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Tasting Notes

Merlot: What's Happened to the Wine Industry's Darling?

June 19, 2002|CHARLES E. OLKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Merlot bandwagon has thrown a wheel. You feel it at the wineries, where Merlot no longer excites winemakers. You see it in wine stores, where the shelf space devoted to Merlot shrinks and, apart from a few reserve-type bottlings, this once proud varietal is now selling at Zinfandel prices.

Whither Merlot? The answer should emerge over the next decade, as winemakers adjust to a drinking public no longer willing to shell out big dollars for an easy-to-drink but all-too-ordinary wine. Only two kinds of Merlots are selling well in today's marketplace, and I think they are the shape of things to come.

On one hand are the Cabernet-like Merlots, with their highly ripe, concentrated fruit and rich, fleshy textures. Labels such as Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard and Beringer Bancroft Ranch have defined this end of the market for years, and they are joined by some smaller producers including Laird, Paoletti and Delectus. But eventually these wines will be measured against Cabernet Sauvignon for longevity and complexity. If they can grow into better, more interesting versions, then their place will be secure. If not, expect this category to shrink until only a small handful command $50-and-higher price tags.

At the other end of the scale are the mid-priced Merlots--the wines that sell for Zinfandel-like prices and offer lots to like in the short to intermediate term. Among the better ones are the Merlots of Chappellet and Whitehall Lane and the single-vineyard bottlings of Chateau Ste. Michelle (at a few dollars more, admittedly).

There will certainly be other Merlots for years to come, and a good value will pop up in the $12-to-$20 range from time to time. A couple are recommended below. Unless Merlot regains its old luster, this lower end of the price spectrum will mirror the Chardonnay experience, and over-planting will result in an increasing flow of good, not great, wines at serviceable prices.

* 1998 Artesa Winery, Napa Valley, $22. For sheer enjoyment, here is a Merlot that will meet anybody's requirements, regardless of how popular the grape. You immediately notice enticing aromas of sweet smoke and creme brulee that rise above well-defined ripe cherry fruit. On the palate, it captures the grape's supple potential, and its modest tannins are also in keeping with what Merlot can easily deliver. If the producers will hold to this style for their mid-priced Merlots, they will not have to worry about the grape's future.

** 1999 Canoe Ridge Vineyard, "Reserve Lot 10," Columbia Valley, $42. Merlot has been a very consistent producer for Washington wineries, and this latest effort from Canoe Ridge shows why. It is supple, rich and mouth-filling, without Cabernet's tougher tannins. It has the open, tasty fruit to go with duck or pork but the firmness of structure to stand up to simple beefsteaks and roasts. Merlot does not have to imitate Cabernet to be successful.

$** 1999 Chappellet Vineyard, Napa Valley, $22. Chappellet's hillside location tends to produce somewhat firmer Merlots, but, when they come with depth and concentrated fruit, and carry an altogether inviting price tag, they will remain popular. The wine's youthful astringency aids in its serviceability with savory dishes; I particularly enjoyed it with slices of duck breast in mole sauce.

** 1999 Chateau Ste. Michelle, "Cold Creek Vineyard," $30. Chateau Ste. Michelle's Merlots are always on the firmer but fruity side, and this one captures the best of both worlds in aromas of red cherries, dried flowers and creamy oak. Supple and polished at the front of the palate and juicy in the manner of good Merlot, its tannins provide a bit of grip and muscle for aging.

$* 2000 Cinnabar Winery, Paso Robles, $14. No wine in my recent tastings of about 100 Merlots offers as much value as this ripe, direct, tasty effort. Paso Robles is a bit warm for classic Merlot but it is nicely filled with black cherry flavors and is ready to drink tonight with anything from burgers to beef carbonnade.

** 1999 Delectus, "Stanton Vineyard," Oakville, Napa Valley, $40. Owner-winemaker Gerhardt Reisacher just laughed when I asked about Merlot's impending demise. "Maybe for some people," he said, "but not for Delectus. Our Merlot is incredibly popular." Of course, I was visiting Delectus in the first place because I had just tasted this wine, and I wanted to meet the folks behind the winery posthaste. The wine is filled with deep, buoyant, succulent fruit presented in the plush, mouth-filling texture that the leading Merlots strive to capture. I suspect that this wine is one of the few Merlots that will also please Cabernet drinkers.

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