A closer look at Merlot

I wonder about the merlot grape. So much has been written about this grape in the past 10 years that I think we might want to get down to the brass tacks of this sometimes charming and sometimes disappointing red varietal. Merlot comes to us from Bordeaux, France, where the grape can soar to great heights. These fine Merlots achieve greatness from a variety of sources.

First, the growing area is just superb — beautifully suited for Merlot. Secondly, the weather (when good) gives the grape thirst-quenching acidity and nice sugars as well as ripe, yet not overripe, fruit on the nose as well as on the palate. We also have to look at older vine growth and superb viticultural techniques which, of course, Bordeaux is famous for. Some of the great Merlot-based Bordeaux can, when stored properly and intended to age, hit 30 years or more in the bottle. These older Bordeaux are more than charming, exhibiting delightful structure, velvet flavors and subtle nuance which, in Merlot, can be really something to experience. Traveling in Bordeaux in the early 1970s I had many chances to taste wines from the great 1945 and 1953 vintages and found these wines, for the most part, to be incredible on every level.

In the New World, things have not been that easy for Merlot producers. When I started in the business in the late 1960s, Merlot was not seen marked as such on the bottle but was used as a blending grape due to its inherent softness and solid structure. Merlot is the sweetheart of the blending world and "tames" some of the more tannic reds which, from time to time, allows these red wines to be consumed earlier than otherwise they would be, but can also allow them to age, as well. I think this is the blessing of Merlot: quiet tannin perception, softness and elegant flavors, plus its ability to blend with other Bordeaux varieties on many different levels and percentages.

The 1970 vintage in the Napa Valley was the watermark for American Merlot. Louis Martini winery released a Merlot with the name on the label as "Merlot" in a reserve designation. The wine was a sensation for many reasons, notably because of the grape designation and secondly because the wine was pretty good. The winery wanted the first release to be accessible, straight-forward and not expensive. It worked well for them. This single grape bottling was a nice way to get another line for the winery. Now a winery could have another standalone varietal from a grape once used only for blending.

The other nice thing about a standalone Merlot was that it was generally more accessible than some of the other reds in the stable.

Today we see an almost endless supply of Merlot. Sadly, much of it is low-end junk red planted in warm climes with little or no definition or structure. These wines give Merlot a bad rap and I think it will take some years for the grape to bounce back into favor with serious wine folks.

The good news is that our old friend Jim Devitt from the Applegate Valley has produced a stunning example of Merlot in his 2005 offering. There were fewer than 100 cases of this wine produced, which is a shame as this is the best release of Merlot I have tasted from the Pacific Northwest in memory. I judge, evaluate and purchase and sell quite a bit of Merlot and this wine has it all including, balance, length, structure, wonderful spicy oak and a finish which goes on until tomorrow. The richness of this wine in the bouquet begs one to swirl and sniff seemingly forever. If Jim could bottle this bouquet as a perfume, he'd be set for life. The palate is textured with wonderful grip and finishes with authority and is achingly varietal all the way through the many wonderful sensations which this wine imparts. This wine is six years old and I think will go on for a few more years but is gorgeous today. It sells for about $25 and is a killer deal when you think that there are Merlots out there at twice the price which cannot hold a candle to this beauty. A very great effort.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at razz49@aol.com.

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