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Bargain-Priced Merlot Takes Taste Off Prize

by Steve Pitcher

After a whole year of tasting Merlots from all over California and Washington -- some seventy-two wines in all -- the twelve best wines (first- and second-place finishers) from those tastings were reassembled in the Vintners Club annual Merlot Taste-Off to determine the best of the best.

With prices ranging from $12 to $28.50 (standard retail), the winner -- 1991 Chateau Souverain Merlot from the Alexander Valley -- proved that high-quality doesn't necessarily mean higher cost.

In fact, most of the wines in the Taste-Off were priced below $20, which may be one of the reasons behind Merlot's ever increasing popularity with consumers. Another reason may be Merlot's soft, supple mouthfeel and easy tannins, distinguishing it on release from Cabernet Sauvignon, which can be brutally tannic when young.

"A kinder, gentler grape" was wine editor Gerald Asher's description of merlot in a prophetic 1992 essay in Gourmet Magazine. Now, in 1995, it's clear that Asher was one of the first to realize that consumers would increasingly come to favor this easy-to-drink, yet still classic, varietal wine.

Merlot's success in the marketplace has led to increasing demand, which has boosted prices a bit, but still not painfully so. Merlot mania is particularly noticeable in restaurants, where patrons insist on red wines that are compatible with food. Since most restaurant lists must restrict their offerings to young wines due to the high cost of stocking older, more mature vintages, wines like Merlot and, to a lesser extent, Pinot Noir have become preferable to Cabs for many diners.

Following a two-year tracking study of wine consumption in its restaurants, for example, Westin Hotels and Resorts report that preference for Merlot rose an amazing 225 percent in 1994.

And beyond restaurants, Merlot's popularity is clearly evident at the retail level. Many wine merchants and supermarket wine departments display at least as many selections of Merlot as Cabernet Sauvignon.

Consumer demand for Merlot comes at a particularly crucial time for decision making in California's vineyards, where phylloxera is forcing growers to replant thousands of acres of vines. Armed with knowledge gained over the last couple of decades of which varietals grow best in certain areas, growers are taking advantage of this forced replanting situation to replace marginally successful varietals with others offering greater promise.

For example, the Napa Valley's warm growing conditions are ideal for grapes like merlot, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and sauvignon blanc, but generally less suitable for chardonnay and riesling, which benefit from a cooler climate and poorer soils. Thus, it should come as no surprise to learn that as of 1993, some 3,000 acres of prime Napa Valley vineyard land was planted to merlot, which translates to a remarkable fifteen percent of the valley's total red-grape acreage.

As a crop, Merlot does well the length and breadth of Napa Valley -- from the cool Carneros in the south to Calistoga in the north, and from the Howell Mountain and Stag's Leap District appellations in the east to Spring Mountain and Mt. Veeder in the hills to the west. It also does extremely well throughout all the appellations of slightly cooler Sonoma County, as well as the inland growing areas of Mendocino County.

In making their planting decisions, growers cannot help but be influenced by merlot's popularity. The amount of merlot harvested and crushed rose from some 15,000 tons in 1990 to almost 41,000 tons in 1992. In 1993, the merlot crush was up eleven percent over 1992, to more than 45,500 tons. And, significantly, the '93 price per ton for merlot grapes was higher on the average than prices for cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay grapes. Even at these prices, it's virtually impossible for wineries to find merlot on the spot market -- it's all been snapped up.

So, there will certainly be a lot more merlot from future harvests. And with any luck, the consumer is in store for even better quality wine made from this grape as wineries seek to attract wine lovers by getting merlot from better sites and aging the wine in expensive, high-quality barrels.

In the meantime, there's plenty of high-quality Merlot on the shelves, as the Vintners Club Taste-Off and the elimination and other Merlot tastings leading up to the Taste-Off demonstrated.

In one tasting that wasn't part of the Taste-Off program, the panel evaluated twelve vintages of Clos du Val Merlot, from 1981 through 1992, which demonstrated the aging potential of the varietal. The best wines according to the panel's rankings were the younger bottlings from 1987 to 1992, with the 1987 taking first place and the 1992 taking second. The Merlots from 1981 through 1986 were ranked lower as a group, with the 1981 ranked twelfth and the 1982 ranked eleventh. This tasting, held in January of 1995, suggested that, at least with Clos du Val Merlot, which is made in the classic style of Bordeaux, Merlot's ability to improve with age begins to decline after about eight years in bottle.

In another tasting that wasn't part of the Taste-Off program, six well-regarded 1990 vintage French Merlots were blind tasted against six equally well-regarded American Merlots from the same vintage. The panel's evaluation ranked the American wines as a group above the French, with the exception of the '90 Chateau L'Evangile, which took third place. First place went to the '90 Leonetti Cellar Merlot from Washington, and the '90 Matanzas Creek Merlot from Sonoma Valley placed second. The other French Merlots were Le Bon Pasteur (7th place), Chateau Angelus (8th place), Chateau Cheval Blanc (9th place), Chateau Troplong Mondot (10th place) and Chateau Cannon La Gaffeliere (12th place). The other 1990 American Merlots were from St. Francis (the reserve bottling, which took 4th place), Cafaro (5th place), Cuvaison (6th place) and Ravenswood (the Sangiacomo Vineyard bottling, which came in eleventh).

Tasting Notes


1991 Chateau Souverain Merlot, Alexander Valley ($12.50)

Forward, aromatic nose of black cherry and cassis, accented by notes of leather, violets and mildly toasty oak. Generous fruit that is deep, concentrated and slightly plumy. Moderately complex with medium tannins and a silky mouthfeel.


1992 Raymond Merlot, Napa Valley ($17)
Pleasant aromas of cherry-berry fruit, tobacco leaf and spicy oak. Very slightly herbaceous, with ripe, red cherry-like fruit. Soft, smooth texture; medium tannins. Should improve with another year of bottle age.


1991 St. Francis Reserve Merlot, Sonoma Valley ($24)
Very fragrant, with lots of toasty oak balanced by deep, ripe cassis-berry fruit and mild spice. Rich and plumy on the palate offering concentrated, delicious fruit framed in spicy oak and a hint of earthiness; silky smooth and elegant, with medium tannins.


1991 Beringer Merlot, Bancroft Ranch, Howell Mountain, Napa ($28.50)
Never a shy wine, Beringer's Howell Mountain Merlot is big and bold, but wonderfully balanced. Forward, fresh, fruity, almost jammy aromas of red cherries and blackberries plus hints of black pepper and oak. Rich, ripe and plumy fruit on the palate with considerable depth and concentration. Medium-full tannins. Delicious now, but will certainly improve over the next three to four years.


1990 Merryvale Merlot, Napa Valley ($16)
Complex, fragrant scents of new oak, black cherry-blackberry fruit, tobacco, anise, mint and saddle leather. Wonderfully smooth texture with the oak nicely balanced against the ripe fruit, which expands with airing.


1991 Mietz Merlot, Sonoma County ($15)
Wonderfully fragrant and appealing aromas of black cherries and red currants plus warm spice, oak, plums and citrus rind. Smooth, rich and luscious in the mouth offering generous flavors that replicate the nose. Moderately complex and quite flavorful.


1991 St. Clement Merlot, Napa Valley ($20)
Forward nose of plumy black cherry-like fruit, mingled with chocolate, cinnamon and clove spice and toasty oak. Deeply fruity on the palate and very slightly herbaceous. Silky smooth texture.


1991 Matanzas Creek Merlot, Sonoma Valley ($28.50)
Elegant aromas of shy bell pepper, cassis, violets and spice, plus a mild earthy note. Equally elegant on the palate offering flavors that replicate the nose. Easy to drink in a lighter style.


1991 Chateau St. Jean, Sonoma County ($12)
Fresh, fruity nose of black cherry-berry fruit, clove spice, mint and shy oak. Similar to the Matanzas Creek in style and flavors. Delicious.


1992 Cuvaison Merlot, Napa Valley ($26)
A very oaky bottling, with the berry fruit almost overwhelmed at this point. Hints of orange peel and bell pepper. Comparatively austere and somewhat vegetal on the palate with a dusty note.


1991 St. Francis Merlot, Sonoma Valley ($18)
Fragrant aromas focusing on tobacco leaf and shy cherry-berry fruit. Ripe berry-cassis fruit on the palate, along with hints of chocolate, mushroom and mild bell pepper. Smooth and round, with medium tannins. Favored by tasters with a preference for Medoc-like herbaceousness.


1989 Chateau Ste. Michelle Merlot, Columbia Valley, Washington ($14)
Certainly the most vegetal wine in the flight, showing considerable green bean-green olive aromas and flavors along with shy fruit. Past its prime.

Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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