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"That Useful Wine Site"
The Merlot Grape

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About Merlot

(Synonyms: Bigney, Crabutet Noir, Langon, Merlot Noir, Picard, Vitraille)


Merlot grapes Map showing Bordeaux

Merlot is a red-wine grape originating in Bordeaux, but now very widely grown (worldwide, it is the third-most-planted wine grape). It is generally considered one of the dozen and a half or so of world-class red-wine grapes (those in boldface in the varietals list to the left of the page).

Merlot is one of the traditional grapes used in the red-wine blends that characterize Bordeaux (blends known to the British as "claret"). Americans are used to wines that are bottled and marketed by varietal name (which now requires that the wine must be at least 75% of the named type); but in most of Europe, the tradition has been to produce named blends, with laws specifying—usually quite tightly—what percentages of what grapes may be used. The principal Bordeaux grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, though there are others. Merlot wines are considered to be softer and "fleshier" than the "sterner" Cabernet Sauvignon, and thus act to moderate Bordeaux blends with body and softness. Merlot tends to be very much the dominant grape in so-called "Right Bank" Bordeaux reds (whereas Left Bank reds tend to be dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon).

Merlot is now immensely popular worldwide, and scarcely any winemaking country does not have extensive Merlot plantings. That has inevitably resulted in large amounts of harmless but bland and undistinguished Merlots, which have in recent times given the type a somewhat diminished level of respect, even though some of the world's greatest wines (such as Château Pétrus) are almost wholly Merlot.

Merlot is (like any grape, really, but especially like Zinfandel) capable of yielding hugely various wines, depending on the vintner's concept of what the type should be. But, broadly speaking, Merlots are relatively unaggresive, "rounded" (or even "fleshy") wines dominated by red-fruit aromas and tastes. Some winemakers, however, opt to make their Merlots emulate Cabernet Sauvignons, and those are rather higher in alcohol and tannin, with more intense flavors. Others feel that that is not true to the basic nature of the grape, and make more restrained wines from Merlot.

"If ever there were a red answer to Chardonnay, Merlot is it."
       —Jancis Robinson

The general sense in the business seems to be that in the New World, Washington State is the clear winner on Merlot, with California still struggling to emerge from the bad old days, but with Chile (and sometimes Argentina) producing some pretty good value wines. In the Old World, quality is there, but pricing on what is available in America is high, saving the Cru Bourgeois wines of the Right Bank.

Factoid: It is now thought that Merlot is a cross between Cabernet Franc and the obscure grape Magdeleine Noire des Charentes. It is related to Cabernet Franc and Carmenere.

Some Descriptions of Merlot Wines

  • Wikipedia

    "Merlot can make soft, velvety wines with plum flavors. While Merlot wines tend to mature faster than Cabernet Sauvignon, some examples can continue to develop in the bottle for decades. There are three main styles of Merlot — a soft, fruity, smooth wine with very little tannins, a fruity wine with more tannic structure and, finally, a brawny, highly tannic style made in the profile of Cabernet Sauvignon. Some of the fruit notes commonly associated with Merlot include cassis, black and red cherries, blackberry, blueberry, boysenberry, mulberry, ollalieberry and plum. Vegetable and earthy notes include black and green olives, cola nut, bell pepper, fennel, humus, leather, mushrooms, rhubarb and tobacco. Floral and herbal notes commonly associated with Merlot include green and black tea, eucalyptus, laurel, mint, oregano, pine, rosemary, sage, sarsaparilla and thyme. When Merlot has spent significant time in oak, the wine may show notes of caramel, chocolate, coconut, coffee bean, dill weed, mocha, molasses, smoke, vanilla and walnut."

  • Wine Searcher

    "The precise flavors that Merlot imparts to a wine are not easily grouped. It is a grape used for producing wines of a particular texture, rather than a particular taste, relying on organoleptic properties other than just flavor and aroma. Smooth, rounded and 'easy-drinking' are common descriptions of Merlot wines. The main reason for this is that Merlot grapes are relatively large in relation to their pips and the thickness of the skins, in which tannins are found. For this reason, the variety is used to soften wines made from more tannic varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon (in the Medoc) or Malbec (in Cahors). It is also used in cooler vintages to balance the austerity of under-ripe grapes and to make the wines more approachable at an earlier age."

  • Wine Access

    "Flavor Profile: Medium to full-bodied wines with flavors of black cherry, plum, and tobacco. . . . Merlot enjoyed a surge in popularity in the 1990s as consumers suddenly discovered that they could enjoy aromas and flavors similar to those of Cabernet in a fleshier, softer wine with smoother tannins. A wave of Merlot plantings followed, frequently in soils and microclimates completely inappropriate for this variety, and the market was soon flooded with dilute bottles from young vines and high crop levels, and weedy, herbaceous examples from underripe fruit. Many of these undernourished wines were overoaked in attempts to mask their deficiencies. . . . Expect [nowadays] to find broad, supple wines with medium to full body, typically with aromas and flavors of black cherry, plum, dark berries, dark chocolate, tobacco, and earth, and suave, fine-grained tannins."

  • Wine Folly

    "Merlot wine is regarded as the underdog to Cabernet Sauvignon. How come? Because cheap commercial Merlot has given the varietal a bad reputation. . . Fruit: Black Cherry, Raspberry, Plum; Other: Graphite, Cedar, Tobacco, Vanilla, Clove, Mocha; Oak? Yes. Usually medium oak aging (8-12 months); Tannin: Medium; Acidity: Medium; ABV: 12-15%"

  • DrinkWine.com

    "Merlot’s popularity is due to the fact that it is softer, fruitier, and earlier-maturing than cabernet sauvignon, yet displays many of the same aromas and flavors – black cherry, currant, cedar, and green olive – along with mint, tobacco and tea-leaf tones. Although enjoyable as a varietal wine, it is probably most successful when blended with cabernet sauvignon, which contributes the structure, depth of flavor, and ageability merlot lacks."

  • The Wine Cellar Insider

    "In character, Merlot offers flavors of chocolate, plums, licorice, black cherries, blueberries, black raspberries and blackberries as well as jam, which depends on the levels of ripeness the fruit was allowed to achieve. It is round, fleshy and can be opulent in texture. Florence Decoster of Fleur Cardinale in St. Emilion adds to our description of Merlot: 'Merlot is a grape variety that gives round and delicious wines, with aromas of black fruits such as black cherry, blackberry and cassis. You also get aromas of truffle, violet, plum, chocolate. For Merlot, our aim is to maintain the freshness of the fruit, before it becomes too soft and loses its freshness.'"

  • Appellation America

    "Merlot plays the luscious role in the blended wines of Bordeaux, adding forward plummy, fruity richness to more austere qualities of Cabernet Sauvignon. More supple, with higher alcohol and softer tannin, Merlot is often more approachable in youth than Cabernet Sauvignon. It adds richness to the hard edges – putting meat on the bony structure of Cabernet. Petrus’s reputation on the auction block, notwithstanding, it is Cabernet Sauvignon that gets more attention from the rest of the world. Even though Merlot has a voluptuous character, because of its willingness to yield generously, it is vulnerable to being turned into rather dilute and characterless wines."

Some Merlots to Try

(About this list.)

Obviously, with a wine type this popular, the possibilities are myriad. We have tried to present a reasonable palette of sources and styles, each representative being one well and widely praised. As with any major wine type (Cab Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and the rest of the usual suspects), you will be hard pressed to find Old World specimens of high quality within the under-$20 range; real values will typically come from the New World. But we include things that should give an idea of styles and potential.

The quotations below are excerpts; we strenuously urge you to click on the green diamond symbol by each quoted review to see the full article.
  • Chateau de Lavagnac Bordeaux Rouge, $9 - $18. (Circa 70% - 90% Merlot: varies by vintage. There is also a more expensive bottling called "La Grande Dame".)
         ($11.44 at Saratoga Wine Exchange).

    Some quotations and facts:

    Garnet towards royal-purple, 75% Merlot blended with equal parts of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Medium- to full-bodied, with good concentration and showing an appealing array of aromas and flavors, those including blackberries, black cherries and milk chocolate, all leading to a long plumy finish. An often under-rated chateau. Score 88

    Full-bodied, firm tannin, but still really drinkable. This wine could use a little time, I think, but well worth it. Buy now and you could hold onto this guy for eight to 10 years.

    [A]n amazement that is smooth and lush on the palate.

    This wine is comprised of 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc from limestone-rich soils on the Right Bank. It offers up meaty, cinnamon, black cherry and oak aromas and flavors with medium+ tannins, elegance and long length.

    Chateau de Lavagnac Rouge astounded everyone, with its $9 price tag, and its full-bodied, rich, complexity. It was real wine for an amazing price!

    So the smell was horrible (burnt plastic maybe), it was slightly dry, and delicious. Once you are past the smell, you will be happy you tried it.

    [This] good quality wine has impressive depth of fruit, and well defined layers of flavour. Clear ripe fruit here, with some ageing potential. 90% merlot, 10% cabernet franc, 50% new oak. 85/15.5

  • Château Greysac, $14 - $22. (The Merlot component of this Bordeaux blend varies by vintage from, roughly, 50% to 60%.)

    Some quotations and facts:

    There are pure concentrated black currant fruits with crushed extracted brambleberries, creme de cassis, blackberry compote and sorbet, oak references, mocha notes, coffee grounds and vanilla beans. On the palate: The wine shows highly extracted black fruits with dominance by concentrated blackberries, then spice components, black cherry wine, bitter chocolate, vanilla, oak components and mineral-like mocha. Although it is at its peak, it retains a powerful appearance as a wine with great full-bodied structure. It also is marked through the midpalate and into the classic bordeaux finish that lingers with complex mouth-feel through the end.

    The wine itself is a deep ruby in the glass, and the nose is just pure Bordeaux, with the classic "Bordeaux funk" as some people have called it, a somewhat musty, combination of black fruit, leather, anise and dried spices that combine create a very memorable aroma of funk! Though I'll admit, after a bit of air, or some decanting, the funk dissipates and you're left with great aromas of ripe black fruit, leather and anise. The taste is quite complex, with a rush or ripe fruit, particularly cherries at the front, then we transition to just the slightest bit of cedar and mint midpalate, which goes quite quickly. The finish is supported by some well structured tannins, as well as some notes of gravel and earth in the long, exceptionally dry finish.

    Fresh fruit, red plums and cherry lift off the nose. Smooth, supple, fruit and fresh acidity dominate the palate with a little structure added by fine grain smoky tannins. Nicely balanced and very well knit medium bodied claret – 88/100 points

    What became very clear was that young Bordeaux wines can be very good, especially when they have time to open up…to breathe. These wines are lighter bodied and less complicated than their elite elders in Bordeaux, but enjoyable none the less.

    Château Greysac is a standard-bearer for well-made, widely available and accessibly priced Bordeaux red wines. . . The top wine gets its supple tannins from a relatively high percentage of Merlot in the blend.

    Château Greysac, Cru Bourgeois classified, is one of the most well-known and most widely available Bordeaux wines in the U.S. The 2000 Greysac has aromas and flavors of cedar and ripe, black fruits, with considerable tannin and a classy, velvety finish. 89

    It's a very perfumed wine, with plenty of lush, sweet black cherry fruit. It has a lot of precocious charm but will probably be better in two or three years. It hits no peaks of complexity, but it's a lovely, easy wine to drink.

    [W]ill please anyone who loves the basic taste of Bordeaux blends.

  • Bollini Trentino Merlot, $10 - $15. (Bollini is very well known for their Pinot Grigio, but almost no one has reviewed their Merlot.)

    Some quotations and facts:

    Its light, ruby appearance promises a lean, easy Merlot for weeknight dinners, and in fact, the nose delivers blueberry, forest fruit and linear mineral tones. This is not a hugely intense wine, but crisp acidity and a lighter consistency make it a friendly companion to pasta with meat ragù or roast beef. 86

    Soft, Light, Great fruit & Spice.

    [C]risp, fresh and silky with subtle earthy, herbal notes.

  • Falesco Umbria Merlot, $11 - $15. (This is not the "Vitiano Rosso".)
         ($12.44 at Saratoga Wine Exchange).

    Some quotations and facts:

    The nose is elegant and spicy, offering aromas like black currant, blackberry, black pepper and cedar. The palate is perfectly balanced with spiced blackberry, cherry and raspberry flavors. Crisp acidity makes it lively and moderate tannins give it a nice mouthfeel. It finishes with blackberry and black tea flavors that stay with you. This is a fantastic wine. 90

    Possesses lovely inner perfume and expressive dark fruit. The wine retains its freshness and vibrancy through to the finish, where fragrant white flowers add lift.

    ♣ Wine Advocate, 10 years' ratings: average = 89.6, range = 88-92

    Cotarella is a wizard when it comes to Merlot. Dense, soft, and everything a Merlot should be, it tastes like a Merlot priced 2-3 times higher.

    One of the best of the entry-level wines in the range, the 2011 Merlot jumps from the glass with black fruit, mocha, grilled herbs and spices. This soft, voluptuous wine shows terrific balance and plenty of harmony, especially within its price range. Layers of fruit build to the creamy generous finish. 88 points

    The 2009 Merlot is one of the finest wines I have ever tasted from Falesco. It is a decidedly firm, vibrant Merlot that stands in stark contrast to the super-ripe, obvious Vitiano Rosso. Here the fruit is wonderfully precise and elegant. Jammy blueberries, blackberries, cinnamon, leather and crushed rocks are woven into a beautiful fabric. The French oak is layered very nicely, adding depth and flavor, but never overpowering the wine. This is impressive juice from proprietor Riccardo Cotarella

    [O]ne of the Lazio region’s most famous wines.

    The Merlot released an earth-based fragrance, loaded with spices, minerals and darker fruits that had me sniffing eagerly to extract all the nuances from the complicated nose. The wine was clean on the palate but fairly simple. Its flavors of berries and plums barely lasted on the taste buds leaving behind impressive structural components—awkward. The body of the wine bred in the partly volcanic and sedimentary soils was medium and the acidity was slightly higher (medium plus). The wine was balanced but disappointing, considering the score and the finish. It blared loudly in the beginning only to be bested by its disappearing act in the finish. The Falesco Merlot might have done better if paired with heartier foods rather than the spicier salami (calabrese) and olives but that remains to be seen.

    I was floored by the quality that the wine delivers for so little money. This is one of those wines that will be an epiphany for those who are suspect of Merlot grown in Italy. I rarely find an Italian Merlot that I feel is worthy of an email recommendation but this wine is the exception to the rule.

    Inky dark garnet, virtually opaque, with slightly leathery dark fruit aromatics; cassis, black currant, dark berry flavors are very dry and a little astringent, not unlike a young syrah. Fairly dense and concentrated, with good structure and drying tannins on the finish; some oak shows itself on the nose as it opens. Needs grilled red meat, a hearty stew or a few years in the cellar, but this is a merlot I can drink and enjoy.

    [It] begins with strong, enticing aromas of dark ripe fruit, spice and smoke. Tasting the wine reveals flavors similar to those found in the wonderful bouquet with a bit of a rustic tinge to it. This is a savory wine that has some personality, which is not always something you find in the under $10 price range. It ends dry with more rustic fruit, followed by oaky spice and finally a bit of coffee at the very end. Excellent!

  • Santa Rita Reserva Merlot, $8 - $15. (Note that this is the Reserva bottling.)
         ($15.24 at Saratoga Wine Exchange).

    Some quotations and facts:

    Here's a fine example of how Merlot blended with 10 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon can be outstanding - concentrated, complex and velvety. This good value bottle brims with ripe berries, milk chocolate and warm, stewed plum, as well as notes of toast, warm vanilla and gentle spice from American and French Oak.

    Cassis nose with a medium plus body. Cassis and plum flavours primarily together with some vanilla and sweet spcie. Sour cherries and vanilla, with grippier tannins on the finish. Nice.

    [S]melled like sweet cherries with a little hint of asphalt. This wine was easy drinking and had a bit more sweetness, which reminded us of the blackcurrant drink Ribena. This wine has tannins strong enough to prevent it from being too juicy or flabby.

    This merlot from Chile's Maipo valley has all the hallmarks of a decent Bordeaux. It has a wonderful ruby-red colour and rich plum aromas with a sweet, decadent note. The robust taste carries strong blackcurrant flavours with undertones of plum and blackberry. A smooth finish rounds off this classic Chilean offering. Strong and alcoholic, this wine is warming and has a good kick to it. Drink alone (that is, without food, not without other people) or with food that will stand up to the strength of this wine; steak, blue cheese, mildly spiced or high-garlic foods.

    Medium-bodied with a floral taste and flavors of cherry and plum. 3 stars.

    Color: Deep ruby red. Nose: Like you just opened up an old empty cedar cigar box, very sweet wood, mint. Taste: Classic blackberry and black cherry flavors. Mellow tannins. Summary: A solid merlot and good value.

    [D]ark purple to ruby color; smells like plum, vanilla, some strawberry; heavy taste of spice, oak and plum; acceptable Santa Rita Merlot (I'm a fan of Chilean reds so keep your eyes peeled, there’s value here).

    Deep ruby red. Aromatic with black plum, oak, and smoke on both the nose and palate. Medium to full-bodied with lively acidity, medium, dry tannins, and a long finish. Quality: 3 stars (out of 5); QPR: 4 bangs for your buck (out of 5).

    Fruit flavors of raspberry and plum with a vanilla and spice finish. 3-1/2 stars.

  • Concha y Toro "Marques de Casa Concha" Merlot, $12 - $36. (They have an extensive line; this is the "Marques de Casa Concha" Merlot.)
         ($19.64 at Saratoga Wine Exchange).

    Some quotations and facts:

    [It] has a nose as complex (and delicious) as the palate: plum, blackberry, blueberry, raspberry and chocolate play in the olfactories while in the mouth big dark fruit flavours, ripe silky tannins with hints of blueberry skin dance across the tongue … look for a juicy mid-palate that leads to a chocolate based finish. (****+)

    This needs a few minutes to open up, but not that long really. My first smell had a typical Chilean layer of soil and very obvious plum. As the wine aerated a bit the cherry came through and a bit of anise, but the tannins seemed to takeover the show a little too quickly. As the glass disappeared, so did the overt tannins, being replace by more licorice and dark chocolate with smoother tannins. A nice finish and a warm feeling makes me wonder why I haven't been drinking more Merlot. This is a wine that could probably cellar for a while and get even better, but it is also fine just the way it is.

    This wine includes a portion of Cabernet Sauvignon which makes itself known with a cassis, mint character, accompanying the smooth, round plum we associate with Merlot. This wine is full-bodied, ripe and complex with a fine fruit/acid/wood/tannin balance. This wine will age nicely over the next 3 -5 years but can be enjoyed now. Serve with a rack of veal roast.

    The nose is rich and warm with pure sweet, plummy fruit and that savoury dried herbs “Chilean” undercurrent. On the palate, the savoury, bay leaf, plum fruit theme continues with flecks of chocolate, vanilla and spice. The finish is long and glossy. A very clean version of the varietal that will be a hit with roast beef and grilled meat lovers. Big value here for $20.

    ♣ Wine Spectator (date unknown), 90 points

    Black, black, wine, as black as chocolate; spare hints of green pepper and smokiness over a bed of lush, lush, dry fruit. This -- pardon the repetitions -- is a very, very good wine, dear things. Share it with a friend.

    Not being much of a Merlot fan, I found this wine heavy, aciditic with currants, spice, plums and coffee though being paired with food would probably make a big difference as I’ve never been able to enjoy Merlot as a sipping wine.

    Yes, good merlot exists, right here; layers of aromas and flavors of red and black fruits, with muscles of tannin and wood; its core flexes as it rolls through the mouth; for bean and root vegetables.

    A dash of Carmenere makes it deliciously smoky spicy.

  • Buena Vista Carneros Merlot, $9 - $28.

    Some quotations and facts:

    A distinguished Merlot, dark, dry and brooding. Complex, too, with deep flavors of blueberry, mushroom, dark chocolate and anise. The tannins are fairly fierce despite the softness, but the wine doesn't seem like a longterm ager, so give it a decant before drinking over the next few years.

    This dark ruby colored Merlot opens with a blackberry, red currant, and mild old oak bouquet. On the palate, this wine is medium bodied, balanced, plush and juicy. The flavor profile is a rich blackberry with notes of spice, anise, plum and vanilla oak. The finish is dry and its mild tannins are a tad dusty and linger for a little while. 90.6 points.

    ♣ Wine Enthusiast (June 2012), 91, Editor's Choice

    ♣ Riverside (CA) International Wine Competition (4/5/2012), Gold Medal

    Just slightly less than clear and very dark purple/garnet…great color! Wonderful nose shows tobacco, espresso, dark cherry and very fragrant oak with a wisp of dark chocolate orange liqueur. One of the more complex bouquets I’ve had under my nose in a while. On the palate, it’s soft and lush with very accessible tannins and loads of sweet fruit, showing cherry, cinnamon, dried orange peel. Back label indicates blackberry and mocha and while I didn’t get those flavors on my own, I can sure taste them in the mix now (power of suggestion?). Acidity is right on the money. This is one delicious Merlot from a reliable producer.

    Very solid and nicely concentrated, ripe-cherry fruit puts this well-made Merlot on the track to success, and, while it may lack the flashy oak and pushy ripeness shown by its high-ticket cousins, the wine is both rich and refined with glimmers of coming complexity. It runs into a touch of youthful finishing toughness that will be tempered by service with food, but the better choice here is a few years of age.

    My favorite of the 10 [wines sampled] is the Buena Vista Merlot Carneros 2009 (89), which is supple and elegant, with layered cherry flavors.

    ♣ Wine Spectator (June 2013), 89

    Elegant and balanced, with toasted red currant aromas and lively cherry, tomato leaf and spice flavors that finish soft, showing ripe tannins.

  • Columbia Crest H3 (Horse Heaven Hills) Merlot, $9 - $20. (Columbia Crest has several lines; this is the "H3" line, arguably even better than their renowned "Grand Estates" Merlot.)

    Some quotations and facts:

    Velvet in a glass, so smooth, so easy to sip. Aroma of blackberries with a touch of fruitcake. Taste of soft blackberries and a hint of the butternut bars I loved. This is one amazing Merlot, giving me everything I want from this varietal. Named as one of the top 100 wines of the world by Wine Spectator for 2010. (Note: even though I can disagree with Wine Spectator, especially when they over-praise muscle-bound Merlots, the respected magazine got it right with this notice, a first for a non-reserve wine from Columbia Crest. It was in competition with the $100+ wines!)

    Enticing aromas of Nutella, black cherry, plums and toasted cherry wood evolve into rich and bold flavors of black cherry, blackberry and more plums. Its smooth midpalate, bright acidity and finish of chocolate-covered espresso beans make this a crowd-pleaser at any price. Rating: Outstanding!

    Initial swirl of the glass shows that the wine appears to have good legs and some depth. The color is deep, dark and rich looking. You certainly can't see through the wine. Smelling the wine reveals a lot of earthiness and some type of fruitiness. I detected cherry… my wife wasn't so sure. The first sips show a dry wine with hints of cocoa and blackberry. There is no aftertaste, no heavy tannins, but definitely an earthiness and cocoa flavor. This is an easy wine to drink right off the bat. The finish is long and savory. The wine continues to coat the glass on each sip indicating a depth and body to the wine. As we progress through the glass the blackberry and cocoa consistently show themselves. . . The earthiness gives the wine a complexity without overshadowing the berry and cocoa. We are really enjoying this as each sip brings more of each component forward. On to our second glass and this wine just does not let up! Easy to drink on its own but also calling to be paired with a bold meal! My palate is lightly but noticeably coated with a wonderful silky texture. The fruits and cocoa have given way to the earthiness and depth of the wine. All in all both my wife and I are very impressed by this wine. . . This is a definite "two thumbs up" from us.

    The H3 Merlot 2009 is deep purple in color, much like the seal around the neck of the bottle. On the nose is an enticing aroma of blackberries, spice, and earth; a beautiful bouquet indeed! Taking the first sip, and you sink deeper with rich flavors: earth and cherries, with the earth becoming more pronounced (though not overbearing) the longer the glass sits. The finish is smooth, and lingers with warm, rich cocoa flavors. The H3Merlot is a well-done, complex wine, in that the longer it sits, the more the flavors and aromas take shape. I did not let the bottle sit for more than 10 minutes before taking my first sip, though the wine did get a chance to sit for a while . . . It was in this time I noticed the more pronounced leathery taste on the front as it mixed with the cherries. Composed of 96% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Malbec. My first thought when I stuck my nose into the glass was, "Exciting!!" and I feel this wine carried through to the end.

    Nice nose with jammy black fruit, plum, and leather aromas. Chocolate, plum, black cherry, leather, and a touch of licorice come through on the palate. Medium-bodied with lively acidity, medium tannins, and a medium to long finish. Quality: 3.5 stars (out of 5); QPR: 5 bangs for your buck (out of 5).

  • Sebastiani Sonoma County Merlot, $11 - $20. (Don't confuse this with Sebastiani's "Alexander Valley" bottling.)

    Some quotations and facts:

    A dry, somewhat austere style, with cassis and hints of barrel. The nose and flavors weave threads of black cherry, red licorice and milk chocolate; it fades into a citric, chewy finish.

    This is a straightforward uncomplicated wine with nice aromas of cedar, leather, coffee, and a slight vegetal or herbaceous quality, all of which also come through on the palate. The wine delivers nice fruit forward quality with moderate tannins.

    There is some classic Merlot plum on the nose of this wine, along with ripe berries. There’s also some rose and a wee bit of black pepper. The palate is soft and fruity with lots of berry flavors and plum. I’d even say there a hint of bubblegum, but it’s not overly artificial tasting. The finish has a touch of chocolate, but not a lot of complexity. This is a good wine. I would have liked a touch more acid and a touch more tannin, but it’s still quite enjoyable. 86

    This wine opens with a nice pleasant bouquet. On the palate, the wine is mildly flavorful. This wine is nicely balanced and would serve as a good food wine. It has a nice tingly finish. Enjoy this bargain

    I have to be completely honest with you. I didn’t really like this wine at all. It was too harsh for my taste. It was very spicy, oaky and….well, just too harsh.

    [2000 vintage] Delicious wine that's exactly what a Merlot should be. Nice aroma of dark cherry, chocolate, vanilla and black plum with hints of bacon and sage. Very smooth, sensuous mouthfeel, with rich flavors of blueberry, vanilla, black plum and cocoa bean. Develops a lingering tobacco tang with air. Gentle throughout the medium-length finish. Part of the reason this wine is so wonderful is that Sebastiani declassified its estate Cabernet Sauvignon production in 2000 because of rains that hit after the Merlot grapes were harvested; that usually exalted Cab makes up about 15 percent of this wine.

    The 2008 Sonoma County Merlot is a delightfully fruity, structured, and well-balanced release from this time-honored vintner. This wine was both rich yet mellow, and provided a wonderful taste sensation on the fore, mid, and back palates. I tasted bright berried fruit, English Breakfast tea, red cherries, and rich but soft oak flavors in this wonderful Merlot.

    Dark garnet color with fresh cherry, tobacco, and vanilla aromas. On the palate, it medium-bodied and fruity with black cherry, cassis, and vanilla flavors.

  • Three Rivers Merlot, $12 - $27.
         ($23.94 at Saratoga Wine Exchange).

    Some quotations and facts:

    It's a heavy-hitting, big, and dark Merlot with rich blueberry and cherry aromas, an interesting smokiness, and subtle tar notes. There’s a healthy dose of acidity, smooth tannins, and just a slight bit of heat on the finish. Without a doubt, it’s the best Merlot under $20.00 that I’ve ever had and it drinks as well as many of the Washington Merlots that I’ve had in the $30.00-$40.00 range. Rating: Highly Recommended (90-94), 5/5 Value.

    Black cherry, mocha and barrel notes combine to make a pleasant bouquet. Full, generous fruit flavors greet the palate. Tannins are apparent but ripe; 88/90.

    First smelled of petrol and sweet berries. Good initial impression. At first taste, it was smooth and earthy with a bitter aftertaste. Overall, not my favorite but Merlot varieties have never clicked with me.

    This very dark ruby colored Merlot is perhaps the best value to emerge from our big blind tasting. It opens with a fragrant black cherry-cola like bouquet with a hint of cranberry. On the palate, this wine is medium bodied balanced and smooth. The flavor profile is a pleasant plum and black cherry blend with a hint of cedar plank and spice. The finish is dry and its mild tannins are rather sticky. 90.4 point average

    95% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Deep, dark purplish red. Nice nose with plum, blackberry, and licorice aromas. Black fruits, plum, and smoky notes come through on the palate. Medium to full-bodied with lively acidity, medium to high, drying tannins, and a long finish. Quality: 3.5 stars (out of 5); QPR: 5 bangs for your buck (out of 5).

    Young and powerful, with cabernetlike depth and structure.

    Supple and full-bodied, the wine features bright fruit notes of huckleberry, Bing cherry and raspberry, with hints of cedar and sweet spices from the extended oak aging. The finish lingers, with silky tannins and a hint of dark chocolate and cherries. This wine was very fruity on the nose. It had an oak taste with a very dry finish. Overall I enjoyed this wine and would buy this if I saw it again.

    Smooth, supple, with just enough acidity and grip on the finish to balance things out. Black plum and cherry aromas and flavors are laced with mint and toast. So easy to like that you might miss the really good structure behind the wine. Ready to drink now and over the next three or four years.

  • Caparone Merlot, $16 from the winery (quantity discounts available).

    We do not normally list wines chiefly or solely available from the winery, but Caparone Winery has earned entries here for each of the half dozen varietals—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, and Aglianico— that they bottle, so ordering a mixed case or half-case is both reasonable and economical. This is one of the most undeservedly little-known wineries in the country, chiefly because Dave Caparone only bottles about 3,000 cases a year and disdains advertising and competitions.

    Some quotations and facts:

    It is less aggressive in structure and power [than Caparone's Cabernet Sauvignon], but is a big wine and not for the faint of heart. It is long on fruit and sports a fat texture, herbal characteristics and a less astringent bite in the finish. Aromatic in the nose, it can be enjoyed now, but it's better to age for removal of any harshness. . . it is also a good buy, not because of any impending softness (a clear taste target of most Merlots) but because it makes a big style statement, the kind rejected by Bordeaux Merlot vintners who look to the grape for quick, soft, supple textures and flavors. Without a doubt, this is strictly a California-styled Merlot and is not another weak attempt to emulate the French. Indeed, Gallic growers are likely to question the validity of this kind of wine making, but would praise it unhesitatingly several years down the road if the wine were tasted blind.

    Unfiltered. Nose & palate: herbs, earth w/ aged elements, smooth tannins. Bordeaux style Merlot. Rating: 90

    Dave Caparone was pouring the wine. A very honestly brusque person, he merely poured and let his wine speak for themselves. None of his wines are blended. All except the Cabernet Sauvignon (French Camp) and Merlot (Bien Nacido) are estate. All his wines have less than 14% alcohol. All have beautiful acidity and immensely drinkable. All his wines were trusly rustic and had that "Euro-funk" to them that added to their personality. We liked all his wines.

    Sourced from Bien Nacido Vineyard. Medium color, this displayed tart black cherry, herbs, and a slightly smoky note. Medium-bodied with bright acidity in the mouth, and finishing with chewy tannins.

    Zinfandel, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. All three . . .  wines were $14.00 [now $16], a price point that may cause some of the snobs (but never us hacks) to turn up our nose and expect very little. The snobs would not find what they expect with these wines as they all exhibit very nice fruit and balance. These are food wines, and they are all ready to enjoy with a meal now, but will undoubtedly gain even more balance and structure as they age another year or two. These are all very nice wines, and I think they are worth well more than the price.

    [B]ig, smoky, inky and deep, like a Pétrus' backwoods cousin.

    Known as a strict purist in his winemaking techniques and for his down-to-earth approach to fine wine, [Dave Caparone] has developed a reputation for his rich, long-lived reds. . . Time has shown that they can age for decades, yet are balanced enough to be approachable when young.

    What a pleasure to taste — all big and bold, with great character. . . All Caparone wines are unfined, unfiltered, and made with minimal processing. They're aged two years in small oak barrels. And at $16 each, they’re a great value, in my opinion.

    [T]this winemaker is one of my all time favorites. From the Santa Maria Valley in California…and I typically like old world wines, but this is made like an old world wine! It's amazing – complex, earthy, and has what Nick calls a house funk, or character, which for some would be considered off-flavors, but that I personally adore.

    The unfined and unfiltered, intensely elegant big reds have established a cult-like following over the years.

    Italian varietals with a Bien Nacido Cab and Merlot. Insane QPR! Low alcohol wines, and supposedly built to age as well. May be a bit rustic, but I wish there were more wineries like this that just didn't give a damn and make wine without huge overhead and pretense.

For a Splurge

It's hard to pick a single specimen, but it should certainly be a Washington State wine. We'll suggest Abeja, which can be had for between $32 and $45, depending on how carefully you shop.

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