Tue 15 May 2007
I don’t know why I decided to focus on wines made from merlot grapes. I suppose after getting some review samples it seemed like a good idea to visit a few retail stores and lay in more examples for reasons of comparison, and before I knew it, I had 20 of them. Typical of the way I manage life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, most of them were pretty expensive, too, top-of-the-line sort of thing, don’t you know. Not the top top of the line necessarily, not like Chateau Petrus from Bordeaux’s Pomerol region or Ausone or Cheval Blanc from St.-Emilion (Petrus these days can easily be $800 or $900 a bottle), but I actually found myself in a store with a bottle of Masetto 2002 in my hand — that’s the best merlot wine made in Italy, a legendary wine and so on — I even actually started walking toward the check-out counter, but my cooler head prevailed and I said to myself, “No, I cannot, I will not pay $235 for a bottle of wine, even if I can deduct it next year.”
Let’s be honest: Merlot is not a grape easily made into a cheap wine; it turns bland and generic and sweetish-ripe without blinking an eye. Beginning in the early 1990s, though, producers throughout the West Coast of the United States and in the south of France and in Chile and Australia tried their damnedest to turn out every kind of merlot they could based on the fact that American consumers wanted a no-challenges red so they could slurp up the two glasses of red wine a day as seemingly required by “The French Paradox.” That notion was introduced to this county by “60 Minutes” in 1991. Then merlot, which for a decade and a few years more proliferated far beyond its capabilities to be all grapes to all people, took a beating from the (only so-so) movie, Sideways. which leveled the playing field (or devastated it) for merlot while raising pinot noir to apotheosis.
Merlot’s natural home is Bordeaux, though the grape is regarded differently in such cabernet sauvignon-dominated Left Bank communes as Pauillac, St. Estephe, St. Julien and Margaux and in the merlot-dominated Right Bank communes of Pomerol and St.Emilion. On the Left bank, where the soil is primarily gravel in nature and beneficial to cabernet sauvignon, merlot is relegated to a secondary blending role, making up as little as 10 percent to up to 35 or 40 percent of the wine. On the Right Bank, the clay-based soil is better for merlot vines, with merlot grapes composing anywhere from about 60 to 95 percent of the blend with, usually, cabernet franc (not cabernet sauvignon) making up the rest. Of the Pomerol wines listed below, for example, Gazin typically contains 90 percent merlot, 7 percent cabernet sauvignon and 3 percent cabernet franc, while the proportion at Latour a Pomerol is likely to be 90 percent merlot and 10 percent cabernet franc.
California, of course, does whatever the hell it wants, and while some of these wines, Grgich Hills for one, are made of 100 percent merlot grapes, others include touches of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc or even petit verdot grapes in the blend.
Looking at the phalanx of wines I had acquired, I finally decided to share the wealth and invite a few people over for a blind tasting, that is, the participants knew that we were tasting merlot wines, but the bottles were hidden so they didn’t know what the regions, producers or vintages were. Around the table were someone from the wholesale world, someone from retail, a wine blogger (Ben Carter of Benito’s Wine Reviews: wines-by-benito.com), me and my wife.
Here are the wines we tasted, in order of the panel’s preference. I include the composite score followed by my personal score. You will quickly notice that the California examples, and the one from Washington state, achieved more impressive scores than the French models. The reason is pretty clear from looking at my tasting notes. The wines from Pomerol and St. Emilion were not only rigorously structured but ferociously tannic; the fabled Bordeaux balance between elegance and power had not yet made itself manifest. The West Coast wines, on the other hand, while exhibiting plenty of structure and tannin were more immediately sensuous and pleasurable. It’s the old Euro/California style debate in a nutshell.
We rated the wines on a 20-point scale, and you will notice that in most cases my score is higher than the evident scores of the rest of the panel. I’m such a damned pushover.
1. Lewis Cellars Merlot 2000, Napa Valley, California. About $55. Score: 18. My score: 18. This was clearly the favorite wine of the tasting.
2. L’Ecole No. 41 Merlot 2002, Columbia Valley, Washington. About $35. Score: 17. My score: 14.
3. Turnbull Cellars Merlot 2004, Oakville District, Napa Valley, California. About $35. Score: 16.6. My score: 19. Yep, this just knocked me out.
4. (Tie) Rosenblum Cellars Mountain Selection Merlot 2001, Napa Valley, California. About $30; I bought this on sale for $20. Score: 16.2. My score: 18.
4. (Tie) Ferrari-Carano Merlot 2004, Sonoma County, California. About $28. Score: 16.2. My score: 17.
5. Chateau St. Jean Merlot 2004, Sonoma County, California. About $25. Score: 15.6. My score: 17.
6 (Tie) Chateau Ferrand Lartigue 2000, St.-Emilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux. About $70. Score: 15.4. My score: 18.
6. (Tie) Pahlmeyer Merlot 2003, Napa Valley, California. About $115. Score: 15.4. My score: 16.
7. Sbragia Family Vineyards Home Ranch Merlot 2004, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County, California. About $25. Score: 15. My score: 17.
8. (Tie) Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot 2004, Napa Valley, California. About $64. Score: 14.8. My score: 18. Obviously another knockout for me, but my colleagues certainly didn’t agree.
8. (Tie) Plumpjack Merlot 2004, Napa Valley, California. About $58. Score: 14.8. My score: 14.
9. Nickel & Nickel Suscol Ranch Merlot 2004, Napa Valley, California. About $45. Score: 14.2. My score: 14.
10. Chateau La Fleur-Petrus 2000, Pomerol, Bordeaux. About $115. Score: 13.6. My score: 14.
11. Chateau Latour a Pomerol 2001, Pomerol, Bordeaux. About $75. Score: 13.2. My score: 16.
12. Chateau Gazin 2001, Pomerol, Bordeaux. About $90. Score: 12.8. My score: 15.
13. Matanzas Creek Merlot 2003, Bennett Valley, Sonoma County, California. About $30. Score 12.6. My score: 16.
14. Chateau Belair 2001, St.-Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classe. About $68. Score 12.2. My score: 13.
15. Grgich Hills Merlot 2003, Napa Valley, California. About $38. Score: 11.8. My score: 16. Once again the opinions and scores of my colleagues and I vary radically.
16. Blason de L’Evangile 2002, Pomerol, Bordeaux. About $40. This is the “second” wine of Chateau L’Evangile. Score: 11.2. My score: 15.
17. Lassegue 2003, St.-Emilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux. About $50. Score 10.8. My score: 12.
The image of merlot grapes is from fieldinghills.com.