Maui's Kapalua Bay Hotel's fifth annual Wine Symposium offered an unusual wine judging recently. For the first time, 30 Merlots were evaluated on a varietal basis as a potential alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon. Heretofore, Merlot, a claret grape, has been used as a Cabernet blending agent to give it a touch of class.
Eric Hansen, chairman of the symposium, gathered a knowledgeable group of tasters, composed of Robert Mondavi; David Lake, English master of wine and enologist at Columbia Winery in Washington; Rodney Strong, Piper-Sonoma; Greg Upton, Franciscan Vineyards; John Wright, Domaine Chandon; Bernard Portet, Clos du Val; Frank Woods, Clos du Bois; Jeremiah Tower, Stars Restaurant in San Francisco, and Robert L. Balzer, a Los Angeles Times Magazine wine columnist.
Despite all the California-honed palates, the panel awarded first place to Washington's Hogue Cellars for Merlot, Reserve 1983. Established in 1982, Hogue is a boutique winery in Prosser, Wash. Although its production is small, it is likely to be heard from again as it develops its 280-vineyard.
Merlots Make the Grade
Actually it is not surprising that a Washington Merlot performed well. Whereas Cabernets there are reaching for California quality, Merlots apparently have made the grade. Several have attracted national attention and awards, thus convincing Washington enologists that the grape and the region are made for each other. The Hogue is a big, concentrated wine that is developing well with a peppery spiced nose. There is some wood showing, with considerable tannin and high alcohol; it's much like a big Cabernet Sauvignon.
In general, that seems to be the problem with American Merlot as more and more are styled with the bigness, structure and character of long-to-age Cabernets. Initially, the goal of domestic Merlot was much like that of its counterparts in such Bordeaux districts as the Medoc, St. Emilion and Pomerol. There it functions primarily as an elegant softening tool for stylizing hard, robust Cabernets.
As an American varietal wine, Merlot stands a chance of becoming a useful everyday red, provided that its character is pointed toward supple silky softness and early drinkability. Wines that placed well in the judging and qualified for that mode are Markham, 1983, and Mill Creek (Dry Creek Valley), 1983. Mill Creek, with limited fragrance, exhibited generous flavors in a sweet, delicious, appealing style. Markham, also soft and with even greater generosity and roundness, could stand with a bit of age but is most attractive now.
Gundlach Bundschu, Sonoma, Merlot, 1983, displayed lovely, sweet fragrance, a dark color and deep density but with the ever-present soft Merlot flavors. This is a voluptuous wine, generous to the point of extremely easy access and a pleasantly drinkable style.
Delicious Supple Mode
Another Merlot in a delicious supple mode and demonstrating what Merlot ought to be in terms of overall style is Geyser Peak, Alexander Valley, 1983. Not as big as the Hogue, it should age for a couple of years, but its flavor length and depth with ample soft tannins makes the wine a winner and quite appealing for today's consumption.
Clos du Val, 1983, reflected more of a Cabernet style, larger in structure yet greater in length and depth. An obviously good candidate for aging with higher alcohol and density, its richness will surely develop well over the next several years. Newton Merlot, 1982, rated well because of excellent developing fragrance and a good middle palate, whereas Inglenook, Estate Bottled, 1983, provided good, soft flavors and multiple layers of texture, representing a Cabernet-like style that will mature nicely. In a similar big mode is Jaeger Inglewood, 1981.
Placing high in the judges' ranking was Robert Keenan, 1983, with still-locked-in fragrance and flavor representing more of a Cabernet style and requiring long-term aging. Sterling, 1983, featured an appealing cherrylike taste obviously fashioned for later drinking. Sonoma Vineyards, 1984, showed sweetish fragrance, good flavors, a bit of wood and a big Cabernet style with high tannin and alcohol.
A wine that caught my fancy was Charles Krug, 1982, which provided lovely sweetish fragrance and soft appealing flavors in length and depth. It is a fine Merlot with an ability to age for several years. Boeger, El Dorado, 1983, also needs time to refine its silky goodness of fine fruit and lush flavor. Clos du Bois, with a high rating from the panel, displayed an excellent soft, developing style that can be enjoyed now for its long, flavorful finish.