Merlot can make serious, structured wine. Don’t be hornswoggled by a seeming sea of simple Merlot out there. At its best, Merlot is no mere pairing partner for Cab or a soft tannin sissy.
Some top bottles of Merlot were showcased during the recent Masters of Merlot workshop at the Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla, Washington. Acclaimed Merlot producers Duckhorn Vineyards of Napa Valley and L’Ecole N° 41 of Walla Walla Valley were featured.
Duckhorn was founded by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn in 1976 as one of the first 40 wineries in Napa Valley. They produced their first Merlot in 1978 from the famed Three Palms Vineyard. Duckhorn is considered a pioneer of luxury Merlot in the US. Other labels include Decoy, Paraduxx, Goldeneye and Canvasback, the latter being focused on Washington State Cabernet Sauvignon.
L’Ecole is a third-generation family-owned winery located in a historic school building. It was the third winery established in Walla Walla Valley. It is one of the most prominent and visible Washington State wineries with national and international distribution. The estate includes the Seven Hills Vineyard, one of the oldest and most renowned vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley.
Most Merlot is designed to be drunk young, but quality bottles, like those from the Right Bank of Bordeaux or top US producers gain complexity with age. They are prime for drinking at the five to 10-year mark. Our tasting included seven glasses of Merlot spanning a decade. In addition to being able to taste three different vintages of Merlot, it was a chance to compare the characteristics of Napa Valley and Walla Walla Merlot.
Kay Malaske, Duckhorn’s trade relations manager, and Constance Savage, general manager at L’Ecole, reached into their library to serve up the 2008 vintage. The 2008 Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot is 86% Merlot with 9.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3.5% Petit Verdot and 1% Cab Franc. It has smooth, integrated tannins with herbacious notes of green pepper and tones of French oak. The 2008 L’Ecole N° 41 Walla Walla Valley Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Merlot is 80% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cab Franc. The same blend is used in each of the three L’Ecole vintages we tasted. This has a nice acidity and fresh tannins. The color is brick red and there is a floral note to the bouquet.
This was an eye-opener. The complexity and finesse in these decade-old bottles was surprising for a US Merlot. There’s a lot of life left in those bones! I guess that was the point of the tasting.
The 2012 vintage is the prime drinking window, in my opinion, for these top tier Merlots. The 2012 L’Ecole N° 41 Walla Walla Valley Estate Merlot has a delightful flavor mix of cigar smoke, cocoa nibs and black raspberry. Twenty-six percent of the grapes come from the historic Ferguson Vineyard. The 2012 Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot (88% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc and 1% Malbec) is an elegant wine with notes of herbs du Provence and lavender.
One of the most popular restaurant Merlot’s is the 2015 Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot. At a $56 SRP, it is a mouthwatering value. The blend of 85% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot, is silky with coca and cherry flavor notes. The 2015 L’Ecole N° 41 Walla Walla Valley Estate Merlot offers wild cherry notes framed with fresh acidity and earthy flavors. At a $36 price point, it is an undeniable bargain.
The crowning moment of the tasting came with the 2015 Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot Three Palms Vineyards. This is a 91% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1.5% Petit Verdot and 0.5% Cabernet Franc blend. The Three Palms Vineyard is synonymous with Duckhorn and the winery has sourced grapes there since 1976. In 2015, Duckhorn purchased the vineyard whose warm, upland location is considered ideal for Bordeaux varieties.
The Three Palms Merlot is on a whole different level than the other outstanding Merlots we tasted during the workshop. The balance is perfect with expansive flavors of fresh black fruit. It is awash with layers of fruit and minerality. It retails for $98 and the quality exceeds the price tag.
Lesser grapes get only a day, but Merlot gets a whole month! October is Global Merlot Month and our latest tasting certainly validates the celebration. Mature, serious Merlot has a wider range of flavors and complexity than its simpler incarnations. Washington State Merlot changed my mind on this topic about eight years ago when I first tasted Northstar Merlot, a brawny powerhouse of a wine. After that, I could never look at Merlot the same.
If you are ready to take off your Merlot “training wheels” and taste the grape as it was meant to be, Duckhorn and L’Ecole N° 41 are superb choices. When you become ecstatic, remember to use the hashtag #MerlotMe.