Duckhorn Vineyards

Duckhorn Vineyards: Masters of Merlot and More

This 40-year-old Napa Valley veteran continues to delight with great merlots and other offerings

This year, California's Duckhorn Vineyards is celebrating its 40th anniversary. In the past four decades, the winery has made an impressive mark on Napa Valley and the wine world at large. Cabernet sauvignon and merlot were the only wines produced in Duckhorn's first vintage. It wasn’t until 1982 that sauvignon blanc, now one of its signatures, joined the portfolio.

Founder Dan Duckhorn helped pave the way for merlot in Napa Valley, where it had mostly been considered a blending component. He found distinct qualities in it and forged ahead bottling it as a single varietal. Today, Duckhorn makes more than half a dozen distinct merlots, ranging from a Napa Valley cuvée to single-vineyard efforts. In addition to the merlots and the sauvignon blanc, the winery now produces an impressive range of cabernet sauvignons, cabernet franc, and petit verdot, as well as a late harvest dessert wine and a Bordeaux-inspired blend called The Discussion. There’s a lot to be said for a dependable producer of fine wines, and Duckhorn is that in droves.

I just tasted through quite a few of the offerings in Duckhorn’s portfolio, and I found a lot to like. Certainly any fan of well-made merlot should be seeking out Duckhorn's wines. However, there’s no reason to stop there. The merlot and sauvignon blanc deservedly get headlines, but the cabernet and the blend are equally impressive. Each wine I tasted showed a sense of place and of the varietal in question. A sense of balance, proportion, depth, and precision runs through these wines as a connective tissue that ties them all together and makes them pieces of a larger patchwork quilt. The reds have the structure and stuffing to improve in the bottle, making them a good choice to lay down for special occasions.

Forty years is a long history in Napa Valley. When Duckhorn was founded, the world was just about to start taking the region very seriously. Now Duckhorn is part of the fabric of the valley, and with its focus on estate vineyards and site-specific wines, it’s set up for the long haul as one of the classic producers in this world-class region. The launch of other brands such as Goldeneye and Paraduxx (to name a few) has only enriched Napa’s reputation.

Here are thoughts on some of its fantastic wines.

Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2014 ($29)

This sauvignon blanc has a dollop of semillon (18 percent) blended in. With more than 45,000 cases produced, this is a readily available wine. If you’ve only tasted one wine from Duckhorn, there’s a fair chance it’s this one. This ubiquitous release has been a benchmark wine in Napa Valley for more than three decades. Lemon curd aromas lead the nose alongside bits of tropical fruit. A bevy of citrus characteristics are at play on the palate along with wet limestone and white pepper. A touch of creaminess, continued lemon, and a hint of papaya are all part of the crisp finish that showcases the zippy acid at play here.

Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot 2012 ($54)

The winery's most widely available merlot is produced from a combination of estate fruit and grapes sourced from well-regarded growers. Red violet and plum aromas are in evidence on the nose. The deep, giving palate shows off red cherry, savory herbs, and a dusting of cocoa powder. Dried Bing cherry and chicory emerge on the long finish. One vintage after another this wine is a fine example of what can be achieved in Napa Valley with merlot when it’s grown in the right spots and treated appropriately thereafter. When I’m looking to order California merlot from a restaurant wine list and see Duckhorn is available, it’s like spotting an old, reliable friend.

Duckhorn Vineyards Atlas Peak Merlot 2011 ($72)

All of the fruit for this wine came from the namesake sub-appellation. Just 730 cases were produced. The inky hue of this wine is notable, as it’s quite dark for merlot. Black cherry, thyme, and bits of toast present on the nose. The palate is loaded with deep red and black cherry flavors that are precise in their intensity. Earth, cinnamon, clove, and a dusting of bitter cocoa are there on the lengthy finish. There is a level of profundity and sophistication here that belies the price point.

Duckhorn Vineyards Carneros Merlot 2012 ($72)

The fruit came from three vineyards on the Napa side of Carneros, an area that has long supplied Duckhorn's merlot production. A mere 570 cases of this offering were made. Tobacco, red cherry, and black fig aromas are present on the nose. Montmorency cherry, chicory, and a touch of leather are evident on the palate. The persistent finish is concentrated and deep, with chocolate and pomegranate flavors emerging. This is a distinct and lovely expression of merlot from an area most associated with other varieties.

Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($72)

Fruit for this wine was sourced from multiple vineyards within Napa Valley. Black raspberry and vanilla aromas waft from the nose. Dark berry fruits tinged by red fruits dominate the palate; bits of rosemary and thyme are present as well. Red earth, roasted espresso, and wisps of dark chocolate are in evidence on the terrifically long finish. This cabernet is actually a remarkable value. Though $72 isn’t everyday drinking money for most, this Napa Valley wine is better than some with twice that price tag.

Duckhorn Vineyards Rector Creek Vineyard Merlot 2012 ($95)

All of the fruit here was sourced at Duckhorn's namesake estate vineyard in Yountville. Some 740 cases were produced. Bing cherry, graphite, and bits of tar dot the welcoming nose here. Hints of blueberry are at play alongside a seeming avalanche of red cherry flavors on a palate that is stuffed with soft, gentle complexity. Black tea and finely ground earth present on the long, expansive finish. Perfect acidity is part of the impeccable balance and structure here. This merlot is beautiful now, but it’ll improve over the next six to eight years and drink well for at least five after that.

Duckhorn Vineyards Three Palms Vineyard Merlot 2012 ($95)

This single-vineyard offering from Calistoga has been part of the Duckhorn portfolio since day one and remains its most famous offering. Black raspberry and red cherry aromas dominate the aromatics here. The palate is a who’s who of cherry flavors. Red and black cherry characteristics of every size and stripe rule the velvety palate. Kirsch liqueur, espresso, and dark chocolate notes are all part of the deep, complex, and prodigiously long finish. There’s a reason this is Duckhorn’s best known merlot; taste it and you’ll understand.

Duckhorn Vineyards The Discussion 2011 ($135)

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This wine blends together cabernet sauvignon (62 percent), merlot (29 percent), cabernet franc (6 percent), and petit verdot (3 percent) from six estate vineyards. A little more than 2,300 cases were produced. Red berry fruit, violets, and earth come together to form an interesting array of aromas. Red raspberry, cherry, cinnamon, and thyme rule the lovely and graceful palate. Minerals galore and chocolate-covered cherries are apparent on the long, lush, stunning finish. The Discussion is ultimately the legacy wine that Duckhorn is hanging its hat on, and it nails it cold. This is a magnificent Bordeaux-inspired blend. If you’re going to drink it soon, decant it for a couple of hours — otherwise, lay it down for a decade and drink it in the five to seven years that follow.