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.
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