can find them on sale for right around $20.

Wine word: Barrique

Since it’s the season for spring barrel tastings, why not a little lesson about the French word for the most common barrel size, the barrique, which is usually 53 or so gallons. As with all things involving France and wine, there are exceptions. In Champagne, it’s 54; in Bordeaux and Spain, 59; in Burgundy, 60; and in Australia and New Zealand, 79 to 83, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia.

As you stroll through our region’s barrel rooms this spring, take a moment to notice the barrels. You’ll likely discover some are American, some French, some Hungarian. You might even see Russian, Balkan or Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Missouri or Kentucky. Of the six French oak forests, you’re most likely to encounter Limousin.

Then note what else is written on the barrels. Besides the maker’s mark, you may see something like “MT” — for medium toast. (There also are light and heavy toast barrels.) Or “TH” for toasted head, which means the end of the barrel also is toasted inside to impart slightly more oakiness to the wine.

It’s worth noting whether a winery prefers one country’s barrels or prefers to use a blend of barrels from different areas. And it’s worth asking for more information. Sometimes barrels are made with a blend of oak staves from different forests or regions.

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