We can’t read a critique of merlot without a reference to Sideways, a 2004 movie that portrayed merlot as a lowly wine and thus put the nail in a coffin of a grape variety that was already sliding downhill. Watching Miles dump a spit bucket over his head was good for laughs, but isn’t it time we give the merlot joke a rest?
In fact, there is a lot of good merlot being made today on the West Coast. Although there is still the occasional merlot that is too vegetal and green — the result of stem contact — the bulk of the merlot we tasted in the last few weeks is ample reason to renew respect for this maligned grape variety.
Next to cabernet sauvignon, merlot is the second most planted grape variety in the world. It is one of several noble grapes that go into the best Bordeaux. Petrus, one of the most expensive wines in the world, is made entirely with merlot.
Merlot has a wide array of flavors, depending on where and how it is grown. Blackberries, raspberries, plums and black cherries are common flavors. The tannins are usually soft, which makes the wine more approachable than many premium cabernet sauvignons.
Alas, the best merlots we tasted were expensive. These wines are full-bodied and easy to confuse with cabernet sauvignon.
Here are the top 10 we recently tasted:
- St. Supery Merlot Estate Rutherford Napa Valley 2015 ($50). This wine exhibits wonderful intense plum, cherry, and cedar notes in a delicious package that shouldn’t be missed. It was one of the most accessible and enjoyable merlots in the tasting.
- Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars Block 20 Merlot 2017 ($70). Using the best grapes from one block, Stags’ Leap has a colossal merlot with plum and clove aromas. The full-bodied palate is of rich and silky raspberry and cherry flavors with hints of cocoa and spice.
- Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot 2017 ($56). It’s impossible not to reach for another glass of this approachable, softly textured merlot. Blended with 16 percent cabernet sauvignon and a little cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec, it has broad and ripe dark fruit flavors with tantalizing hints of licorice and chocolate.
- Vanderbilt Reserve Dry Creek Valley Merlot 2917 ($35). Blackberry and vanilla aromas lead into a ripe palate of raspberries and blueberries. Firm tannins, full body make it a wine to pair with beef.
- Sullivan James O’Neil Napa Valley Merlot 2015 ($250). At this price, we understand why you may not want a case. But we list it because the wine shows what magic can be done with this grape variety. It is unquestionably the most powerful merlot in our tasting. Immense tannins, dense flavors and great complexity. Plum aromas and rich dark cherry flavors with lingering hints of cocoa powder and leather.
- Peju Napa Valley Merlot 2016 ($48). This merlot combines elegance with power to make a delicious, rich wine that can age for five years or more. Very aromatic with pomegranate and cranberry notes and soft dark berry flavors with a hint of vanilla.
- La Jota Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot 2017 ($85). Drawing grapes from two vineyards on Howell Mountain, this showy merlot is a good example of a winemaker’s deft hands. Dense and rich black cherry notes, floral nose, and hints of dried herbs, coffee and mineral. Long finish.
- Hickinbotham The Revivalist McLaren Vale Merlot 2017 ($70). You don’t think of Australia for its merlots, but this dynamite version from Hickinbotham scores points with its generous plum and strawberry flavors and balanced acidity. There’s a nice mineral and earthy character to it.
- Mt. Brave Mt. Veeder Merlot 2018 ($80). Nearly 1,800 up Mt. Veeder, the Mt. Brave winery draws from a great source of grapes for this serious and complex merlot with plum and dark red cherry fruit and hints of vanilla and spice. Firm tannins make it a keeper too.
- Decoy Sonoma County Merlot 2018 ($25). A good value in a sea of expensive merlots, the Decoy has beautiful black cherry and blueberry flavors with hints of chocolate and mineral.
- Los Moradas de San Martin Senda 2017 ($13). We can’t remember the last time we fell in love with a wine so much that we ordered a case online. Unable to find it in local stores, we had to pay shipping fees, which raised the price to $15 a bottle – but it’s still a great bargain. From the Madrid side of the Gredos range of hills in Spain, this producer is focused on old vine garnacha. The depth, texture and tannins in this wine suggested a cost of $40 or more. Generous aromas with plum and black cherry flavors, a bit of minerality and vanilla. We also tasted the producer’s 2013 Initio garnacha and it was showing beautifully.
- Four Vines The Kinker Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($18). Petite sirah and grenache is added to this Paso Robles cabernet sauvignon to give it more color and broader flavors. Ripe dark fruit aromas with fruit-forward flavors of currants, plum, cassis.
- Black Stallion Limited Release Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($60). Using grapes from higher elevations on Diamond Mountain and Atlas Peak, winemaker Ralf Holdenried has crafted an accessible cabernet sauvignon with blackberry aromas and jammy dark berry fruit.
Gary Farrell Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2018 ($35). You get a lot of good chardonnay for the money with this delicious and balanced wine. Drawing grapes from several vineyards, the chardonnay has melon and grapefruit flavors and crisp citrus and stone fruit flavors.
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Tom Marquardt (email for questions) and Patrick Darr have been writing a wine column since 1985. They’ve traveled extensively to vineyards in France, Spain, Italy, Greece and the U.S.
Tom lives in Florida with his wife, Sue, where he conducts wine tastings. Patrick is in the wine retail business in Annapolis, Md.