Merlot remains force in Northwest wine industry

Merlot grapes wait to be crushed at a Walla Walla Valley winery. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

In the 1980s, Washington was white wine country. Red wine was considered somewhat exotic.

Then came Merlot.

The Bordeaux variety known for its soft flavors and silky tannins proved to be a good match for Washington’s Columbia Valley and its dry, arid soils. By the mid-1990s, Merlot was Washington’s dominant red grape, and the state was gaining fame for it.

In recent years, with the rise of Syrah and the emergence of Cabernet Sauvignon, interest in Merlot has waned. It’s still proving to be a good match for Washington – and Idaho. Here are 12 examples we’ve tasted recently worth checking out. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the winery directly.

Telaya Wine Co. 2014 Daniel Vineyard Merlot, Snake River Valley, $45

Idaho winemakers Earl and Carrie Sullivan turn much of their attention to famed producers in Washington state’s Columbia Valley such as Boushey and Quintessence for their Bordeaux varieties. And yet, they’ve established a relationship with Dave Daniel’s vineyard south of Lake Lowell in the Snake River Valley. This signaled a bounce-back vintage for Daniel, whose site on the outskirts of Nampa fell victim to the January 2013 killing freeze, so Telaya created this vineyard-designate release for club members. It’s a robust and hedonistic Merlot that’s loaded with dark red cherry and allspice notes, backed by toast, tar and a long scrape of vanilla bean in the finish.

Rating: Excellent

Production: 55 cases

Alcohol: 13.7%

Winery website

Milbrandt Vineyards 2014 Traditions Merlot, Columbia Valley, $17

The breadbasket that is the Wahluke Slope creates the platform for this rather stylish Merlot from Milbrandt, which gets some flesh from Syrah (18%) and added bones from Petit Verdot (5%). There’s toastiness to the aromas, joined by milk chocolate, raspberry and chokecherry. Its flavors are smooth with a long stream of plum, cherries and chocolate, a scrape of vanilla bean and finished by espresso ground tannins. Crack the cap and enjoy some paired with Poached Pear in Reduction Sauce, part of Butch Milbrandt’s cooking demonstration video series.

Rating: Outstanding!

Production: 9,188 cases

Alcohol: 13.5%

Winery website

Cathedral Ridge Winery 2013 Reid Vineyard Merlot, Columbia Valley, $32

Columbia Gorge vintner Robb Bell and Sonoma winemaker Michael Sebastiani show their dedication to Merlot in Oregon with this vineyard-designate project with Reid Vineyard, up the Columbia River near The Dalles. Their approach for 22 months with a blend of barrels creates aromas of blackberry and cherry juice with Sunsweet Dried Plums and pink peppercorns. On the palate, there’s a pleasing, sturdy yet fruit-driven structure with black cherry and more plum, backed by lively acidity. Suggested pairings include feta cheese or bacon burgers with green chile. These wines are available at the winery in Hood River as well as their tasting room in downtown Dundee.

Rating: Excellent

Production: 125 cases

Alcohol: 14%

Winery website

Chateau Ste Michelle 2014 Indian Wells Merlot, Columbia Valley, $18

Chateau Ste. Michelle enjoyed so much success with the fruit-forward style of wines — red and white — from its Indian Wells Vineyard and surrounding vineyards on the Wahluke Slope, that the company created a separate tier and priced them in the teens. That vineyard near the Columbia River between the towns of Desert Aire and Mattawa plays a sizable role in this Merlot, and so does Syrah (14%). There’s a substantial amount of new oak (51%) involved, too, which imparts the tones of toast, milk chocolate, Wheat Chex and cardamom. Currant, pomegranate and taut tannins provide the context for this solid example of Washington Merlot.

Rating: Excellent

Production: 50,000 cases

Alcohol: 14.5%

Winery website

Buty Winery 2014 Conner Lee Vineyard Merlot 63 Cabernet Franc 37, Columbia Valley, $45

Owner/founder Nina Buty extended her string of blending Merlot with Cabernet Franc to 15 consecutive vintages, dating back to the debut vintage of her Walla Walla winery. While the Merlot came off Conner Lee Vineyard on Sept. 17, the Cabernet Franc got pulled from Clone 332 Block on Sept. 25 and the 1991 Block on Sept. 30. All the grapes came to winemaker Chris Dowsett at 25 Brix, who fermented the lots separately in 30% new French oak until stitches the blends in January 2016. Lovely aromatics of sweet Marionberry and blueberry include herbs such as rosemary, thyme and dill as well as a whiff of movie theater popcorn. Inside, it’s impeccably balanced with sweet cherries, ripe brambleberries, supple tannins, a dusting of white pepper and lingering acidity.

Rating: Outstanding!

Production: 325 cases

Alcohol: 14.7%

Winery website

Boomtown by Dusted Valley 2014 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $19

Walla Walla winemakers Chad Johnson, Corey Braunel and Griffin Frey team up with the Wahluke Wine Co., for another solid example of Merlot under the sister brand for acclaimed Dusted Valley Vintners. Dark purple tones of blueberry, black cherry and pomegranate are joined by aromatic hints of lavender, brown sugar and chalkboard dust. On the pour, there’s brightness that leads with pomegranate, backed by Montmorency cherry and Craisin skins amid enjoyable tannins and a pleasing finish framed by the addition of Cabernet Sauvignon (9%) and Petit Verdot (3%). Enjoy with robust beef dishes, and like all Dusted Valley wines, this is safeguarded by a screwcap.

Rating: Excellent

Production: 2,700 cases

Alcohol: 14.2%

Winery website

Terra Nativa Vineyards 2012 Reserve Merlot, Idaho, $40

Treasure Valley developer Richard Pavelek dotes on his vines of red Bordeaux varieties grown in the foothills east of Boise, making his perhaps the state’s highest elevation  site for ongoing viticulture — 3,100 feet. His focus on estate fruit explains why Terra Nativa is one of Idaho’s tiniest wineries with an annual production of 600 cases. Here, Pavelek has crafted a superb Merlot with classic aromas of coffee, red plum, a hint of oak and black fruit. On the palate, it’s smooth with notes of black cherry and a hint of vanilla for a beautifully balanced mouth feel. This earned a gold medal and best of class at the 2016 Idaho Wine Competition.

Rating: Outstanding!

Production: 56 cases

Alcohol: 13.5%

Winery website

14 Hands Winery 2014 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $15

Best Buy! “Textbook” may be a cliche in describing a wine of startling character, but it can be appropriate, as here. This is one fragrant, composed and resilient Merlot, yet it upholds the variety’s reputation for being capable of accommodating a wide range of foods at the table, such as ribs, tri-tip or pasta in a tomato sauce. This won a gold medal and best Merlot at the Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition.

Rating: Outstanding!

Production: 300,000 cases

Alcohol: 13.5%

Winery website

Bitner Vineyards 2012 Menopause Merlot, Snake River Valley, $30

One of the fastest-selling red wines in Idaho each year is Caldwell vintner Mary Bitner’s Menopause Merlot, and this is the fifth release of this rather delicious red with the zany label. The design is created each year by Central Oregon artist Jill Haney-Neal, whose work hangs in Anthony’s Restaurants and gets applied to bottles of Kiona Vineyards’ Vivacious Vicky. Inside this example of Merlot off Bitner Vineyard in the Sunnyslope Wine District are aromas and flavors of black cherries, vanilla and cocoa powder. Thanks to the winemaking of longtime neighbor Greg Koenig, the beveled edges to the tannin structure make this rather easy drinking.

Rating: Recommended

Production: 145 cases

Alcohol: 14.5%

Winery website

Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2014 Merlot, Lewis-Clark Valley, $25

Until May 20, 2016, the Umikers would have been required to use “Idaho/Washington” as the American Viticultural Area on the label. Now they are able to embrace the Lewis-Clark Valley AVA for this Merlot, a mix of their own vineyard in the Lewiston Orchards and the young Rock n’ J Vineyard — the easternmost planting in Washington state near the town of Asotin. The Umikers’ devotion to American oak shows here, a program of 17 months in 30% new barrels. That creates a theme of vanilla bean, dark toast, caramel and spice box along with sweet cherries and red pepper flakes. Fine-grained tannins allow for a mouth-filling finish of black cherry, bittersweet chocolate and toast.

Rating: Excellent

Production: 208 cases

Alcohol: 14.9%

Winery website

 

Columbia Winery 2013 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $17

Canadian native Sean Hails has made more wine than most as a result of his years of work in California on behalf of Gallo. His latest release of Merlot for the Woodinville showpiece also ranks as one of the largest in Washington. It hints at dark currants and cherries in the aromas with lavender, jasmine and smoked meats – perhaps a sign of the Syrah (11%). There’s a match on the palate with dusty tannins and Montmorency cherry in the finish. Its lower profile of alcohol, despite the hot 2013 vintage, helps set the table for suggested pairings with tenderloin medallions in a huckleberry glaze, roasted chicken or cannelloni with Italian sausage.

Rating: Excellent

Production: 47,000 cases

Alcohol: 13.9%

Winery website

Westport Winery Garden Resort 2014 Mermaid Merlot, Yakima Valley, $28

Coastal winemaker Dana Roberts collaborates historic Red Willow Vineyard and Two Blondes – the estate vineyard of acclaimed maritime winemaker Chris Camarda of famed Andrew Will – for this swimmingly easy-drinking Merlot. Bing cherries, cocoa powder, mint and brushy aromas lead to a jammy tasting profile of strawberry and raspberry with chocolaty oak. Plush and sandy tannins are accented by underlying sweet herbs and a finish of cherry pie filling. Westport Winery’s on-premise Farm to Fork restaurant suggests pairing its Mermaid with the Kalbi Beef Rib Stack. And a portion of the sales are donated to the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life of Grays Harbor.

Rating: Outstanding!

Production: 112 cases

Alcohol: 14%

Winery website

Claar Cellars 2013 White Bluffs Merlot, Columbia Valley, $22

The Claar-Whitelatch family seized upon the early opportunity to harverst its Merlot during warm 2013 vintage, picking from its Salmon-Safe and estate White Bluffs Vineyard on Sept. 5. Barrel aging for 18 months makes for a dense nose of dusty blueberry and Marionberry with brown sugar, black pepper, Graham cracker and a whiff of wild game. Inside, it’s definitely a Washington Merlot with its burly, blueberry skin tannins, yet backed by Bing cherry and chocolate-covered pomegranate. There’s plenty of acidity to extend its left well into the next century.

Rating: Recommended

Production: 111 cases

Alcohol: 14.1%

Winery website

 

 

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