A victim of its own popularity, Merlot has been unfairly criticized. Several vintages ago, the skyrocketing demand for an easy-drinking red wine enabled less conscientious producers to release oceans of weak, bland and unappealing Merlot to an unsuspecting public. It’s no wonder Miles from the movie “Sideways” vowed never to drink it again.
But Merlot has prevailed. As one of Bordeaux’s officially permitted grapes, it is a component of some of the world’s most prized wines including Petrus and Lafite-Rothschild. It even comprised one-third of Miles’ treasured Cheval Blanc 1961 that he drank from a paper cup at the end of the movie. Many West Coast winemakers have remained steadfast in their dedication to high quality rather than high volume Merlot.
An example of this commitment was the 1999 release of the 100 percent Merlot Twomey by the venerable Silver Oak Cellars, long known for its outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon. The excellent Twomey Merlot 2005 ($45) exhibits slightly smoky blackberry, currant and spicy plum flavors with a hint of tobacco.
My wife’s current favorite is the value-priced Red Truck Merlot 2006 ($12) that has big jammy blackberry and raspberry flavors with some licorice and vanilla at the end. Other bargains are the Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot 2005 ($11), with soft, smooth cherry and spicy plum notes and a long finish, and the Castle Rock Columbia Valley Merlot 2005 ($12), with cedar, red berry and blackberry flavors leading into a prolonged ending.
The winner for best packaging is the Cupcake Merlot 2006 ($15) that arrived at my door in a pink cake box and a tin of cupcake mix. Blackberry and dark plum flavors predominate in this beauty, along with a bit of chocolate.
Another California Merlot to look for is the well-made, slightly spicy Dry Creek Merlot 2005 ($19), with red berry, currants and lingering deep black plum flavors. Whiffs of oak accompany the dark fruit aromas in the Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Merlot 2005 ($23) that lead to blackberry, coffee and plum flavors. The Ancient Peaks Paso Robles Merlot 2006 ($16) has anise, red cherry and raspberry, and some toasty spice at the end.
Also recommended is the voluptuous cherry and strawberry scented Stag’s Leap Winery Merlot 2005 ($26); its licorice, cranberry and chocolate flavors combine with vanilla oak at the finish. A blend of 93 percent Merlot, 5 percent Syrah and 2 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, the Napa Cellars Merlot 2006 ($22) has well-integrated rich black cherry and blueberry notes. The fuller-bodied Summers Knights Valley Reserve Merlot 2006 ($30) is bigger, with plum, cedar, black cherry and mocha flavors.
The Luna Napa Valley Merlot 2005 ($29) needs a bit of time in glass to reveal its red berry, dark cherry, currant, white pepper and coffee flavors. Similarly, the Clos Pegase Napa Valley Merlot 2005 ($25) opens to reveal blackberry, cassis, plum and cocoa notes.