Fri 29 May 2009
One thing I’m sick and doggone tired of is merlot wines from California that all taste the same, and I mean like “red wine with oak” or “cabernet junior.” I taste a couple of these wines every week. A major problem is that merlot is indeed so closely linked with cabernet sauvignon because in Bordeaux and many other of the world’s wine regions it is blended with cabernet sauvignon to mellow cabernet’s authoritative austerity; another is that the quality that make the merlot grape distinctive — its hints of dried thyme, cedar, black olive and bell pepper — are distinctly out of favor in California, where a great deal of merlot wines are produced, and among America’s wine drinkers, who seem to associate herbaceousness in wine with something terrible in their childhoods.
These thoughts occurred to me when I opened a bottle of the Cadaretta Merlot 2006, from Washington’s Columbia Valley, to go with a simple rendition of cheese toast, so simple that it consisted of bread, cheese and herbs, with, I think, a little mustard on the bread; sometimes less is more. One doesn’t always have to go for baroque.
Anyway, I was attracted to this merlot precisely because it evinced a highly individual character. Lithe and supple in texture, the wine offered black currant and black cherry scents and flavors that were ripe, smoky and rooty and permeated by a tea-like element that was a little herbal and a little earthy. The wine matures for 16 months in French oak barrels, but only 5 percent of the barrels are new, so there is no influence of toasty new oak or spice; instead, the oak lends a steadying hand to the structure and contributes to longevity. There is, however, considerable tannin in the form of briers and brambles and walnut shell, so the finish is a bit austere. Drink now (with cheese toast, of course) through 2014 to ’16. Production was 145 cases. Excellent. About $35.
Far more widely available — as in 11,000 cases — is the Clos du Val Merlot 2006, Napa Valley, another merlot for which oak was handled judiciously, that is, in a regimen of 16 months French and 25 percent new barrels. This wine is a blend of 77 percent merlot — meaning it barely qualifies for a varietal label, the figure being 75 percent — with 16 percent cabernet sauvignon and 7 percent cabernet franc. (The Cadaretta is 100 percent merlot.) The result is an inky, large-framed, full-bodied wine bearing a swath of minerals that’s almost iron-like, yet etched with hints of cedar and lead pencil, dried herbs and black olive. Fruit, both in nose and mouth, is intense and concentrated in the black range of currants and berries, with a touch of something untamed, perhaps rose hips and wild berries. Structure dominates, though; tannins are grainy and tightly packed, and resonate acidity lends acute liveliness. Fine (actually wonderful) now with a rib-eye steak, but could wait two or three years. Excellent. About $26.
But to be honest, the best merlot I have tasted from California in a considerable time is the Merryvale Vineyards Merlot 2005, Napa Valley, Oak Knoll District. Warm, rich and spicy, this 100 percent merlot wine teems with aspects of flint and shale, lead pencil, hints of black olive and dried rosemary, and roasted black currants, black cherries and plums; I mean, you could kiss this bouquet. There’s lovely purity and intensity here, as the fruit turns more blue in the mouth, as well as more smoky and macerated, and the mineral elements, the chewy tannin, the essential acidity and the polished oak — 18 months in French oak, 37 percent new barrels — weave an impeccable structure that’s dense, burnished and firm. Serious, sensual and entrancing. 2,250 cases. Drink through 2012 to ’15. Excellent. About $35.
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