Merlot has been hiding in plain sight for quite a while now. If you’re drinking Bordeaux-style blends or New World cabernet sauvignon, there’s more than a decent chance that you've been drinking some merlot, too. As a stand-alone variety it can also produce structured wines with terrific aging potential. Of course, as with just about any grape variety, it can also produce junk. Long before the film Sideways came along and broadsided merlot, there were issues. Wine store shelves were filled with tons of bottles labeled with that name, which ended up tasting like just red wine, nothing more. Merlot was so popular, it was the house red at many restaurants.
As wine palates in the U.S. evolved, people rightly wanted something with more distinction than the anonymous red juice called “merlot.” By the time Sideways became a hit film, all it had to do was push merlot off the ledge it was already perched on. This did not do justice to the many fine examples of merlot out there. But who can blame the average consumer for not taking a leap to merlot at a slightly higher price level when so many of the entry-level examples were duds?
At its best, I think of merlot the way winemaker Chris Phelps has often described it, as “an iron fist inside a velvet glove.“ If you drink and love cabernet sauvignon with any regularity, good merlot is an option you should consider. Many well-regarded cabernet producers also make exceptional merlot. Here are some current releases to seek out.
Trig Point Diamond Dust Vineyard Merlot 2014 ($18)
This wine is produced from grapes grown in Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley. Black raspberry and copious spice aromas fill the nose. The fruit-driven, forward-leaning palate is studded with juicy black fruit. Bitter dark chocolate, earth, black pepper, blackberry, and more are evident in the above-average finish. This is a really fine example of merlot in this price range. It’s delicious and will pair well with grilled meats.
Charles Krug Merlot 2013 ($25)
Napa Valley’s oldest producer continues to produce wines of distinction, this merlot being no exception. Black cherry and hints of olive appear on the lovely nose. The palate is layered and substantial with raspberry and cherry flavors playing off of each other along with a nice dollop of spiciness. All of these elements continue on the finish along with hints of chicory and wisps of savory herbs. This wine is genuinely Napa Valley and undoubtedly merlot.
Dry Creek Vineyard Merlot 2013 ($26)
Dry Creek Valley is best known for outstanding sauvignon blanc and an inordinate number of the very best zinfandels in the world. Sometimes forgotten is the region's ability to do well with Bordeaux varieties, too, in particular cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Bits of thyme emerge from the nose alongside oodles of red cherry in this wine. A cornucopia of red fruit dominates the lush and incredibly appealing palate. Black pepper along with continued plum and cherry flavors are omnipresent on the long and cohesive finish. Dry Creek Vineyard may not be the first producer you think of for merlot, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that they don’t do an outstanding job with this grape.
Matanzas Creek Merlot 2013 ($28)
The fruit for this wine was soured from three sub-appellations in Sonoma County (Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, and Bennett Valley). Red and black fruit aromas including plum, cherry, and raspberry are apparent on the nose. Bits of bay leaf come along for the ride as well. The palate here is well-proportioned with a combination of fruit, spices, minerals, and savory herbs. The long finish shows off more of the same. Racy acid and well-integrated tannins provide silky structure.
Pedestal Merlot 2013 ($65)
This merlot from Washington’s Columbia Valley was made by renowned French vintner and winery consultant Michel Rolland. Oodles of blackberry are joined by gentle hints of vanilla and toast on the nose. The palate is deeply focused with lots of dark fruit such as plum and blackberry. Hints of espresso, chocolate, and more are at play on the long, complex, and unyielding finish. This is a big, bold, but balanced merlot that will stand up to hearty cuisine. It’ll also age well over the next dozen years.
Mt. Brave Merlot 2013 ($75)
All of the fruit for this wine came from the winery's estate vineyard on Mt. Veeder. Black cherry and savory herbs jump from the nose here. The palate has depth, elegance, and complexity to spare. Continued cherry notes are joined by hints of raspberry. Dark, dusty Baker’s Chocolate, red earth, and hints of salinity are present on the prodigious finish. The firm acidity assures the mouthwatering nature of this incredibly impressive merlot.
Pahlmeyer Merlot 2013 ($85)
Two vineyards, Pahlmeyer Estate and Stagecoach, were the sources of the fruit for this Napa Valley merlot. Blackberry and hints of pencil lead jump from the boisterous nose. The palate is stuffed with fruit flavors such as black cherry and blackberry. Savory herbs, dark chocolate, and minerals galore adorn the impossibly long finish. If you’re drinking this wine today, decant it for a couple of hours for best results. If you’re patient, lay it down for a decade. Either way this is a really lovely example of lavish merlot.
La Jota Vineyard Merlot 2013 ($85)
Two vineyards in Napa were the grape source here. The wines of La Jota are based on mountain fruit, in this case Howell Mountain. Black plums, raspberry, and toast aromas lead the way. Blackberry, dark chocolate, earth, and a gentle hint of tar are evident on the lush, complex palate. Black cherries covered in chocolate sauce are part of the long, velvety finish that also exudes lots of mineral notes. There’s an intensity and purity to the fruit here that comes from the mountain origins of the grapes. This is a really terrific merlot with plenty of aging potential.