Notes from Merlot Mania and Featured Wine


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Last week’s tasting was a foray into the classic grape, Merlot. Though you may remember this grape from your $5 bottle days in college, Merlot has a long and majestic history as one of the primary blending grapes of Bordeaux right along with Cabernet Sauvignon. Originating in bordeaux around the 1600-1700s, it is actually born from Cabernet Franc which is now often a minor grape in todays modern blends. Merlot is one of the most widely planted grapes and fields some of the most expensive and undoubtedly delicious wines that exist — ironically, as I’m sure many other California natives were, I was first introduced to Merlot in quite a different context: as an innocuous $2 bottle on the shelf at Trader Joe’s.

With most of our palates and minds trained to think of Merlot from the domestic side we decided to start off in Bordeaux with Merlot’s home on the right bank in St. Émilion, Pomerol, and the Côte de Franc. From here we planned to wind up the rivers that made Bordeaux wines so widespread to the world and plop down right in our northern backyard of California to discover some wines that retain Merlot’s heart, but are definitely sporting some fresh diggs.

2009 Chateau le Puy St. Emilien

From an appellation on the very east of Bordeaux, this wine, like most Bordeaux, is a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot playing the dominant role and Cabernet giving the wine it’s sea legs. With delicious dark berries filling your mouth and a more restrained nose, this wine showed finesse and strength to boot. Even with strong oak aging for 24 months, the wine still maintains a solid balance. The Cabernet Sauvignon really giving it the bones that people speak so much of when discussing the classic blend; the Merlot shines through with juicy red fruit and hints of tomato.

2011 Frog’s Leap Rutherford Merlot
From a classic producer in Napa, this little half bottle comes in at 12.7% — much lighter in body than some of the heavy hitters we’re all familiar with from Napa. This varietal wine gives real meaning to the concept of Merlot as flesh on the bones. It exhibits hints of dark chocolate and tobacco leaf combined with a fresh jalapeno spice element that we all expressed around the table.
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2012 Donkey & Goat “Blakeman Vineyard” Anderson Valley Merlot

Donkey & Goat definitely have a recognizable style, thinking — or in this case—making wines outside the box. Jared Brandt loves acidity, and this wine is no exception. Hailing from a little south of Ft. Bragg, this wine is an experiment in cool climate/less ripe Merlot. Unfiltered, unfined, and using native yeasts, the wine aged for 15 months in neutral oak to create a very unique expression. For something from the easy-ripening Sunshine State, this was one of the most restrained, elegant, and mouthwatering wines from our tasting. This wine was lightly floral with a hint of pickled cucumber, fresh citrus peel, and the juicy plum that Merlot is so well known for.

Featured Wine: 2010 Chateau Tour Peyronneau St. Émilion

St. Émilion leads the pack with a focus on Merlot blended primarily with Cab Franc rather than Cabernet Sauvignon. It gives it unquestionably less tannic structure, but still proves that these grapes are nonetheless a match made in heaven. The wine was juicy, spicy, and ripe with dark plum meanwhile boasting notes of green pepper and cigars. With a solid level of acidity this is a great wine to drink alone or pair with dinner.

Merlot may very well be the first table wine I ever had and that impression has never left me. This weeks tasting was a chance to throw away the blind loathe words of Paul Giamatti, to redevelop our impressions of a grape with such history, grace, and lavish self-expression that it deserves a little more respect and a lot more love. With so much history behind Merlot’s home and so many charged opinions around it abroad it’s no wonder the grape today is a heavy hitter from France and Italy to California and Australia. While maybe not as revered as Pinot Noir or as hip as Carignan; Merlot has strength, subtlety, and is as bold a character as Hemmingway. Merlot may in many people’s eyes be the wine our moms’ and grandmothers’ drink of choice, but I posit it that it should belong to us all. A satisfying wine to drink, as one of our members so elegantly put it in tasting group this week, “This tastes like wine.”

– Harrison McArtor