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Merlot – A Love Letter from Goldilocks

By Karen MacNeil
October 6, 2016

In tasting 75 merlots over the last three days, it was clear that merlot has no problems with self esteem. (Many of the wines were outrageously good). But there were three types of merlot that fell short. I call them Red Velvet Cupcake, Atlas Shrugged, and Xmas Tree Ornaments Without the Tree.

The Red Velvet Cupcake versions were merlot all sweet and pumped up. They seemed exacerbated and out of balance. Like certain body parts when they aren’t real. (One taster in my office called these crowd pleasers, making me realize I must belong to a different crowd).

Atlas Shrugged merlots seemed like iron doors clanging together. Mammoth and unyielding, they were flat, severe, and impossible to drink. And no, they were not just “young.” They were hollow and hard.

Xmas Tree Ornament Without the Tree merlots were fruity, simplistic, and tasted fine. If they had been $10, I would not have minded. But at $40 or more, you sort of want the tree too. You expect some structure behind the fruit.

Tasting these three types of not-so-successful merlot made me realize what great merlot has.

  • It has beauty and balance.
  • It has a long, complete, smooth arc of flavor.
  • It has considerable tannin, giving the wine a soaring sense of structure. (But that tannin isn’t a raw whiplash that makes your palate feel like it’s just been in a train wreck.)
  • It has a core of nuanced flavor.
  • It has enough acidity to give the flavors focus and precision.

I suppose you could say these things about many varietals. But it seems to me that over the last decade, merlot has often gotten “middle child” attention from winemakers.  Yet when merlot gets star treatment, a wine of real personality and pedigree emerges.

My favorite wines from the tasting were these:

  • LA JOTA Merlot 2013 (Howell Mountain, Napa valley, California) $85

Immense, complex, impeccable 

  • MT. BRAVE Merlot 2013 (Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley, California) $75

Vivid, precise mountain fruit 

  • FROG’S LEAP Merlot 2014 (Rutherford, Napa Valley, California) $40

Sleek, pure, Bordeaux-like

  • KEENAN Reserve Merlot 2013 (Spring Mountain, Napa Valley, California) $70

Strong dark chocolate; ready for steak

  • SHAFER Merlot 2014 (Napa Valley, California) $55

Thick but delicious berries and vanilla

  • GRGICH HILLS Merlot 2012 (Napa Valley, California) $43

Dark, smoky, plummy

  • JANUIK “Klipsun” Merlot 2013 (Columbia Valley, Washington) $30

Exquisitely sleek; waves of nuanced rich fruit and spice

  • DUCKHORN “Three Palms Vineyard” 2013 (Napa Valley, California) $95

Lots of structural tannin balanced by juiciness 

  • CLOS PEGASE “Mitsuko’s Vineyard” Merlot 2014 (Carneros, California) $40

Deep plush mocha and plums 

The Best Mid Priced Merlot Was:

  • CANOE RIDGE “Reserve” Merlot 2013 (Horse Heaven Hills, Washington) $25

Delicious mocha, espresso, tea, and lots of savory spices

The Best Steals Under $20 Were:

  • WATERBROOK Merlot 2014 (Columbia Valley, Washington) $14

Black cherry goodness

  • COLUMBIA CREST “H-3” Merlot 2014 (Horse Heaven Hills, Washington) $15

Smoky, vanilla, dark and masculine

  • CHELSEA GOLDSCHMIDT Merlot 2014 (Alexander valley, California) $18

Well made, good fruit; the Chevy of merlots