Even Merlot has to respect the Law of Wine Gravity. Riding high through the 1990s, it emerged from somewhere back in the pack to pass Cabernet Sauvignon as the top-selling red varietal wine in the United States by the turn of the millennium. “I’ll have a glass of Merlot” became the reflexive counterpart to “I’ll have a glass of Chardonnay.” In the glory years, wine industry analyst Jon Fredrikson dubbed Merlot “the Silicon Valley grape” because it grew 20% or 30% year after year, just like the dot-com stocks.
So it should come as no surprise that in more recent times, Merlot has taken some hits, both in reputation and in sales. Granted, Merlot has lost some of its magic, but it remains a very big deal, and a grape quite capable of making stellar wine.
More than any other variety, Merlot rode the “French Paradox” wave, the growing perception that wine might be good for you as well as fun to drink. It became the quintessential entry-level red: soft, easy-drinking and rarely challenging. The numbers from Merlot’s run-up were truly staggering. In 1995, Merlot accounted for 3% of the California winegrape crush; in 2005, nearly 10%. In the same decade, Merlot went from 3% of supermarket wine sales to almost 12%.
A widespread urban legend says that Merlot was whacked sideways off its pedestal in 2004 by a certain movie set in Santa Barbara’s Pinot Noir country. In fact, according to industry insiders, the leveling off started two or three years earlier. Mark Pucylowski, buying director for Sam’s Wines & Spirits in Chicago, noticed that some of his California producers were grafting over to Syrah well before Merlot became a cinematic expletive. “High-end Merlot,” says Fredrikson, “has been in decline for half a dozen years, the natural evolution of wine drinkers toward more flavorful varietals.”
In rapid expansion mode, a lot of California Merlot was planted on marginal sites and/or asked to bring in too large a crop. Growers in Washington State and on Long Island were more careful, but produced much less wine. The result, according to John Houlihan, wine director for the Lark Creek Restaurant Group in the San Francisco Bay Area, was wines that were either green and herbaceous (too cool a climate) or thin and simple (too warm). The problems didn’t just show up with $10 and $15 wines; they crept into $30 and $50 bottles as well. Retailers, sommeliers and wine drinkers noticed.
Top-tier Merlot has been most affected because that’s where consumer standards are highest. For the nationwide Morton’s steak house chain, Merlot remains second only to Cabernet Sauvignon in popularity. But “if someone is spending $150, it will be for a Cab,” says Tyler Field, vice president of wine and spirits for Morton’s.
Jon Genderson, owner of Schneider’s wine shop in Washington, DC, goes further: “Expensive California Merlots are dead in the water”—though Merlot-based Bordeaux bottles from Pomerol and St. Emilion are selling like crazy. Some very high-priced Merlot grapes were left hanging on the vines in Napa and Sonoma in 2006.
Merlot is also now competing with a long list of tantalizing alternative wines from around the world—Australia, New Zealand, Spain and Argentina included. Michelle Pae, director of beverage strategy for the wine-friendly Olive Garden restaurants, says that it’s not so much that Merlot is down with her guests as that other wines in their substantial taste-before-you-buy program are up.
Despite the deflation, nearly everyone agrees that the best Merlots are very good indeed, and that brands with established reputations continue to command a following. Merlot remains a much bigger category than either Pinot Noir or Syrah, despite their better press. The take-home lesson from Merlot’s shifting fortunes applies to any wine: go for the good ones.
Here are recommendations by members of the Wine Enthusiast Tasting Panel for some of the best Merlots available today, at various price points.
—By the Editors of Wine Enthusiast
France is Merlot’s home territory, so it’s no surprise that it produces the best wines. They come from the small appellation of Pomerol, an
almost flat plateau of deep clay just on the edge of the city of Libourne. Throughout Bordeaux, in fact, Merlot is a major player. Even in the Médoc, famed for its Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot can form up to half the wine. Elsewhere, in the lesser appellations of Bordeaux, and in basic red Bordeaux, it is often the dominant grape because its ripening ability has traditionally been more reliable than that of Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc. It is the insurance policy for a Bordeaux grower against a poor harvest.
But there’s more to Merlot’s success in Bordeaux as well as in other areas of southwest France, and, increasingly, in Languedoc. This is due to the fact that the wines are ready to drink at an early stage. There’s no need to wait for them to age, as with fine Cabernet Sauvignon. They are meaty, rich and appetizing right out of the gate.
Most Merlots, like most French wines, are made to go with food. As immediately friendly as they are, they have a tannic structure that needs and enhances food. These wines are the heart, the essence of Merlot, as it expresses itself in its birthplace. —Roger Voss
88 Domaine des Oliviers 2005 Merlot (Vin de Pays d’Oc); $8. While so many of the Merlots from the Languedoc show the slightly sweetened, ultrasoft style of the grape, this 2005 Merlot is a cut above the normal. It is structured, elegant and stylish with dark, ripe fruit flavors. Imported by MetroWine Distribution. Best Buy.
86 Michel Laroche 2005 Merlot (Vin de Pays d’Oc); $10. Michel Laroche, well-known for his Chablis, bought the estate of Mas la Chevalière near Beziers in 1995. From this starting point, he has created a range of high quality wines. This 2005 Merlot is one of that range, a friendly wine, with attractive juicy fruit and red berry flavors. It is soft, but there is a good sense of structure to it, and the pepper gives it an extra complexity. Imported by Remy Cointreau USA. Best Buy.
92 Château Nenin 2004 Pomerol; $35. The vineyard in Pomerol is 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc, although in cooler years the wine can be almost 100% Merlot. The clay is less deep than it is in the center of the appellation around the village of Pomerol itself. That will explain the relatively light character of this wine, although it still remains an opulent expression of Merlot in ripe years like 2003. In 2004, it is the freshness and the blackberry fruits that are prominent, delivering a big, smooth burst of flavor. Various U.S. importers.
91 Jean-Louis Denois 2001 Chloé (Vin de Pays d’Oc); $20. Jean-Louis Denois is one of those producers who, when confronted with a rule, can’t help but try and break it. The most recent example is this wine, a blend of 80 percent Merlot and 20 percent Cabernet Franc with no Syrah at all (as decreed necessary by the French wine police). Thus, it is a lowly Vin de Pays, rather than appellation Limoux. Get past the bureaucratic nonsense, and you have a sensational wine that sings of great Bordeaux, but with just an extra bit of Mediterranean warmth. Spice flavors accompany the rich, soft fruits, and the layers of bitter cocoa and acidity both suggest the wine has some aging potential. Imported by K&L Wine Merchants.
90 Château Laforge 2004 Saint-Emilion; $35. Englishman Jonathan Maltus purchased this property in 1998. He already owned Château Teyssier, his home, and also produced a Cabernet Franc-dominated cuvée, Le Dôme, from top-quality old vines. With Laforge, which is on a mix of sandy valley floor and limestone hillside soils, he has aimed to produce a Merlot cuvée of the same quality as Le Dôme. Initial vintages were too oaky, but with 2004, the wine has hit its stride. It is dense and velvety in texture, imbued with the delicious freshness of 2004, with ripe cherry and blackberry flavors, a hint of coffee and well-integrated new wood taste. Imported by Louis Latour Inc.
88 Château Tour de Mirambeau 2004 Bordeaux; $19. The Despagne family, based in the heart of the Entre-deux-Mers, are some of the most accomplished producers of great value Bordeaux. This 2004 is a ripe, generous wine, full of fresh black currant flavors over soft tannins. The Despagnes also produce Girolate (90 points) from a high-density, 100-percent Merlot vineyard, proving that even in this less-appreciated part of Bordeaux, it is possible to make great wine. The Girolate 2004 is impressive, full of dark, solid fruit and flavors of new, toasty oak.
94 Château Trotanoy 2004 Pomerol; $80. Here is a wine at the top of its class. It comes from vineyards on the same deep clay soil as neighboring Château Pétrus. Like Pétrus, it has similar proportions of Merlot (around 90 percent) and Cabernet Franc (around 10 percent); in some years, it is 100 percent Merlot. It is also owned and vinified by the same team as Pétrus—that of Christian Moueix. But the differences stop there, because Trotanoy is quite a different expression of Pomerol Merlot. In 2004, it is powerful, packed with black fruits and dark tannins. It is an impressively intense wine, but with a great lift of freshness. By contrast to the elegance of Pétrus, this is a powerhouse of a wine. Cellar Selection.
91 Château Le Bon Pasteur 2004 Pomerol; $40. Michel and Dany Rolland have turned this small, 16-acre property into a showcase for Pomerol. It’s also where both Rollands have developed the techniques and skills that have placed them in the forefront of wine consultancy around the world. And yet this is not a “Rolland wine;” it remains identifiably a Pomerol. The 2004 has the attributes of the vintage combined with the Bon Pasteur hallmark of a very careful use of wood—a mere hint on this fresh-tasting wine that is bouncing with tannins and ripe (not too ripe) fruit. The 2003 (92 points) was much denser, concentrated, again a reflection of the vineyard in the vintage.
Expense Account Merlots
97 Château Pétrus 2004 Pomerol; $700. This is the greatest Merlot in the world—there’s no argument about that. From 28 acres in the deepest clay soil of Pomerol comes a wine that is always in demand from collectors around the world, always sold out, always expensive. The 2004, a classic Bordeaux vintage in the best sense, shows how great this wine is. It’s an elegant medley of dry layers over blackberry fruits. That’s the simple outline, but then the cigar box aromas, the velvety texture, the exuberant fruit all add complexity. Aging potential: 20 years and more. Cellar Selection.
92 La Mondotte 2004 Saint-Emilion; $145. La Mondotte was born courtesy of bureaucratic stupidity. The Classification Commission in Saint-Emilion refused to allow owner Stefan von Neipperg the right to integrate 11 acres of Merlot vines into his main estate of Château Canon la Gaffelière. Instead of sulking, he decided to make the best wine he could from this small vineyard, stuck up on the hill near Château Pavie. And in doing so, he created a cult wine that commands extraordinary prices, and became, from 1996, one of the “garage” wines of Saint-Emilion. The results, rich and opulent, are now on every collector’s hit list. The 2003 (which I gave 94 points), from that year of heat and dryness in Bordeaux, managed to combine huge flavor, great depth of flavor and color, and retain its balance. The 2004 is equally dense, with tannins here of pure velvet; though a solid wine, it doesn’t have the fruity opulence of 2003.
Merlot started to appear in Italy in significant quantities at the end of the 19th century as phylloxera-ravaged vineyards were being replanted to commercially successful international varieties. In many areas, such as the Veneto, Friuli and Trentino, the only way to replace damaged vines was to import French vines that had already been grafted to American rootstocks. But embracing Merlot was certainly never seen as a compromise. The variety’s soft, cherry-and chocolate-driven aromas and profound versatility make it a perfect partner to Italian cuisine and the grape’s ease and approachability reflect Italy’s general wine philosophy.
Today, Merlot is planted throughout the peninsula—from Sicily to Alto Adige—and is generally lighter in structure and more fruit-driven than Merlot from France, California or the New World. But Merlot also occupies a rather awkward place in Italian winemaking due to the nation’s stringent DOC and DOCG regulations. Within that context, Merlot is most often used as a blending grape with traditional Italian grapes such as Sangiovese. However, Merlot does appear in single-variety expression in many areas of Italy. One of these is Bolgheri, Tuscany, where a handful of producers have elevated Merlot into a cult superstar. Another very interesting region for Merlot lovers is Alto Adige, in the far north where cool, alpine temperatures help shape delightful notes of exotic spice and forest berry. The 2003 vintage was especially good for Alto Adige Merlot (although widely considered too hot elsewhere). —Monica Larner
90 Alois Lageder 2003 Merlot (Alto Adige); $15. What distinguishes this wine is its harmony and purity: Every element is tied down and polished, with no sharp edges. Primary and secondary aromas recall red berry, cappuccino and vanilla bean. Compact, clean and crisp in the mouth, this is a masterfully made Merlot. Imported by Dalla Terra. Best Buy.
87 Teresa Raiz 2005 Le Marsure Merlot (Venezia Giulia); $14. One of my favorite Merlots at this price point, this vineyard-designate red boasts a plethora of tender, delicate aromas that recall cassis, forest berry, blue flowers and exotic spice. No wood is used so the vibrant fruit really shows. This is a smooth and feminine wine with medium length and intensity but plenty of elegance. Imported by Chambers & Chambers.
86 Bollini 2004 Merlot (Trentino); $11. 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. Imported by Kobrand.
91 Elena Walch 2003 Merlot Riserva Kastelaz (Alto Adige); $35. Here’s another outstanding Merlot from Alto Adige, with notes of blueberry, red fruit and light vanilla bean. It also has a touch of leather and tobacco. The wine is solid in the mouth with a medium build, finesse and a long finish. Imported by American Wine Distributors.
91 Volpe Pasini 2004 Focus Zuc di Volpe (Venezia Giulia); $24. Here is a truly wonderful Merlot with a creamy, smooth texture and lavish notes of ripe blackberry, chocolate fudge, cedar and smoke that grow in intensity and succulence as the wine warms. Very exciting and vibrant in the mouth, this wine boasts excellent, firm structure, elegance and a polished quality through and through. Imported by Vinity Wine Company.
90 Falesco 2005 Pesano Merlot (Umbria); $16. This must certainly be one of Italy’s best-valued Merlots. The overall intensity and concentration is nothing less than stratospheric and its aromatic profile reaches deep into the darkest and plushest of enological possibilities: Fudge, cinnamon, ginger, blackberry, espresso and vanilla come at you one thick layer after another. Imported by Winebow.
90 Feudo Principi di Butera 2001 Calat Merlot (Sicilia); $25. If you like extra-toasty notes in your Merlot, here is an excellent alternative from southern Italy. The aromas are intense and pronounced and focus mainly on blackberry, plum, roasted nuts, campfire, pencil lead, peanut and oak. Mineral notes come through, too, on the palate and the wine has very good length. Imported by Zonin USA.
90 Castellare 2004 Poggio ai Merli Merlot (Toscana); $80. You can tell you’re in for a bruiser just by looking at it: Thick and extracted, the wine packs lush notes of cherry, cassis, spice, clove, white mushroom and lead pencil. It’s expressive and intense in the mouth but those rock-hard tannins suggest that it should be consumed after 2009. Imported by Winebow.
90 Gualdo del Re 2003 L’Rennero Merlot (Tuscany); $50. The toasted tones are deep and penetrating, thanks to 15 months of oak aging, and are backed by blueberry, coffee and vanilla. There is attractive dimension to this wine; it’s shaped by lavish exotic spice, firm tannins, chewy sweetness and vibrant fruit flavors. An excellent red meat Merlot. Imported by Liquid Assets Group.
Expense Account Merlots
95 Tua Rita Redigaffi 2004 Rosso (Toscana); $275. This wine’s top-notch performance starts off with a beautiful, saturated ruby red color and continues with soft, well-defined aromas of sweet milk chocolate, clove, ground cinnamon and forest berries. Secondary aromas of vanilla, licorice and toast kick in and the wine is amazingly lively in the mouth with voluptuous, chocolate-like flavors and an extra-long finish. Imported by Winebow. Cellar Selection.
93 Castello di Ama 2001 L’Apparita (Toscana); $150. Gorgeous, elegant, deeply layered and full of nuances, this Tuscan Merlot delivers cherry candy, espresso and toasted notes with a refined herbal edge. Tones of rosemary, sage and thyme are weaved in with such a careful touch, they appear only in the background as a delicious afterthought. Dusty tannins and a firm consistency mean this wine will age well for years. Imported by Lauber Imports. Cellar Selection.
92 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia 2003 Masseto (Toscana); $250. Raspberry fruit and chocolate nuances are fragrant and intense and the oak is so well integrated you only feel its presence in the mouth, where the wine is opulent but also extremely silky. But the most exciting elements to this wine are its distinctive Mediterranean accents of menthol, wild sage and seaside shrubbery that beautifully recall its coastal Tuscan roots. Imported by Folio Fine Wine Partners.
91 Feudi di San Gregorio 2003 Pàtrimo (Irpinia); $115. The southern region of Campania delivers a first-rate Merlot that is dense, concentrated, chewy and packed tight with red cherry, Indian spice, chopped mint and roasted espresso bean. But there is also a subtle and delicate floral tone recalling blue violet that adds to its wonderful complexity. Silky smooth on the palate, this wine is full of nuances and finesse. Imported by Palm Bay.
Washington can lay legitimate claim to making some of the nation’s best Merlots, offering great depth and texture. Look for ripe, plush flavors of sweet cherries, both broad, deep and textural. Mixed red and black fruits and berries, smooth, supple tannins and plenty of lively acids are hallmarks. Some sites also bring minerals, spices and dried herbs to the flavor table. Washington Merlot is rarely unblended, but Cabernet is there to lengthen the spine, not to add muscle or color. Merlot is the most planted red wine grape in the state, accounting for one fifth (roughly 6,000 acres) of all vineyard acreage. —Paul Gregutt
90 Arbor Crest 2003 Merlot (Columbia Valley); $15. This rich, ripe wine, sourced from top vineyards such as Klipsun, Stillwater Creek and Conner Lee, really knocks your socks off. The substantial blackberry and black cherry fruit carries unusual weight, and the tannins and barrel time give the wine layers of toast and smoke. Best Buy.
88 Couvillion Winery 2004 Merlot (Columbia Valley); $15. From a blend of three quarters Canoe Ridge Merlot and one quarter Dionysus Cabernet Sauvignon, this new winery has fashioned a tight, slightly tarry, balanced Merlot. Though it’s not a big wine, it elegantly wraps together varietal flavors of blackberry and cassis with accents of earth and tar.
94 Fielding Hills 2004 Merlot (Wahluke Slope); $32. Consistent with the house style, this wine boasts ripe, tangy berries, a tight spine of firm tannin and bright acid. There’s a good meaty quality in the midpalate, and plenty of vanilla. There is a lot of compact flavor in hiding, right now it’s showing a lot of spice (from the 12 percent Syrah) and vanilla (from the barrel aging).
92 James Leigh 2003 ‘Spofford Station’ Merlot (Walla Walla Valley); $32. Thick, lush and substantial, this is about as chewy a Merlot as you’ll find. There’s ten percent Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend, but it’s the Merlot that seems to provide the weight and the substance. A very impressive, dense and flavorful wine, it melds black fruits, licorice, graphite and Asian tea into a rich and satisfying whole.
91 Abeja 2004 Merlot (Columbia Valley); $35. Those who miss the John Abbott Merlots from his years at Canoe Ridge can take heart. This first-time Abbott Merlot from his new winery, Abeja, is a gem. Fragrant, beautifully rendered aromas of primary red fruits, cocoa and licorice set up firm streaks of black tea, smoke and concentrated black cherry. There is just enough new oak to support, but not dominate, the beautiful, polished fruit.
90 J Bookwalter 2004 Merlot (Columbia Valley); $38. The clever blend adds eight percent Malbec and eight percent Petit Verdot; both grapes boost the tannin and color and give the wine a meatiness lacking in most domestic Merlots. The Merlot part ain’t shabby either, with its broad, rich strokes of plum and cherry fruit, saturated in barrel-infused layers of smoke, baking chocolate and espresso. The sweet cherry in the center gives the wine a chocolate bon-bon character, and the finish, with a bit of liquorous heat, suggests that it will drink at its best in the near term.
89 Beresan 2004 Merlot (Columbia Valley); $29. This is pure Merlot. It shows a touch of leather in the nose. The fruit is solid, unspectacular but well defined and balanced. The use of the new oak (about 35 percent) is tasteful and tasty. The wine is forward and immediately delicious, then tails off in the finish.
95 Quilceda Creek 2003 Merlot (Washington); $65. This massive, sensational wine includes 12 percent Cabernet Franc in the blend. Oaky, toasty and spicy, packed with excellent fruit, this is a thick, massive Merlot packed with berries, cherries, plums and chocolate. The Cab Franc is a fine partner to the Merlot; it adds meaty tannins to the beautiful blueberry, blue plum and blackberry fruit. Sweet, supple, fairly soft in the approach but nicely buttressed with perfectly ripe tannin, hints of coffee, black tea and earth. It’s clean but not sterile, ripe but not jammy. A wine to savor over a long evening.
90 Dunham 2004 Lewis Vineyard Merlot (Columbia Valley); $75. This is Eric Dunham’s first Lewis Vineyard Merlot, although he’s made vineyard-designated Syrah and Cabernet from the same site. It is satiny smooth and shows a cherry cola character unique to the site. Chocolaty and rich, but not hot or raisiny, it is seamlessly smooth as are all of Eric Dunham’s reds, with full-throttle flavors.
In 1960, there were two acres planted to Merlot in the entire state of California. By 2005, the number had swelled to 56,200 acres, making it the second most-widely planted red grape, after Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1999, Merlot became America’s top-selling red wine, and has retained that spot ever since. It’s not hard to understand why. Generous and plump (usually) in juicy fruit, it’s the kind of red wine consumers find instantly appealing.
The wine grows well across California’s varied appellations; most of my top-scoring Merlots have come from Napa Valley, but the six I’ve chosen here demonstrate a variety of sources and price ranges.
Less strongly flavored than Cabernet, California Merlots veer toward plum, cherry, and blackberry flavors, frequently edged with carob. The wine can also possess a floral character reminiscent of violets. Grown in warmer regions, Merlot is soft and lush. From cooler climates, and especially from mountain vineyards, the wines can be rich in ageworthy tannins. Food-wise, Merlot is a natural for duck, tenderloin, steak, roast beef, ribs, veal and game. —Steve Heimoff
87 Bonterra 2004 Merlot (Mendocino County); $15. The grapes were organically grown, and the winery’s biodynamic experience may account for the unusually pure varietal flavors. Brimming with cherry and black raspberry jam, and edged with coffee and cocoa, the wine is grounded by rich, fine tannins and firm acidity.
86 Grayson Cellars 2005 Merlot (Paso Robles); $10. Winemaker Brian Mox brings that boutique sensibility to a lower price point in this Merlot. The grapes are from the warmer eastern part of Paso Robles, and the wine offers a wealth of ripe, forward blackberry, cherry and mocha flavors that are wrapped in soft, sweet tannins. Easy to find, with 12,000 cases produced.
91 Merryvale 2003 Beckstoffer Las Amigas Vineyard Merlot (Carneros); $39. This is an enormously complex Merlot that’s offering its best fruit now and for the next three or four years. It’s fresh and lively in oak-enhanced blackberry jam, cassis, blueberry, licorice, mushu plum sauce and coffee flavors that last for a full minute into the finish.
91 Silverado 2003 Merlot (Napa Valley); $28. A perfect steak wine. It’s so supportive of food, with its sweet, softly supple tannins, balancing streak of acidity, and forward flavors of cherries, blueberries, cola, dark chocolate and smoky, caramelized oak. The wine shows that “iron fist in a velvet glove” quality that Tchelistcheff aptly described.
93 Casa Nuestra 2004 Merlot (Napa Valley); $45. Although this winery was established in 1979, it’s not that well known, producing only 1,300 cases annually of small-lot wines, like this one from the estate vineyard off the Silverado Trail in St. Helena. It’s one of the most interesting Merlots I’ve tasted lately—it’s very ripe in cherry, blackberry and mocha flavors, with a dash of cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla. The balance comes from the wonderfully smooth tannins, crisp acids and deft way the new oak is integrated. Drink now through 2010.
92 Pride Mountain 2004 Mountain Top Vineyard Vintner Select Merlot (Sonoma County); $75. Pride’s regular ’04 Merlot was very good. This one, from the Sonoma side of Spring Mountain, is even better. Intensely rich and concentrated in the way of mountain wines, it shows huge, ripe cherry marmalade, black-raspberry pie filling, rum and cola, mocha-choca and Asian spice flavors, enriched by lots of smoky oak. Any really ripe wine can produce masses of fruit, but only one from a great cool-climate vineyard can achieve this balance of acids and tannins. Crafted by veteran winemaker Bob Foley, this polished Merlot will develop over the next 10 years.
Expense Account Merlots
95 Blankiet 2004 Merlot (Napa Valley); $100. This stunning Merlot is impossibly rich. Opaque in color, it’s soft and flashy, with masses of cherry and blackberry jam, anise, chocolate and Provençal herb flavors. Yet the wine has a classic structure. The vineyard was developed by the well-known viticulturalist, David Abreu, and the wine was crafted by Helen Turley, who has since been replaced by the winemaker at Sloan, Martha McLellan.
93 Amuse Bouche 2004 Red Wine (Napa Valley); $175. This is one of those superripe, superopulent reds that makes tasters stop and pause. With 94 percent Merlot and the remainder Cab Franc, it’s so ripe in cassis, cherry and chocolate truffle flavors, so smooth in tannins, so voluptuous and balanced, it can only have been made in Napa Valley, and by a winemaker of the stature of Heidi Peterson Barrett. Drink now-through 2010, at least.
Australia and New Zealand
Face it. Neither of these countries is known internationally for its Merlot—and with good reason. Traditionally in Australia Shiraz has reigned supreme, with Merlot largely relegated to blending status to add complexity and roundness to the country’s Cabernets. There are some top Merlots, but they’re few and far between, with prices that put them into weekend or splurge territory. At the other extreme, Australia’s weekday Merlot—dominated by large export-oriented brands—is just the sort of stuff that’s given Merlot such a bad reputation. Thankfully, the grape surpluses of the past few years have led to a general upturn in the quality of these bottlings.
In New Zealand, Hawkes Bay made its reputation as a source for Bordeaux-style red wines in a country that’s largely too cool to completely ripen Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, but some of the wines remain too herbal to recommend. On the plus side, growers in the Gimblett Gravels subregion are making huge strides, and some of their efforts stack up very well against the global competition—albeit not at everyday price points. —Joe Czerwinski
85 Lindemans 2003 Reserve Merlot (South Australia); $10. A decent value. Black cherry and cassis notes show nice purity, while hints of mint and vanilla add dimension and some dusty tannins on the finish give it a modicum of structure. Drink now. Best Buy.
84 Banrock Station 2005 Merlot (South Eastern Australia); $5. Just the thing you need if there are dozens of people on your deck, and burgers are on the grill. Cherry and red plum flavors have earthy, oaky accents. It’s medium-bodied and easy to drink. Best Buy.
88 Schild Estate 2002 Merlot (Barossa); $23. A solid effort for an Australian Merlot—not, seemingly, a grape variety that performs its best Down Under. This is leathery and meaty, with hints of Worcestershire layered over slightly pruny fruit. Ultrasupple and creamy, with a coffee-tinged, mouthwatering finish. Drink now.
90 Clarendon Hills 2004 Brookman Merlot (Clarendon); $60. Perennially one of Australia’s best Merlots, the 2004 version “shows the cool season,” according to winemaker Roman Bratasiuk. Dried herbs and tobacco blend into pepper and cassis flavors. The tannins are supple, gradually fading on the finish into a smooth stream of mocha. Drink now-2012.
90 Craggy Range 2004 Sophia Gimblett Gravels (Hawke’s Bay); $60. Shows all the intensity you could want from a New Zealand Merlot (there’s just 7 percent Cab Franc and 1 percent Cab Sauvignon in the blend), but seems to be in a bit of an awkward stage right now. Back in June it showed great finesse and elegance to go with its power, but tasted again in September it seemed chunkier, with some rough edges of wood and alcohol poking out. Try in 2009.