The darling child of the '90s is becoming a problem adolescent of the new millennium. In 1987 there were 3,577 acres of merlot planted in California. Today it stands at 52,190, and growing! Smooth, silky, velvety wine--almost sweet when very ripe--never astringent or austere, even when young; these are the qualities that California winemakers hoped for when they planted (and planted) merlot all over the map.
The wines of France's Pomerol district are primarily made from merlot, and these justly famous reds do possess the aforementioned qualities when conditions are right. Surely, California could do the same? But location does matter, and these days words like "thin, weedy, tough" and "where's the pleasure?" appear with regularity on California wine drinkers' lips. In Pomerol, all certainly does not go right every year. Merlot buds early and so is very susceptible to frost. It also ripens early, often before it has hung on the vine long enough to achieve flavor interest and possible complexity. California versions mirror this. If one combines poor soil selection, growing pains as the vines mature and viticultural techniques that take time to master, it's no wonder that much domestic merlot is often disappointing.
Way back in 1997, demand for merlot was so high that retailers could sell just about any bottle with the word merlot featured on the label. Asking for a glass of merlot at the local bar took the place of long-standing requests for "a glass of Chianti" or "a glass of Burgundy." Much merlot of questionable quality sold readily. The idea of drinking merlot became more important than how it tasted. The merlots of top producers were highly allocated and retailers could acquire only a few cases of these star California offerings. With tiny allotments, the beleaguered wine sellers usually pre-sold these scarce items to their best customers. Seven years later, merlot is not quite as "fluid." High prices and a decreased demand find even the best estates waiting on the shelf. Americans are notoriously fickle and easily bored. The trendy merlot of yesterday becomes the fashionable syrah of today.
In this light, I blind tasted 31 merlots recently, predominantly from California, with a few ringers from other nations thrown in. Only 10 made the cut, receiving a grade of 78 or better. There are simply too many wines out there with little if anything to say. They have nonexistent bouquets, or ones that are loaded with vegetal or stinky herbal qualities. Flavors are often mean, sharp and acidic. The wines tasted ranged from $9 to $103. Please be on the lookout for the following. They are all recommended. If merlot is a passion of yours, seek further advice from a competent wine merchant.
2001 Carmenet, California $9
Nice, easy, "come right in" bouquet of briary cherry and spice. Flavors are a bit edgy and lean, but it's a pleasant drink without pretensions. Grade: 80
2001 Kendall-Jackson, Grand Reserve $26
Overt, California styling; round, mouth-filling, cedary and tomato-like (in a good way). Substantial, dark flavors with spices and oak surrounding the four square fruit. Good and solid, but lacks imagination. 83
2001 Sebastiani, Alexander Valley $24
Fresh, "sweet" fruit and new oak impressions. Tangy and a bit over the top. A crisp, lively flavor with coffee overtones. 85
2001 Wolf Blass, South Australia $14
Nicely pure and positive fruit. A Bordeaux- like nose. Lovely flavor on a medium bodied palate. An elegantly framed wine. Good value. 86
2002 Francis Coppola, Diamond Series $17
Lightness, charm and an inviting bouquet. A finely crafted wine that drinks very well, complete with stylish, harmonic, integrated flavors. Drink now-2007. Just released. 87
2000 Dallas Conte, Chile $10
Shy but emerging bouquet. Give it an hour open before drinking. Flowers, spice, berries, and roasted oak; all well integrated. Reminiscent of a red Graves. A solid drink that would be a pleasure to quaff on a regular basis. Satisfying, good and ready. Great value. 88
2001 St. Clement, Napa Valley $28
A dark, brooding, penetrating, woodsy, earthy, black cherry bouquet (a lot going on). Very substantial--not a "pretty" wine. The palate is still tight and tannic, but it's a grand, burly drink that will reward cellaring. Drink 2006-2010. 89
1999 St. Francis, Behler's Reserve $45
Excellent balance of deep fruit and oak. Attractive berry scents and a gorgeous entry feel at first sip. Creamy mouth texture with ripe fruit and vanilla flavors hugging each other. Like a plump Rioja! Deft and complete. Drink now-2007. 90
2001 Gallo of Sonoma, Reserve $11
Deep, concentrated, well structured and attractive. A ripe, dark plum and leathery bouquet. A mouthful of balanced, impressive fruit with a serious core of well endowed, sumptuous flavor. Excellent. How does Gallo do it? Drink now-2010. Exceptional value. 91
1999 Beringer, Howell Mountain, Bancroft Ranch $100
A lavish, extravagant wine. It's phenomenally rich and intense, with a huge underlying ripeness. Gorgeous. Luscious and powerful, with layered black cherry, toffee, almost chocolate truffle impressions. Terrific structure and tannins that beg cellaring. Drink 2008-2015. 94
April has been a busy month for wine visitors. From the Rhone district of France to Marlborough, New Zealand, I've seen a wealth of wine and estate representatives anxious to show their bounty.
First, a luncheon with Tim Fogarty, export manager of Nobilo, a popular line of New Zealand wines. Nobilo is well known in the United States for its sauvignon blanc. The 2002 Icon Sauvignon Blanc (their reserve) was extremely well received nationwide. However, we only tasted the regular bottling of 2002, and I found it rather too tart and lean. The new 2003 release of Icon shows why this wine is such a terrific hit. It is explosive from the glass, overt and promising with grapefruit impressions. However, 2003 was a difficult vintage in New Zealand, and on the palate the wine is disappointingly short, bitter, tough, thin and tight. If you can still find a bottle of '02 Icon anywhere, grab it.
Interestingly, I found two other wines from the Nobilo stable to be highly recommendable:
2003 Pinot Gris, Icon $18.99
Fresh and vibrant with lemon grass and mango. Clears the sinuses! A slight rose color achieved by allowing four hours of grape to skin contact. Brisk yet generous on the nose. A lovely mouth texture reminiscent of top Alsace producers. The vintage was kind to this grape. A hot-weather pleaser that tasted great with steamed mussels at Pop's Trattoria. 86
2002 Pinot Noir, Icon $18.99
Opens in the glass with a seductive, elusive pinot bouquet. Drinks well in an enchanting linear, direct style. Not a fat mouthful, but its dry, pointed and intense flavors make it very attractive. Cellar Selection. Drink 2006 88
Mia Klein, winemaker at Selene, and consultant for many top California wineries including Dalla Valle, was in town recently to share her thoughts and wines. Ms. Klein is wonderfully loquacious in a no nonsense, unaffected way. It was a pleasure to share conversation with such a gifted individual.
2002 Sauvignon Blanc, Hyde Vineyard $24.75
Very impressive, full blown bouquet. Oak underpinnings frame the beautiful fruit, which takes center stage. A minerally yet creamy mouth texture that is full force without harshness. This a bold, "serious" style of sauvignon with excellent varietal flavors and a finish that goes on and on. One of California's best. 92
1998 Merlot, Napa Valley $26.50
A totally developed bouquet of gorgeous fruit. Almost cabernet-like in its structure. Roses and woodsy mushroom like qualities on nose and palate. Warm, gloriously resolved elements. Ready to enjoy. A terrific wine from a so called "difficult" vintage. I wrote "swell" at the end of my notes. 92
2000 Bacio Di Vino, Red Table Wine $80
A wow of a wine. A fabulous concoction of cabernet, sangiovese and petite syrah. Ripe, explosive and yummy. A bit hollow at the finish, but you don't care; the fruit carries it all through. A real, heady trip. May be too much of a good thing for some. 91
P.S. Dining at Nana's remains one of the best, innovative eating experiences in the Triangle.
Aine Young, confident and very French, Frederic Jaboulet came to town recently to show off the wares of his family's special estate located in the northern Rhone. For 175 years, Jaboulet Aine has produced some of southeastern France's most flavorful and distinguished wines. We sampled a significant cross section. Among the best were:
2001 Hermitage Blanc, Sterimberg $67.60
Smooth with great body; tight, chalky depth and powerful bouquet. Feet of clay construction on the massive palate. A grand-scaled white; packed, persistent and formidable. Expensive, but in relation to the great white Burgundy's of the north, a fine value. 93
2001 Beaumes-de-Venise Rouge $16.25
Always a favorite of mine, and what a wine in 2001. Wonderful, pushy-pushy bouquet of gorgeous Grenache. Lively, heady aromas jump out. Very flavorful and accessible. A superior Cotes du Rhone. 88
2001 Crozes-Hermitage, Domaine Thalabert $29.50
Fat, generous nose of the purest dark and brooding fruit. Great mouth texture; a grainy, stick to your tongue richness. From old to ancient (100-year-old) vines. Remarkable depth and concentration of fruit essences. Almost like a reduction sauce. Magnificent. Drinkable now and will improve for a decade. 92
Although Jaboulet Aine wines are high end, all 2001 Rhone estate bottlings are quite desirable and consistently good. Buy them now. The 2002 vintage is a general washout, especially in the south, with many estates bottling no wines under their premier labels.
Arturo Ciompi can be reached at email@example.com
91-100: Wine that seems to give all it is capable of, offering terrific complexities and memorable attributes. Wines at 95 points or greater are extraordinary and worthy of a special search.
83-90: Good to extremely good, with genuine flavor interest and highlights constituting a fine wine.
77-82: Average to quite decent. No true defects, but minor problems hinder charm or excitement. The wine is recommended.
70-76: Irritating flaws and weakness take away pleasure. The wine is drinkable.
69 and under: Aberrant bouquet and flavor. A turn off and a failure. Undrinkable.