Merlot retains star power in Washington wine country

With nearly 33,000 tons harvested in Washington last fall, Merlot, one of the noble red grapes of France’s Bordeaux region, particularly on the right bank of the Gironde River, where it is most prevalent, remains popular in Washington wine country.

Merlot has been famous in Washington for many years, and was, in fact, Washington’s No. 1 grape until about a decade ago, when the growing popularity of Cabernet Sauvignon overtook it. It remains popular as both a stand-alone variety and a blending grape in Washington, despite the rise of Cab. A big part of this is because Washington Merlot makes a sturdy wine, with tannin structures that often rival Cab. In other regions, it produces a wine that is much softer in character.

Its robust nature in Washington has everything to do with the climate of the Columbia Valley, which tends toward sandy soils and little precipitation, the result being the vine struggles to grow and thrive. This forces the vine to reduce its natural vigor and produces berries with thicker skins (where the tannins and flavor come from).

Merlot may not be as fashionable as it was in the past, but Washington produces some of the best examples in the American wine scene. Here are several examples from throughout the Northwest we’ve tried recently. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or buy them directly from wineries.

Browne Family Vineyard 2013 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $35

Each year, Precept CEO Andrew Browne bottles his own brand’s Merlot as an homage to his mother, and Walla Walla-based winemaker John Freeman continues to use Red Mountain fruit – Klipsun and now Taylor Mag – to build the structure of this classically bold 100% Washington Merlot that already received two years of bottle age prior to release. Credit the combination of 22-month barrel program of 44 percent new French oak with Canoe Ridge Vineyard and Weinbau fruit for the pleasing notes of sugared plums, Bing cherry, bittersweet chocolate and dried blueberry. Its flourish of penetrating tannins, pomegranate juice and pinch of clove bode well for richly flavored meats such as beef ribs or venison.

Rating: Excellent

Production: 1,343 cases

Alcohol: 14.2%

Winery website

Canoe Ridge Vineyard 2015 The Expedition Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills, $16

Walla Walla Valley winemaker Bill Murray offers a rather classic example of Washington Merlot with this contribution from two Precept-controlled sites – The Benches and Canoe Ridge Vineyard. The nose of Chukar Cherry, orange zest and California peppercorns transitions to flavors of ripe strawberry, which are joined by cherry pie juice, plum skins and blueberry seed. It’s filled with acidity, tannin and fruit.

Rating: Excellent

Production: 12,000 cases

Alcohol: 14.1%

Winery website

Cerebella 2014 Front Back Go Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, $30

Retired Army medic Robb Zimmel and business partner Jon Unruh, a Marine, donate 10 percent of their profits from this soldier tribute bottling to the Zachary & Elizabeth Fisher House Foundation, which helps provide housing comfort to military and veterans’ families during times of hospitalization or treatment. Zimmel’s winemaking for this Zimmel Unruh Cellars label with these two mature barrels of French oak is superb, creating aromas of black currant, blueberry and vanilla with toast. The texture is lovely, deep, rich and juicy, filled with sweet brambleberries and cherry flavors. Try at home with a steaming bowl of ribollita or visit Tap and Barrel in Richland, where Zimmel, a Washington State University winemaking grad has this wine on offer.

Rating: Outstanding!

Production: 50 cases

Alcohol: 13.7%

Winery website

V du V Wines 2013 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $24

Spokane urban vintners Kirk Phillips and John Morrow team a few blocks south of Gonzaga University to work with Merlot from Columbia Basin vineyards on Weyns Farms and Roxboro Road. The addition of Cabernet Franc (11%) from Riverbend Vineyard along the Wahluke Slope adds to its rustic, Old World profile which opens with aromas of dried and dusty black cherry, cured meat, vanilla and timothy hay. Its nicely managed tannins shift it to the lighter side of Washington Merlot and loads up on purple fruit akin to huckleberry and blueberry, leading to a bit of saddle leather in the finish. Suggested pairings include grilled meats and lighter, sauce-oriented dishes.

Rating: Recommended

Production: 110 cases

Alcohol: 13.5%

Winery website

3 Horse Ranch Vineyards 2014 Single Vineyard Eagle Foothills District Merlot, Snake River Valley $40

The Cunningham family established their vineyard as one of the highest elevation sites in Idaho and along the edge of the Snake River Valley, so Mother Nature sometimes thins their crop for them. A mere three barrels of Merlot made it into this prized bottling by their winemaker, Greg Koenig, and he turned it into the top Merlot at the 2017 Idaho Wine Competition. Dark purple fruit and toast include black currant skin tannins and blueberry acidity for a pretty finish. Gary Cunningham’s sales acumen and shoe leather have made these wines also available in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming and Alaska.

Rating: Outstanding!

Production: 76 cases

Alcohol: 14.6%

Winery website

Charles Smith Wines 2014 The Velvet Devil Merlot, Washington, $13

Best Buy! While it’s Cab and Syrah that generate a lot of the red headlines in Washington, it’s Merlot that remains the state’s workhorse grape. Charles Smith’s team sourced from seven sites, including Art denHoed in the northern reaches of the Yakima Valley, Goose Ridge near Richland and Sundance on the Wahluke Slope for this easy drinker. Tones of black currant, Chowards’s Violet candies and toast are wrapped in firm tannins and pulsating Craisin acidity. It shouldn’t be difficult to find it offered at less than this listed retail price, and Smith’s sale of this line to Constellation Brands means it will be even more widely accessible.

Rating: Excellent

Production: 149,500 cases

Alcohol: 13.5%

Winery website

Cloudlift Cellars 2014 Panorama Merlot, Columbia Valley, $26

In recent vintages, Tom Stangeland began to focus his Panorama project on Merlot, and his continued relationship with Elephant Mountain and Arianses allows him to take this to the next level. Ripe and alluring aromas of black cherry and blackberry include coffee and chocolate. Inside, it’s lighter and more hedonistic than many expressions of Merlot from Washington as those dark purple fruit tones come aross in layers of complexity, finishing with plum skin tannins, raspberry acidity and mocha. This marks the second straight vintage that this Seattle vintner has earned our top rating for his work with Merlot.

Rating: Outstanding!

Production: 167 cases

Alcohol: 14.2%

Winery website

Pedestal 2014 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $65

Pomerol’s globetrotting vintner, Michel Rolland, released his 12th version of a Merlot-based blend for Long Shadows Vintners in Walla Walla. Both the Merlot (81%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (15%) were increased from the stellar 2013 vintage, and the Merlot made its way from four corners of the Columbia Valley — Conner Lee, Candy Mountain, Dionysus and Weinbau vineyards. Larry Pearson’s 30-year-old Tapteil Vineyard on Red Mountain contributed all the Cab. A program of 22 months in 85% new French oak leads to aromas of dusty plum, Chukar Cherry, lavender and leather. Those ripe dark purple fruit tones return to the palate with a great approach that picks up fine-grained tannins, Marionberry acidity and a finish of espresso. Rolland and director of winemaking Gilles Nicault bumped up production by four barrels.

Rating: Outstanding!

Production: 2,365 cases

Alcohol: 14.9%

Winery website

Tinhorn Creek Vineyards 2014 Estate Merlot, Okanagan Valley, $22

Bay Area native Sandra Oldfield, a proud winemaking product of the University of California-Davis, and her team picked from seven blocks of Merlot from their Diamondback Vineyard on the Black Sage Bench for what a number of Canadian wine critics have described as the best work with Merlot by this trendsetting brand. Lead winemaker Andrew Windsor works with cooperages in France, Hungary and the U.S., and that shows with dense toastiness in the nose with hints of Triple Berry Pie that are joined by sun-dried tomato and oregano. Flavors of black currant and blackberry jam on toast come with fine-grained tannins akin to espresso grounds and a pinch of black pepper. This summer, this bottling went on to earn a silver medal at the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition. It’s a remarkable effort, especially as one of the largest offerings of Merlot grown and produced in Canada.

Rating: Excellent

Production: 9,105 cases

Alcohol: 14.5%

Winery website

Vino La Monarcha 2013 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $20

Few drive as many miles throughout the Columbia Valley as Victor Palencia, who makes wine on the Wahluke Slope and in the Walla Walla Valley, but he draws from Frenchman Hills Vineyard near the Royal Slope for this expressive Merlot under his entry tier. It spent 14 months in French oak and releases aromas of cassis, red cherry, vanilla and pink peppercorns and toast. The delivery includes bright flavors of sweet raspberry and boysenberry, which lead to complex notes of earthiness and prominent tannins. On the rewarding finish, there are Bing cherries and chocolate. Palencia pairs this steak, lamb or truffle popcorn.

Rating: Recommended

Production: 250 cases

Alcohol: 14.9%

Winery website

 

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