Musing about Merlot
I have to agree with my buddy and Wine Enthusiast colleague, Paul Gregutt, when he says that most California Merlot priced between $6-$8 is “just watery plonk.”
That’s from Paul’s Seattle Times column yesterday. Now, Paul takes seriously his job of promoting Washington State wines, often to the detriment of California wines (although he loves hanging out here during Washington’s evil winters, and why wouldn’t a grape like our climate?). In the same way, I feel obligated to defend California wines as among the world’s best. Washington State does produce some pretty good wines. I don’t get the chance to drink them a lot, but whenever I’m up there, if Paul’s around he treats me to treasures from his cellar.
But he’s right about cheap California Merlot. I’ve tasted about 200 Merlots at all price points this year. Of those, I scored around one-third 85 points or less. Now, that’s a “good” wine, by Wine Enthusiast’s definition, but it’s not really one you’d want to be stuck with over a nice meal, especially when the price is $30, $49, $56, as some of these were. Granted, none were as awful as the one I found undrinkable, which will be unidentified, except here’s the review: A horrible wine. Smells like rotting garbage, tastes like cough medicine. Even at seven bucks, it was a total ripoff. Something obviously went tragically wrong with that wine, but we can’t hold it against Merlot, the variety, when somebody starts with crappy grapes and then makes a crappy wine.
More typical of Paul’s “watery plonk” Merlots was this one, which I scored 81 points: Raw and harsh in green tannins, with bubblegum and raspberry sour candy flavors. The problem with the tannins in Merlot is that, unless they’re really fine, they stick out like a sore thumb, and rob Merlot of the velvety, sexy mouthfeel it should have. (I love Hugh Johnson’s characterization of Pomerol as “fleshy and delicious.”) When the tannins are off, so is everything else.
I will identify a typical 86 point Merlot I reviewed because, while the score isn’t all that high, it’s only $11, and I gave it an Editor’s Choice special designation: the Greystone 2009, also with a California appellation. Here’s my review: Softly delicate and dry, this affordable Merlot has lots of charm. It’s a smooth, medium-bodied wine with pleasant cherry, cola, pepper and sandalwood flavors.
Not a bad description, if I do say so myself!
Paul, however, misses the boat when he paints all of California with the same brush, arguing that “the state can’t seem to find a handle on what Merlot is, or should taste like.” He can’t have access to the best Cali Merlots, the way I do, but if he could, he’d understand that there is a California Merlot style at the high end, as exemplified by Rutherford Hill, Keenan, Duckhorn, Turnbull, Hall, Pride Mountain, Shafer, Jarvis, Yates Family, Kennefick Ranch, Carter and others, all of which have Napa Valley AVAs or sub-AVAs (except for the Pride Mountain, which is Napa-Sonoma, and the Carter, which is Napa-Carneros). These wines are rich, dense and deeply flavored, soft and lush in the mouth, and stuffed with jam fruit and cedar flavors, often enriched with cocoa. They are distinguished from their brother, Cabernet Sauvignon, by gentler tannins. They are, pace Hugh Johnson, fleshy. Wouldn’t it be great to stage a blind tasting of some of these against some of Paul’s Washington faves, such as Leonetti, L’Ecole, Quilceda Creek, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Sineann and Northstar?
By the way, the highest scoring Merlot I ever reviewed was Chateau St. Jean’s 2005 Reserve, which I gave 96 points. It cost $90, the second priciest ever, after a $100 Blankiet 2004 (95 points). Those are serious, seriously good Merlots. I think even Paul Gregutt would like them.