Despite all the buzz surrounding Syrah’s potential in Washington, the state’s biggest winegrape star is Merlot.
If ever a wine reflected the voluptuous sensuality of autumn, that wine is Washington State Merlot. Packed with the plump, luscious flavors of ripe berries, sweet cherries and rich, silky chocolate, these glorious, full-throttle wines seem to shout: “Goodbye tans, hello tannins!” Somehow, the delicious shift from summer to fall is perfectly captured in a glass.
These days, Washington vintners own Merlot. Boutique Merlot specialists such as Leonetti Cellar command Bordeaux-like prices for hard-to-find wines consumers swoon over. Suddenly, the land of cheap Riesling has morphed into America’s Pomerol.
As recently as 1988 there were just over 700 acres of Merlot planted in the entire state. Today, that total hovers around 6,000 acres, putting the variety in a dead heat with Cabernet Sauvignon. Though it might pale in comparison to California’s 50,000, as with everything Washington grows, quality rules. Vast acres of vines aren’t destined for “jug” Merlot in the Columbia Valley. It’s all prime fruit.
Leading the way has been Stimson Lane, the wine-property holding company that includes Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest and Snoqualmie. They have taken what was considered a rather bland, fruity grape more suited to blending and turned it into a superstar.
“Up here Merlots can be as big or bigger than Cabernets,” notes Doug Gore, winemaker for Columbia Crest. “Yes, it’s true that Merlot ripens a bit sooner than Cabernet, and it can be softer, but in our region it really shines.” Gore illustrates the point with a story about the late Andre Tchelistcheff, who frequently consulted for Stimson Lane. “My roses are just as beautiful as the roses up here,” Andre would intone in his thick, Russian accent, pausing for emphasis. “But up here they are more…fragrant.”
Bottle by bottle, one vintage at a time over the past two decades, the pioneers who built the Washington wine industry have demonstrated that when the right grapes planted in the right place meet up with the right winemaker, something spectacular happens. Washington’s latitude (roughly the same as Bordeaux, and well north of California), volcanic soils, desert climate, long days (two more hours of summer sun than Napa) and cool evenings provide textbook ripening conditions.
Ron Bunnell made Merlot for Kendall-Jackson before taking over the red winemaking duties at Chateau Ste. Michelle three years ago. Merlot production at the Chateau is around 200,000 cases, including up to 7,000 cases of vineyard designates (Canoe Ridge Estate, Indian Wells and Cold Creek) and a couple thousand cases of Reserve.
“I had to rethink a lot of things after coming up here,” Bunnell admits. “I see Merlot in Washington as being a unique expression of the grape. It has some of the fruit profile of California, but more elegant, Old World tannins. I want to get to the ripe end of the fruit spectrum, away from green or grassy or herbaceous qualities that Merlot can sometimes express. I believe in letting it hang.”
He also believes Washington’s higher latitude translates into the grape’s different tannin structure, giving it an advantage over California and helping Washington growers “to consistently produce excellent Merlot.”
Bunnell outlined his theories on a cool, breezy afternoon drive through the vines last May, pointing out the salient features of the 470-acre Canoe Ridge Estate vineyard. Set on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River, it’s a spectacular site, named for an odd rock formation first spotted by Lewis and Clark two centuries ago. The steep, south-facing slope provides the vines with all-day exposure to the sun, and its proximity to the warming influence of the river protects it from frost and winter freezes. As the Chateau’s Canoe Ridge-designated wines have shown (along with those from Chalone’s nearby Canoe Ridge vineyard), it’s an ideal spot for growing Merlot grapes that burst with sweet, round, cherry flavors.
“I spend every morning during harvest out in the field,” says Bunnell. “You get into that translucence—mouthfilling flavors—and you know it’s time to pick. We just stay the course, try not to jump the gun too quick. If I can do that, the rest of my job is easy.” Bunnell is among those now pushing for approval of a new Washington AVA, most likely to be called Horse Heaven Hills, that will include the Canoe Ridge vineyards.
Chris Camarda, whose Andrew Will winery makes five separate vineyard-designated Merlots, agrees that “in optimal years we have much better conditions than anywhere else in this country for growing Merlot.” But he is concerned that wineries have gone overboard in pursuit of ripeness, and notes that certain hot years (such as 1998) can lead to what he calls “hyperripeness.”
“The game is to find out what it means to have really ripe fruit,” he advises. “Fruit has requirements that go beyond numbers; it needs time to develop flavor. If it’s too hot, yeah, you get the sugars, you can let it hang out there forever, but it is not going to get ripe. It will be nice, fleshy, but not like a year where you get true time on the vine.”
Leonetti’s Chris Figgins, who shares winemaking duties with his father Gary, agrees. “By doing them [Merlots] in a big, tannic style, which you can do in Washington in a ripe year, you lose Merlot’s best qualities, which are its flash and bright, high-toned fruit. It tends to get blown out.”
Physiological ripeness is essential to Camarda’s Merlots, whose five vineyard designates provide clear expressions of varying Washington terroir. Two (Klipsun and Ciel du Cheval) are in the Red Mountain AVA, two (Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills) are in the Walla Walla Valley AVA, and the fifth, Sheridan, in which he is a partner, is in the Yakima Valley. “There are no great wine regions that do not have single vineyards,” he flatly states. “None. Zero. The whole idea of wine is based on place. The French idea.”
The 120-acre Klipsun vineyard is one such place. Planted in 1984 by Patricia and David Gelles, Klipsun (which means “sunset” in Chinook) occupies a choice spot atop Red Mountain at the far eastern edge of the Yakima Valley. It’s hot, dusty and windswept; western-facing so as to capture peak light and heat, yet blessed with cool evening breezes that flow down from Canada through the Columbia Valley straight into Red Mountain.
Boutique Merlot specialist Chris Camarada
Two-thirds of Klipsun is planted with Cabernet and Merlot; there is also a considerable amount of excellent Sauvignon Blanc. But it’s the red grapes, with their strong cherry and blackberry fruit components, their core of iron and their edgy tannins that have provided the backbone for an impressive array of Washington’s finest wines. Andrew Will, Betz Family, Cadence, Chinook, DeLille, Dunham, Januik, JM Cellars, L’Ecole No. 41, Quilceda Creek, Seven Hills, Waterbrook, Wilridge and Woodward Canyon are among the boutiques that have showcased Klipsun Merlot, frequently in vineyard-designated bottlings.
Another emerging focal point for Washington’s best Merlots is the Walla Walla Valley. The Seven Hills and Pepper Bridge vineyards sell grapes to many of the top wineries in the state and both vineyards have associated wineries releasing excellent Merlots under their own imprint. But the winery most likely to cement Walla Walla’s place on the map of Merlot superstars is Stimson Lane’s Northstar.
“Our goal is to make the world’s best Merlot,” says Northstar Marketing Manager Shawn Byrnes. He tosses off the statement, secure in the knowledge that a corporate powerhouse and the consulting services of superstar winemaker Jed Steele back him. Steele, in fact, is credited with developing the Northstar style: soft, satiny and sexy, with voluptuous black cherry and blackberry fruit, layers of chocolate and spices suggestive of cinnamon, mint and still more exotic flavors.
Steele and former Stimson Lane CEO Allen Shoup planned a decade ago to establish Northstar as an icon brand dedicated exclusively to producing a single Merlot. The first vintage was 1994. With its fifth (1998) release, Northstar hit a higher level than ever before and the just-released 1999 is easily the best yet. “Beginning in ’98 we moved to small lot fermentations,” explains Gordy Hill, who handles the day-to-day winemaking duties for Northstar. “We had to focus on specific blocks. In some ways it’s more primitive winemaking, but we felt we could get better color and softer tannins. And we had a great vintage too.”
This past spring, the company broke ground just across the lane from Pepper Bridge to build a dedicated winery Hill hopes will be ready for the 2002 crush. And, beginning with wines from the 2000 vintage, Northstar will release both a Columbia Valley and a Walla Walla bottling. The 2000 Walla Walla, tasted prior to release, evokes what are becoming trademark flavors for the region’s Merlots: currant and strawberry preserves saturated in smooth vanilla and light mocha flavors from seamless new oak. Though Hill is leaving his job (at press time no successor had been named), Jed Steele will continue to consult. The future looks ripe and juicy for this no-holds-barred fruit bomb of a wine, with production slated to reach 15,000 cases within the next five years.
As new vineyard plantings begin bearing, consumers can expect to see more and more Walla Walla AVA Merlots from the 40+ wineries in the region. Boutique producers such as Isenhower Cellars, Pepper Bridge, Reininger, Tamarack, Walla Walla Vintners, Three Rivers and Wilridge are the ones to watch. At the same time, established players—Andrew Will, Canoe Ridge, Leonetti, L’Ecole No. 41, Northstar, Seven Hills, Waterbrook and Woodward Canyon—continue to make powerful, vibrant and flat-out delicious wines.
Camarda, who has demonstrated, as much as any single vintner, the variety and strengths of Washington Merlot, has this advice for the newcomers : “I’d like to see people making wines that don’t come off as copies. And I would like to see the guys in the wine industry here drink a lot more wine from around the world. What we want to become is better fruit growers.”
Does Washington Merlot Age?
Does Washington Merlot age? The answer is a resounding yes. The better (let’s say $20 and up) ones, though delicious when young, are generally quite muscular and compact. As a group, they have more acid, more tannin and more complexity than other New World Merlots. In fact, Washington winemakers have been known to add Cabernet to the blend to soften the Merlot, a complete reversal of the norm. The real question is; “How well and how long do Washington Merlots age?”
A telling incident: At a recent event honoring Columbia Winery’s 40th anniversary, winemaker David Lake, MW, pulled out a remarkable parade of well-aged reds. There were Cabernets from every decade—1967, 1969 and 1970; single-vineyard Otis and Red Willow bottlings from 1981, 1983, 1985 and 1991; even the famed 1979 Millennium. Yet not a single Merlot. Later, I asked Lake what he thought about the aging potential of his Merlots.
“Cabernet Sauvignon does age consistently longer,” he advised. “Whether better than Merlot is open to question, but we have a longer track record on Cabernet than Merlot, and Merlot was often styled for the short term.” Short-term styling meant pressing early, creating wines with less tannin and acid to meet market demands for early release.
The Washington Merlots that first caught the fancy of consumers were gems such as the 1989 Waterbrook, a soft, chocolate and cherry confection that sold for about $7 and was irresistibly delicious. It was meant for immediate consumption, as were virtually all of the Merlots of that era. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that a happy combination of events began to bring meatier Merlots to
Boutique Merlot specialists such as Chris Camarda at Andrew Will sought out specific vineyard sites in Walla Walla and on Red Mountain where Merlot could be ripened correctly. They also started working with vineyard owners to curtail crop size while enhancing flavors. At the same time, major new Merlot plantings by Stimson Lane and Chalone went in south of the Horse Heaven Hills on bench land above the Columbia River.
It is the wines of this era that are now reaching their full expression. A bottle of Chateau Ste. Michelle 1994 Cold Creek Vineyard Merlot just tasted this past spring was a pretty, plummy color with no orange; the scents were of red fruits, beginning to reveal mature scents of leaf, tobacco, smoke and licorice. In short, a wine in full bloom though still well shy of being over the hill. At eight years of age it is probably at its peak, but who is to say it could not stay suspended there for another six or eight years?
Lake, who has Red Willow Vineyard Milestone Merlots dating back to 1987 resting in Columbia’s cellar, notes that, “the 1987 and 1988 vintages are drinking beautifully now, as fully developed older Merlots with bottle bouquet. They are more herbaceous than they were as young wines, but have rather decadent cedar-wood, tobacco, tomato-leaf and meaty aromas that are quite distinctive.”
“I think aging wine is a very important part of the wine business, emotionally and psychologically,” says Andrew Will’s Camarda. “It’s the aristocracy.”
Though Washington’s best Merlots can be counted among the most ageworthy in America, the best advice remains to enjoy most everyday versions within two or three years of release. But in a great vintage such as 1999, this state’s vineyard-designated bottlings from sites such as Canoe Ridge, Champoux, Ciel du Cheval, Cold Creek, DuBrul, Klipsun, Pepper Bridge, Red Willow, Seven Hills and a handful of others seem likely to improve for a decade or more.
A Vertical Tasting of Leonetti Cellar Merlot
No winery in Washington has established a better reputation for crafting spectacularly rich, jammy, dare we say “hedonistic” Merlots than Leonetti Cellar. In the land of great Merlot, Leonetti is the cream of the crop and has acquired a fanatic following for wines that seamlessly marry gorgeous, plump, ripe fruit with many layers of spicy, toasty, coffee-nuanced oak. Market demand far outstrips supply, and all Leonetti wines have been allocated for the past decade. Founder Gary Figgins and his son and winemaking partner Chris have capped their production at about 5,000 cases with no plans for further expansion.
Long a believer in the viticultural potential of the Walla Walla Valley, Gary learned his craft from his grandparents, Frank and Rose Leonetti, who arrived from Calabria, Italy, shortly before World War I. They ran a 20-acre truck farm, which included an acre of vineyard. “I was exposed to wine at an early age,” Figgins recalls. “Grandma’s Italian cooking, plentiful and spicy, was always served with some of Grandpa’s wine.” In 1968 he began his own home winemaking experiments and in 1974 he planted a backyard acre with Cabernet and Merlot; the start of what has become one of the most famous and sought-after brands in the New World.
“We have everything necessary to make great wine,” he believes. “We have the soil, the climate, the beautiful Blue Mountains, the rainfall; and when people come here they sense that something is different about this spot.”
This past spring, Figgins père et fils and I tasted several vintages of Leonetti Merlot. Both winemakers insist these are not wines for aging. “We’ve always done a fruit-forward wine,” noted Gary, “we’ve never tried to make a Bordeaux or Pomerol-style Merlot. We’ve aimed for wines that are accessible at release. Always short, hot fermentations and off the skins a bit early, so the tannins don’t muddle up the fruit.”
Leonetti’s 1989 Merlot (Washington) came from a mix of Walla Walla and Columbia basin vineyards. Open-top fermenters were used to make a more approachable wine, yet more than a decade after its release it is still delicious, with dried fruits, leather and tobacco making it almost Chianti-like. Think Chianti riserva meets Bordeaux and you get the drift. 92 points.
The 1997 Merlot (Columbia Valley) remains rich and fruity, with sweet berries and interesting mince, fruitcake, candied fruits, and luscious sandalwood. It’s rounded, soft and spicy, with cinnamon showing strongly on the finish. 93 points.
Leonetti’s 1998 Merlot (Columbia Valley), from a very hot year, reflects the vintage with its high tones, ripe and somewhat raisiny fruit, and overall power. Still sweet and concentrated, it falls away on the back end, leaving a tart, tannic finish with a burst of alcohol. 90 points.
The 1999 Merlot (Columbia Valley) was the first to include fruit from the Mill Creek Uplands vineyard. A gorgeous wine from a certifiably great vintage, it is just starting to unwrap from its youthful tightness, and showing layers of black and blue fruits, and some wild berries as well. Muscular and dense, layered with multiple fruits and leading seamlessly into pliable tannins, it’s a glorious wine with a long life ahead. 95 points.
Leonetti 2000 Merlot (Columbia Valley) is the current release, and it shows a tasty mix of red fruits, with berry and pomegranate flavors dominating. Though more immediately delicious than the ’99, it is less meaty and muscular. Back to the sweet, forward style, backed by soft, pleasing tannins. 91 points.
A Case of Great Washington Merlot
94 Northstar 1999 Merlot (Columbia Valley); $50. Northstar has ramped up production to 2,900 cases, on its way to 15,000 once the new winery is operational. Here is flat out killer fruit, stacked with all the flavors of the rainbow, that finds the silky sweet spot on the palate and goes for a long, long ride. This winery is on a roll. Editors’ Choice.
94 Quilceda Creek 1999 Merlot (Washington); $60. Klipsun vineyard Merlot (75%) is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon from Ciel du Cheval (22%) and Cabernet Franc from the Taptiel Vineyard, all prime property on Washington’s Red Mountain. Tight and focused, this exceptionally well-structured Merlot mixes red and black fruits with exotic spices. Muscular and built to age.
93 Kestrel 1998 Old Vine Merlot (Yakima Valley); $50. The vineyard was planted in 1972; these are among the oldest Merlot plantings in the state. Thick, rich, layered with red and black fruits are nicely set off in a spicy, toasty, seamless, palate-coating wine with rare complexity. Just 112 cases. Editors’ Choice.
93 Andrew Will 2000 Klipsun Vineyard Merlot (Washington); $40. This wine features pungent black cherry and blackberry fruit, streaked with the vineyard’s defining terroir flavor of iron ore. All the Andrew Will Merlots are released quite young, but are undeniably delicious, balanced and irresistible.
92 Chateau Ste. Michelle 1999 Reserve Merlot (Columbia Valley); $37. Just 1,800 cases of this powerful, profound wine are made, from the same three vineyards that go into the winery’s vineyard designates: Cold Creek, Canoe Ridge and Indian Wells. Thick, rich fruit is set off with substantial, chocolatey tannins. Still a bit restrained, but interesting notes of black tea, smoke, leaf and leather emerge. Cellar Selection.
92 Woodward Canyon 2000 Merlot (Walla Walla Valley); $45. Here is a sumptuous, earthy example of Walla Walla Merlot. Still young and compact, but well-structured and layered with mineral and earth; the tannins are hard and muscular, the flavors a powerful mix of black cherry, cassis and red currant. Give it six more months to integrate the luscious new oak. Editors’ Choice.
91 Walla Walla Vintners 2000 Merlot (Walla Walla Valley); $25. Like this winery’s Cabernet, the Merlot is loaded with layer upon layer of rich, textured, chocolatey oak. The flavors are right out of Ben and Jerry – caramel, cocoa, roasted nuts, vanilla and sweet milk chocolate. But there is plenty of fruit there too, and the combination provides beguiling instant gratification.
91 L’Ecole No. 41 2000 Seven Hills Vineyard Merlot (Walla Walla Valley); $39. A bang-up job, placing dark, rich, roasted coffee flavors from new oak barrels against sweet, open, raspberry-cherry fruit. This new vintage is still angular and jangly; give it a few more months in the bottle and it will smooth out into a luscious delight.
91 Seven Hills 1999 Klipsun Vineyard Merlot (Columbia Valley); $28. Fruit from the Klipsun vineyard is among the most sought after in the state, and here’s why. Laced with mineral, iron and coffee accents, this hard, tight, dry and substantial merlot is built like a rock, for aging. Cellar Selection.
90 Columbia Crest 1999 Reserve Merlot (Columbia Valley); $28. This is just the second release of the winery’s new, high-end reserve wines, and reflects the excellent vintage. Tight, compact and muscular, it is packed with dark black cherry and blackberry fruit, hard tannins and a robust structure. At the moment it is still recovering from its recent bottling; the score could rise substantially.
90 Three Rivers 2000 Merlot (Columbia Valley); $26. This rising winery hits the new millennium with a new label and a Merlot that is a big improvement over the ’99. This is a gentle, accessible wine with soft cherry fruit, elegant tannins, good length and a Fred Astaire-like agility. Delicious and evocative, it has more staying power than its weight would suggest.
89 Canoe Ridge 1999 Merlot (Columbia Valley); $25. Though still young and tight, this lovely wine opens up to reveal ripe, varietal fruit, full-bodied with the tannins and acids balanced and integrated. It shows textbook flavors and a sure hand at the tiller.