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Merlot over $20

October 14, 2002 • Upstairs Downtown

October Merlot tasting.After a decade of popularity, Merlot is still the darling red varietal of the typical wine consumer. In spite of a virtual flood of low-price wines, this segment offers few-to-none that we could think of as exemplary. We decided to up the ante and place our bets on some higher-stakes Merlots.

The end result was the tightest ranking, with the least point-spread we have ever had in a tasting. Every one of the wines was a very good wine. We had to nit-pick the differences and we must admit that style was as much a determinant of ranking as quality. Overall, we decided there was no wine that was stunning, that rose above the flight. At the same time, there are none that we feel uncomfortable in recommending (see "FURTHERMORE" following tasting notes).

Graham selected the right menu to show off these wines. A salad of field greens, watercress and fresh tomatoes with vinaigrette really released the fruit in some of the wines that, on their own, seemed tannic and closed-in. He followed with sliced grilled beef tri-tips which also worked to mute some of the charred and toasty oak flavors ... and they were delicious!

Brand Varietal / "Type"
Vintage,
Appellation, Vineyard

TASTING NOTES: Color; aroma; flavor; body;
balance; finish. Alcohol. Varietal composition
(if known). Summary. ($ paid)

Wines are considered Equal Quality
within Categories of Recommendation
(Listed Alphabetically by Brand)

consensus terms appear in bold
(possible flaws? are in brackets)
* indicates a second or third party
WEBSITE

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Seven Hills Merlot
1999,
Walla Walla Valley, Washington

Dark, rich ruby-purple; sweet, berry, blueberry, black cherry, cassis, alcohol, terpene, cinnamon, mint, baby powder, vanilla, chocolate, espresso and burnt toast (H2S) aromas; young, simple, straightforward, fruity, grapey, berry jam and espresso flavors; light body, young tannins are more tart than astringent; tart balance; quick finish. 13% alcohol. The vote tally and positive comments showed the panelists liked this wine, but descriptions were spare. ($28) WEBSITE

Shafer Merlot
2000,
Napa Valley

Dark ruby; muted fruit, blackberry, spicy, dill, licorice-anise, cedar (terpene?, petrol?), earth, cocoa, coffee, charcoal, smoke, oak and toast aromas; big, dry, fruity, candy-like, horehound, coffee, smoke and oak flavors; smooth body, rich with soft tannins; good balance; finish is long, astringent, bitter, medicinal, warm, coffee-like. 14.8% alcohol. Least controversial wine of the flight, garnered neither a single first-place, nor a single last-place vote! ($33) WEBSITE

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars
Merlot 1999, Napa Valley

Medium-dark ruby; fresh, sweet, subtle, blackberry, eucalyptus (moth balls?), fusel, tar, herb, olive, cocoa, vanilla and raw meat aromas; ripe, dry, jammy, black cherry, anise, cola and coffee flavors are big up front; smooth, rich, medium body, firm tannins; excellent balance; somewhat astringent, bitter finish is long, lacks fruit. 14.5% alcohol. Very complex, this wine appeals most in the up front jammy-berry flavors and smooth, rich texture; will be near perfect when the backbite, hopefully, ages away. ($40) WEBSITE

Trefethen Merlot
1999,
Napa Valley

Very dark, dense ruby; sweet, alcohol, herb, vegetal, pepper, mineral, dusty, oak, tar and somewhat "heavy" aromas; big, dry, very fruity, prune, blackberry and citrus flavors; medium body, stiff, slightly astringent, chalky tannins; good balance, faintly tart; long finish is warm, peppery and slightly rough. 14.3% alcohol. Most controversial wine of the flight with the most first and second-place votes (4) and also the most last and next-to-last votes (3)! Nose and flavors seemed opposite, although they did come together after several minutes. ($25) WEBSITE

RECOMMENDED

Chappellet Merlot
1999,
Napa Valley

Dark ruby; vegetal, alcohol, cocoa, floral, dusty, spice, cardamom, allspice, coffee, oak and tar aromas, while black cherry, blackberry, apricot, plum and citrus fruit takes 10-20 minutes to open up; pleasant sweet entry, some fruit (under ripe?), boysenberry with oak, charcoal and tar flavors; light body, astringent, firm tannins; good balance, faintly low acid; fruit begins to show in short, rough, faintly bitter finish. 14% alcohol. This wine, shy at first, changed more than any other, opening up to reveal fruit that was initially absent. This could bode very well for its cellaring potential. ($23) WEBSITE

Duckhorn Merlot
1999,
Napa Valley

Dark ruby-garnet; muted, berry, cherry, citrus, plum, cinnamon, herbal, vegetal, green, roasted coffee bean and oak aromas (hint of filter pad? soap? Brettanomyces?); ripe, sweet, upfront, concentrated fruit flavors; medium to full body (thin?), soft, chalky tannins; lean, tart balance; astringent, warm, slightly apricot-bitter, but pleasant finish. 14.5% alcohol. Very complex, great flavors, yet a hard-to-identify, but slightly "off" element in the nose diminished this wine's appeal. Somewhat controversial, there was general disagreement about the body. ($40) WEBSITE

Markham Merlot
1997,
Napa Valley RESERVE

Light to medium garnet; light, sweet, ripe, complex, fruity, black cherry, floral, spice, nutmeg, tobacco, cedar, eucalyptus, peppermint, Maraschino cherry, nail polish (ethyl acetate?), smoke, tar, dust and mineral aromas; ripe, fruity, cherry, spicy, caraway seed and smoke flavors; rich, mouth-filling body; good balance; long, warm, oaky (chemical?) finish. 12.5% alcohol. Showing some maturity and very different style from the rest of the flight, this was another quite controversial wine with the panel. ($38) WEBSITE

Swanson Merlot.Swanson Merlot
1999,
Napa Valley

Medium-dark ruby; ripe fruit, Bing cherry, roasted hazelnut, vanilla, caramel, oak, smoke, dusty, soapy (medicinal?) and "new fermentation" aromas; sweet, sappy, vanilla and faint cardboard flavors; light body (thin?), fleshy, rich, soft, dusty, light tannins; slightly tart balance; long, slightly rough, faintly bitter finish. 14.3% alcohol. Complex, but somewhat disjointed, with oak flavors dominant now; time will tell. ($25) WEBSITE

Toad Hollow Merlot.Toad Hollow Merlot
2000,
Russian River Valley,
"Richard McDowell Vineyard"

Clear, medium ruby-garnet red; ripe berries, plums, raisin, meat, spice, bay leaf, dill pickle, celery seed, floral, vegetal, green bean, olive, stemmy, oak, "old barrel" and tar aromas; dry, young, under ripe blackberry, blueberry, licorice and bell pepper flavors; smooth, soft tannins, light body, somewhat thin; slightly tart balance; faint heat in the short finish. 14.4% alcohol. With plenty of complexity and flavors up front, this wine lacks stamina, disappointingly wimps out at the finish line. ($22) WEBSITE

Whitehall Lane Merlot.Whitehall Lane
Merlot 1999, Napa Valley

Clear, deep garnet-ruby; sweet, young, "new fermentation", ripe fig, cherry, plum, violet, leather, black olive, menthol, cedar, vanilla, oak and "dusty" aromas; dry, berry, cherry, plum, pomegranate, black olive, cola, chocolate and somewhat chemical flavors; smooth, slightly rich, medium body with firm, meaty, chewy, soft tannins; very good balance; blackberry flavors come out in the medium long finish, which is also slightly green, bitter, astringent. 14.2% alcohol. Youthfully undisciplined at the moment, bottle age likely will soften this wine, take away some of its "bite" and bring the flavors into focus and harmony. ($24) WEBSITE

FURTHERMORE
We did have a fairly lengthy and lively conversation that revolved around two issues. First of all, the preponderance of oak-derived flavors in many of these wines. They smelled good and tasted good, but many depended upon aroma and flavor appeal that came largely from oak aging, not from fruit character that identified these wines as Merlot. As a group, they lacked varietal distinction and fruit "punch".

The second issue concerns value. Even the Trefethen and Seven Hills, two of the highest ranked and least expensive of the lot, would not find many repeat buyers from this panel. With $25-30 to spend on a bottle of red wine, the majority would buy a varietal or blend other than Merlot. Most often mentioned were Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Syrah.


This Panel included Regulars Deanna, Bob, Roy, Jon, Jim L., Betsy and Jim V. and Guests Graham and Rodney
About Merlot

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