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Lighter in pigment than Cabernet Sauvignon,
Merllot has three distinct styles

Merlot
Merlot is positioned third among the leading grape wine varietals in the United States.

Wayne on Wine
By Wayne Crawford

Wayne Crawford
Wayne Crawford

Last month, the leading grape wine varietals in the United States were highlighted in this column. Merlot was nicely positioned at third behind Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon at 10 percent volume share.

With the sweet spot for wine purchases around $9-16, there are some “Best Buy” Merlots that warrant attention in that price range and a few others that merit pairing with summer meals.

Merlots
Merlot, lighter in pigment than Cabernet Sauvignon, has three distinct styles.

It can appear as a young, fresh and grapy wine best characterized as soft, punctuated by juicy flavors of plum, cherry, blueberry and spice. With more maturity, it is a structured, full-bodied wine, deep and dark red, concentrated with well-defined tannins. It is drier on the palate, even chewy, and improves when cellared.

A third style occurs when the vine is overcropped or grown in a climate too cool for this thin-skinned grape causing it to lose its acidity and display vegetal flavors. This is often where the cheaper, poorly made Merlots are found.

  Merlot  

With soft tannins and less acidity than Cabernet, Merlot is a fine starter wine, along with Pinot Noir, for new red-wine drinkers. These same characteristics allow this versatile wine to pair well with everything from rich tomato-base sauced summer pasta dishes to grilled chicken, lamb and pork. It is also a good accompaniment to red meats, cheeseburgers, pizza, heavy flavored and blue cheeses and fatty meats like porterhouse and rib-eye steaks. Merlot encourages culinary experiments — pairing with fruit salads (apricots and pears) in syrup, meats with plum sauce and spicy Asian dishes — with options depending on the selected Merlot.

Well-priced “Best Buy” wines include Costco Kirkland Columbia Valley Merlot at $9; Columbia Crest Horse Haven Hills (H3) Merlot at $15; Barone Fini Merlot Trentino, Italy, at $12; Concha y Toro Merlot Rapel Valley Casillero del Diablo Reserve, Chile, at $12; and James Oatley Merlot Mudgee Tic Tok 2010, Australia, at $14.

Wines drinking well now
Tagaris Winery 2007 Elisea Silva Merlot, Columbia Valley, Wash., priced at $10: This wine is named for Eliseo “Lee” Silva, the vineyard manager for Tagaris’ 300-acre Alice and Areté vineyards. This is the second label for the winery. The winemaker’s goal is to use as little oak as possible, allowing the fruit flavors to dominate the wine. Deep red in color with black cherry and floral aromas, the wine boasts blackberry and cherry flavors on the palate with a long finish. “Best Buy.”

Charles Smith Wine 2009 The Velvet Devil Merlot, Columbia Valley, Wash., priced at $11.99: Bright-red color with cherry and chocolate on the nose, this wine provides soft tannins with dark berry flavors, smooth on the palate with a nice finish. Winemaker Charles Smith, out of Walla Walla, Wash., is a favorite of the writer; he makes remarkable high-end wines in addition to his Charles Smith brand under the K Vintners label. Smith was the “Food & Wine” 2009 American winemaker of the year. “Best Buy.”

Burgess 2007 Napa Valley Merlot, Yountville, Calif., priced at $17.99: This wine has a deep-red color with blueberry, black cherries and herb and spice aromas. Decanting allows the wine to open its blackberry and blueberry flavors. “The 2007 is 100 percent Merlot from our estate vineyard just south of Yountville and produces a full-bodied, rich, complex wine with a long lasting finish.” (See burgesscellars.com.) This wine improves with cellaring. Even with a price increase in 2008 to $28, the wine remains a good choice.

Rodney Strong Wine Estates 2009 Earthstone Merlot, Healdsburg, Calif., priced at $10: This wine is produced in a solar-powered, carbon-neutral winery. Deep purple-red color with aromas of dark berries and herbs, this Merlot is spicy on the palate, with soft tannins and a pleasing mouth-feel of dark berries and fruit. It is a young Merlot that pairs nicely with red meats. A “Best Buy” found at Whole Foods Markets.

Wine awards for Georgia
Tiger Mountain Vineyards 2011 Petit Manseng won one of the 109 Gold Medal Best of Class honors at the Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition, one of the oldest and most prestigious competitions in the U.S. Some 3,300 wines with 91 points were tasted by a panel of 75 judges. Dr. John Ezzard and his team at Tiger Mountain have garnered recognition once again for a Georgia wine. Kudos also goes to Craig Kritzer and his team at Frogtown Cellars for receiving 17 gold medals in six competitions in 2011, another significant accomplishment for Georgia wines.

Drink what you like

Next month’s article returns to blind tastings with the Big Canoe Wine group and investigation of Syrah.

Crawford is a certified specialist of Wine CSW and a member Society of Wine Educators and the American Wine Society.

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