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Time to come out?

Merlot belongs on everyone's radar

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Pssst. Are we allowed to enjoy merlot again? Or even to say the word out loud in polite company? The hex put on domestic merlot some 10 years ago, perhaps justifiably, awakened many winemakers to not be satisfied with their rich but perhaps clumsy and slightly sweet output. Truth be told, Americans bore easily and are always looking for something new, restless to make "discoveries." Could be it wasn't really anti-merlot so much as "what else you got?"

Personally, I live for new discoveries; a secret vintner from a corner of Mendocino or a niche producer outside Capetown can cause a swift adrenaline rush. But pasting a different grape variety atop the desirability board is not a discovery. So what we are now seeing in the current darlingness of syrah crossing the nation is really just a rerolling of the dice, taking advantage of America's short memory span--just a shifting paradigm of what's currently cool. For seekers of novel whites, sauvignon blanc now gives way to viognier as the buzz wine. Viognier's flying off retailer and restaurant shelves with supply definitely below demand for this fragrant, versatile wine. I'm not ignoring the bevy of good syrahs and viogniers to emerge in the last decade, mind you, but it just isn't novelty.

I think it's time to assess merlot once again as a wine to muse about and get excited over, a wine to look forward to drinking and talking about. Remember that merlot is one of the great grapes of the world--it's potentially stratospheric. When sales flattened and merlot became a six-letter word, wineries didn't just uproot these high water mark vines in dismay. I remember marveling at the merlot produced by Esterlina Winery from windswept Anderson Valley a couple of years ago. Although not tasted this time around, I advise you to try this exceptional wine of grace and power. It refocuses one's belief in the pinnacles that can be reached. And look at the merlot focal point of all those expensive Pomerols from France's Bordeaux region. Abandon ship? Not likely. These are grand wines that are paid a pretty penny for worldwide. And this doesn't even mention that every merlot winemaker worthy of her dreams thinks she can duplicate the world's most expensive of these Pomerols--Chateau Petrus.

I tasted 46 West Coast examples for this tasting, blindly of course, and came away with strong impressions. Here's a typical formula that still crosses California's county lines in its presentation: briery, almost rubbery with dark roasted coffee, and singed or lightly burnt fruit expressions. This must be how it comes out without the requisite care from winemakers to modify these exaggerated qualities and produce wines that only hint at these sometimes jarring components. A current great success is 2003 Duckhorn, Three Palms Vineyard Merlot from Napa Valley ($80, 91 points). Here, extravagant, perfumed fruit creates a fabulous rush. The expansive flavor profile is icing on a multilayered cake. Yet, surprisingly, this winery, along with other historical landmarks, does not always deliver, showing that the exaggerated characteristics I've mentioned are hard to overcome. Duckhorn's 2003 Estate Grown, Napa Valley Merlot ($85, 84 points) is in a fat, overdone style with a touch of rubberyness that sits on its ripe, flat bottom and delivers much flavor but little refreshment. Pinot Noir is famous for being a "finicky" grape. I'd add merlot to that list in a heartbeat.

With prices ranging from $11 to $85, the majority of these wines gave ample satisfaction. There are numerous expressive wines at reasonable prices, especially when you consider the cost on comparable cabernets (or syrahs). The 2002 Snoqualmie Vineyards Reserve ($25, 89 points) from Washington State is a silky landscape of beautiful fruit. Balanced and beautifully spaced proportions make it delicious now. 2004 Wild Horse, Paso Robles ($21, 91/92 points) is an energizing drink of incredible finesse and joy. Tons of complex elements put it right near the top of a to-buy list.

In a virtual dead heat with Wild Horse is perennial overachiever Chateau Souverain and the golden touch of winemaker Ed Killian ($18, 92 points). Souverain is one of the best bets in the world when you're out there alone with the wine list and an anxious sommelier. The wine is big, hugely extracted and yet lively acids carry this lushness in a lithe, perfectly balanced manner.

Mark Lyon continues his stunning run of fabulously made wines that might lead to some readers thinking I'm on their payroll. No such thing, it's just that tasting these wines often seems like that previously alluded to "discovery." His 2003, Alexander Valley ($24, 93 points) has magic running through it.

Add to this three superior buys and terrific wines: McWilliams from Australia, Windmill Estate from Lodi and the irrepressible Gallo of Sonoma Reserve prove that memorable features and inspired winemaking can still be taken home for $11 to $13.

The wines that follow were the best and are all highly recommended. I'd be pleased to serve any of them at my home or as a carry along to a restaurant. So say it loud and say it proud: "Merlot still works for me!"

2002 Havens, Napa Valley $24

A rather heavily expressed amalgam of dark fruits, earth and mushroom. A heady drink, full and firm with decent acids. This could serve a rack of lamb well. Solid, satisfying and clean but lacking imagination. 86

2002 Toasted Head, California $17

Expansive fruit with a sense of rocky soil in its dark, touch of charcoal sensation. Rounded, fresh, succulent garden herbs. An inky, mouth-filling, velvety giant. Needs sumptuous foods. Impressive. 87

2003 Genesis, Hogue Cellars $16

High toned and unweighty with mint, dark cherry and olive components. Breezy, pretty all over with excellent lengthy fruit flavor amid brisk, sunny highlights. A pleasure to sip alone or with a light chicken or pork dish. 87/88

2003 Kendall-Jackson, Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa, Vintner's Reserve $18

Spring garden herbal overtones leading to fresh fruit sensations, with a blueberry/blackberry combination that's never overpowering. A light touch throughout, yet self-possessed in a non-showy way. Smooth, delectable, if just a bit four-square. Has a good sense of composition with nothing sticking out. Nice drinking. 87/88

2003 Frei Brothers, Dry Creek Valley Reserve $20

Attractive dark roses, mint, and a touch of roasted fruit and charred oak that works splendidly here. A good, stay with you, flavorful mouth feel. Dark, plummy, luxurious mouth texture. Lasting flavors and effortless balance. This is a very consistent property. 88

2003 Windmill Estate, Lodi $12.50

A sense of freshly picked fruit with an almost apricot edge (!). Light bodied, cheerful, delicate and attractive. No oak peeking through, just fruit, fruit, fruit. Good mouth feel, fresh flavors and just enough substance. Nicely finished and fun. Could be too light for some. Great match for lemon chicken or possibly grouper. Certainly the most diverse entry in the tasting and new to me. 88 Good Value

2002 Cliff Lede Vineyards, Napa Valley $38

Currants, roses, svelte yet full fruit impressions with touches of unsweetened chocolate and earthiness. A light-on-its-feet mouth texture. Easy, balanced with a light tannic bite. Satisfying style and purely varietal. May improve further. 88/89

2002 Snoqualmie Vineyards Reserve $25

Silky yet deep "cavernous" fruit. Fragrant cherry, summer garden scents and an almost "chewy" bouquet. Solid flavors, substantial but never heavy handed; well spaced over the entire palate. Thoroughly enjoyable. 88/89

2002 Gallo of Sonoma Reserve, Sonoma County $11

Fruity nose; encouraging, soft, smoky, warm and resonant fruit impression. Gushing, full bodied flavors. Generous yet avoids ponderousness. A fully flavored wine that satisfies. Long finish. Look for this bottle. The 2003 has been released but I have not had a chance to try it. 89 Best Buy

2004 McWilliams, Hanwood Estate, South Eastern Australia $12

Good depth with a sensation of taking you into a long tunnel of scents. Bright cherries among berries with no oak dominance. A broad stroke of flavors; expansive, well endowed but pertly alive. Excellent finish. 89 Superb Value

2003 Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve, Sonoma & Napa Valley $26

Rich fruit on a tasty oak platform. Very attractive, interesting and bold, but never heavy. A sappy, stick-to-your-lips flavor profile. Complex, intriguing and grows on you with each sip. A fascinating drink with spice, leather and honesty. Will continue to improve. Certainly, the two Kendall-Jackson examples in this tasting are among the best I've ever had. Good things happening here on a high level. 89/90

2003 Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard, Napa Valley $80

Luxurious, perfumed fruit. Overt with a sensational excess of berries. Explosive flavor components, alive, profoundly flavored with long-lasting aftertaste. An excellent wine from a landmark producer. Textbook Napa. 90/91

2004 Wild Horse, Paso Robles $21

Vitalizing. Gorgeous ripeness with finesse and a silky feel. A joy to smell--would make an invalid bolt upright. Chocolaty with a perfumed canopy of melded fruit. Like bubbles of flavor delighting the tongue, it leaves a tapestry of flavors on the finish. Long and graceful. 91/92

2002 Chateau Souverain, Alexander Valley $18

Fat, extracted, with a smell reminiscent of animal fat generosity. This is a good thing--like the smell of butter or bacon, but more elemental. Generous fruit compote surmounting the oak underpinning. Lively acids caress this wonderfully balanced wine. Lithe, never obvious or heavy. A beauty. 92

2003 Sebastiani Vineyards, Alexander Valley $24

Golden--that was the first word out of my brain. An intonation of airy fruit essences. Attractive with a quietly rich expression. (Old money rather than new.) Has pedigree--Paris Hiltonesque transcending the usual descriptive components. Suave and all together a delightful drink. Smooth, elegant, medium-bodied tending toward seduction rather than "look at me" impressiveness. Rounded, long and special. 93 Best Wine of Tasting

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