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What to Drink Now: Merlot

This delightful variety pairs well with just about anything.
Merlot vines in Bordeaux, France; all photos by Hayley Hamilton Cogill
Merlot vines in Bordeaux, France; all photos by Hayley Hamilton Cogill

If you haven’t been drinking Merlot lately you have been missing out. This delightful Bordeaux variety fell to the wayside after the Sideways phenomenon, with an animated Miles, played impeccably by Paul Giamatti, exclaiming he would never drink another #%^$* Merlot. However, at the end of this Pinot Noir loving film, Miles does precisely this, sipping a 1961 Cheval Blanc from the Right Bank of Bordeaux, the Merlot side. A campaign has been started by Merlot producers around the globe to sip one of these luscious, velvety, balanced wines through the month of October, asking to include a #MerlotMe hashtag noting the variety is being enjoyed on social media. With this, consider one of these Merlot options sure to change your opinion on the grape, as this delightful variety pairs well with anything from beef and lamb, to date night with your sweetheart or a girls night out. (A few selections were sent for editorial consideration.)

Sun-setting over Cheval Blanc
Sun-setting over Cheval Blanc

The Right Bank of Bordeaux, also known as Merlot and Cabernet Franc country, thrives in producing incredible Merlot blend wines. I had an opportunity to travel to the region recently as a guest of the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB), tasting Right and Left Bank from top to bottom.


Perhaps one of the most interesting from the trip came from Chateau Brethous, and thankfully their beautiful, biodynamically farmed wines from Cadillac Cotes du Bordeaux will soon be available in Dallas, so keep an eye out. Cecile Mallié-Verdier, along with her husband, Tierry, manage the family estate with great care and comfort as the rustic ambiance, celebrating a life in the country. The inviting, casual atmosphere, with a clear focus on clean farming, shows that even with all the bells and whistles available in wine making, all you need is good terroir and a hands off approach. Tasting over lunch in the middle of the vineyard, eating fish, duck and lamb that was grilled over vine clippings from the recent harvest, will make any city dweller want to pack up and become a vintner and farmer. Their Chateau Brethous is 100% Merlot from their picturesque estate, while their Chateau Brethous Premier blends over 70% Merlot with Cabernet Franc and a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon, to help round out the wine, creating a lush, balanced, well made wine that tastes like the land. Ripe plum, cassis and cherry meld with a touch of crushed stone, soft herbs and floral notes. An inviting wine that should be available in Dallas shortly after the first of the year.

Chateau St. Georges
Chateau St. Georges

IMG_0150A old favorite, tried again at a recent tasting, comes from the sub-region of St Georges in St. Emilion, Chateau St. Georges. Lush and lively, fresh yet refined, blending 80% Merlot with 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc for the 2011 release. A beautifully balanced wine with well integrated tannins, making this affordable Bordeaux a food friendly wine to enjoy upon release, pairing nicely with braised meat or pork dishes, but also standing up to hearty pasta, mushroom risotto or grilled venison. $33 available at Pogo’s.

If you think you aren’t a Merlot drinker then you haven’t tried the blackberry, black cherry and boysenberry filled Merlot from Pahlmeyer. Known for producing some of the finest red Bordeaux-style wines from Napa Valley, the new  2013 release of Pahlmeyer Merlot highlights the stellar Napa Valley vintage with ripe fruit and balanced freshness, creating a wine that is delicious upon release or can be aged for 10 years+. Tobacco, black licorice, fresh violets and rich plum notes enhance the black fruit characteristics of the wine.  $85, available via their website.

20151010_173204_resizedDuckhorn Wines as become know as one of Napa Valley’s favorite family wineries, led by the gracious and exuberant Dan Duckhorn. Though the winery makes stellar Cabernet Sauvignon, including some of their single vineyard selections, like the leather, espresso and blackberry filled Monitor Ledge Cabernet Sauvignon, crisp and refreshing Sauvignon Blanc and in the past few years Chardonnay, this is truly a winery that has proven the quality of Merlot, consistently producing a layered, expressive, interesting wine with personality. Duckhorn Merlot leaps from the glass with ripe plum, red berry and cassis notes, balancing well integrated tannins with juicy fruit. A perfect go to wine for holiday dinners, and will please any host as a thoughtful hostess gift. $54, available at Trader Joe’s and Pogo’s.

Cooler, sustainably farmed, vineyard sites in the southern part of Napa Valley produce a very Right Bank style Merlot for Grgich Hills. Adding a bit of fruit from warmed northern sites adds depth to the balanced, inviting Merlot completely fermented using native yeasts to allow the true character of the fruit to shine. Fresh floral notes mingle with blackberry, black plum, woody herbs and licorice notes for a textured, complex and delicious wine. $42, available at Trader Joe’s and Total Wine.

20151010_173201_resizedRutherford is known for their dust, an earthy quality the Napa valley region imparts on their Bordeaux style wines.  Rutherford Hill puts an emphasis on freshness and texture in their Napa Valley Merlot, aging their wine for 15 months in French oak, but only 25% of which is new, allowing the wine to soften, enhancing raspberry, wild flower and black plum notes, melding into toasted caramel and toffee flavors. $28, available at Total Wine and More

Raymond Winery and Vineyards, also in the heart of Rutherford, incorporates this earthiness in each and every bottle of their sustainably and biodynamically farmed production, highlighting the red berry, ripe cherry and plum notes with earthy, dusty, leather notes highlighting the best qualities of Rutherford Merlot in their Raymond Vineyards District Collection Rutherford Merlot. $65, available via their website.

20151010_173222_resizedAlexander Valley has thrived with Cabernet as well, especially from beloved wineries like Jordan and Silver Oak, however great Merlot can also thrive in the gravel, silt and clay soils of the region. Chelsea Goldschmidt Alexander Valley Merlot, from the daughter of Sonoma winemaker Nick Goldschmidt, highlights the ripe red fruit and sweet spice notes of barrel aged merlot, utilizing a blend of French, American and Hungarian oak, of which only 25% is new, adding layers of toasted caramel, coconut and licorice with blueberry, black plum and cherry flavors. $20, available at Spec’s.

Red fruit shines in Merlot from Matanzas Creek Winery in Sonoma County blending high and low elevations grown fruit from Alexander Valley, Bennett Valley and Knights Valley, taking advantage of the various terroirs the region provides. The result a cherry, red licorice, raspberry fruit filled wine with a touch of crushed stone, pencil lead and dark chocolate layered throughout. $28, available at Pogo’s.

20151010_173156_resizedJust a short hop outside of Napa and Sonoma Valley the Central Coast of California is doing great things with everything from Pinot Noir to Cabernet to Merlot. J Lohr Winery in Paso Robles blends a touch of tart, morello cherry filled Malbec into their black plum and cassis filled Los Osos Vineyard Merlot.  A big wine, with the 2013 vintage benefiting from great ripeness thanks to a warm year, yet balanced with good acidity and tannin to ensure the wine is approachable, food friendly and delicious. $15 available at Total Wine and More.

Austin Hope of Hope Family Wines, along with winemaker JC Diefenderfer, consistently deliver quality in each of the wines produced by this Paso Robles Winery, from their expressive Treana to their Austin Hope Syrah and Grenache, to their affordable, approachable and always delicious Liberty School Wines. Liberty School Merlot melds ripe fruit with earthy leather notes with hints of dark chocolate mingling through. $16, available via their website.

20151010_173148_resizedWashington State has done extraordinarily well with the Merlot variety, with Northstar consistently rising to the top for their efforts with the variety. Winemaker Merf Merfeld utilizes fruit from 10 separate vineyards dotted throughout the Columbia Valley AVA to create a concentrated, expressive wine filled with raspberry, dark chocolate, cassis and spice filled Merlot. A consistent favorite that is perfect upon release but can age for years to come. $40, available at Total Wine and More.

Chateau Ste. Michelle, one of the oldest wineries in Washington, knew the Merlot variety was well suited for the mineral rich soils of the Columbia Valley early on, producing a blackberry, plum and cherry filled wine with layers of crushed stone, woody herb and sweet spice in their Chateau Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley Merlot. An approachable wine that pairs well with lamb, game or pork dishes. $15, available at Total Wine and More.

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