Once maligned and dismissed, this grape is once again sweeping the nation. Washington State is leading the charge, but winemakers in California, New York, Colorado and Virginia are all putting their stamps on the classic Bordeaux variety.
Washington: Merlot’s Star Rises Again
In the 1990s, Merlot had a star turn in Washington. At the time, it was the young winegrowing region’s most produced red variety, feted with high scores and cover stories. Some said Washington was the best place outside Bordeaux for the grape.
The attention was well deserved. Washington Merlot is truly distinctive.
“The things people love about Merlot are it has fat and breadth of palate, as well as precision of fruit,” says Chris Figgins, president/director of winemaking at Leonetti Cellar in Walla Walla Valley. “That last part I think is what Washington does better than elsewhere. It has this levity and precision of fruit.”
That comes from eastern Washington’s desert climate.
“You have plenty of nice warm days, but you have cool nights,” says David Merfeld, winemaker at Northstar Winery, founded in 1994 to focus on Merlot.
Those warm days lead to ripe, opulent red fruit aromas and flavors. Cool nights help lock in acidity to keep the fruit in focus, a challenge in some other warm climate regions.
While Merlot can sometimes be soft and simple, Washington offerings bring considerably more structural heft. To wit, in most other regions, Merlot is blended in to soften Cabernet Sauvignon. Here, the opposite can be true.
Merfeld also uses whole-berry fermentation and cooler ferment temperatures to keep the variety’s firmer profile in Washington in check.
“That definitely helps to soften the wines,” he says.
Come the turn of the millennium, Washington Merlot seemed on the edge of true stardom. It was discussed as the state’s “signature variety,” the one grape that might come to define its wines.
Then things went Sideways. Figgins says the 2004 movie “definitely hurt Merlot.”
Simultaneously, Syrah, a relative newcomer to the state, elbowed its way onto center stage. Other new varieties soon vied for attention, too. Nationally, Cabernet Sauvignon sales surged, and Washington growers and winemakers took notice. Cabernet production surpassed Merlot in 2006, and the state has never looked back.
Still, while the grape’s fate was altered, Washington Merlot remains as distinctive, high quality and attention-worthy as it was 20 years ago. Recent vintages are a reminder that the variety shines in the state.
“I don’t think anybody does it better than Washington State for Merlot,” says Merfeld. “This is the spot.”
Merlot excels in a number of appellations, particularly Walla Walla Valley.
“Walla Walla is a bit cooler than many parts of the [Columbia] basin, with heavier soils,” says Figgins. “Northern Walla Walla Valley especially is a sweet spot for Merlot. That’s where it seems to develop power and density.”
Washington offerings are not only notable for their distinctive profile and quality, they’re also often well priced.
“I’ve had some really good Merlot from Italy and from France, and from other places, but they are usually pretty expensive,” says Merfeld. “There’s some great quality Merlot in Washington at different prices.”
Wine lovers seem to be taking notice. It may have taken more than 15 years, but people are remembering what they loved about Washington Merlot in the first place.
“It seems like people have gotten over the whole Sideways effect, and Merlot is kind of cool again,” says Figgins. “It’s like, ‘Oh, we forgot we liked this.’ ”—Sean Sullivan
Washington Bottles to Try
Mark Ryan 2018 Little Sister Merlot (Red Mountain); $75, 94 points. Generous aromas of plum, raspberry, mocha, spice and flecks of herb are followed by layered, outrageously delicious fruit flavors. There’s plenty of midpalate richness and depth but also freshness. It hangs on for a long time on the finish. Give it time in the cellar to see it at its best. Best after 2024. Cellar Selection. –S.S.
Leonetti Cellar 2018 Merlot (Walla Walla Valley). $85, 93 points. This wine is 100% varietal—what a glorious example of Merlot. Aromas of dark-raspberry compote, plum, dark chocolate and cedar are followed by textured, layered, rich flavors that a firm spine of tannins stands up. Lovely acidity brightens it. –S.S.
Prospice 2017 Merlot (Walla Walla Valley); $50, 93 points. This is one of the inaugural releases from the winery, with most of the fruit coming from Golden Ridge Vineyard. The aromas are reserved, with notes of dark chocolate, red fruit, earth and spice, not yet fully ready to reveal their charms. The palate, on the other hand, has it all—texture, layering, structure, sophistication and detail. An extended finish caps it off. It’s a knee-buckler. Give it some additional time in the bottle. Best after 2024. Cellar Selection. –S.S.
Luke 2018 Merlot (Wahluke Slope); $25, 92 points. The aromas pop, with notes of dark raspberry, chocolate and cherry, showing a bright sense of varietal purity. Ripe, full-bodied, layered fruit flavors follow, with the acidity bringing a lot of freshness and exquisite balance. It lingers on the finish. Delicious and fruit filled, with plenty of structure, it’s hedonism at its best—a surefire crowd pleaser. Give a short decant if drinking in the near term. Editors’ Choice. –S.S.
Seven Hills Winery 2017 Merlot (Walla Walla Valley); $25, 92 points. The aromas provide appeal, with notes of pure raspberry, red currant, baking spice and milk chocolate. The medium-bodied palate shows a sense of deftness to the fruit and barrel flavors. It’s a terrific example of the variety. Editors’ Choice. –S.S.
Novelty Hill 2017 Merlot (Columbia Valley); $23, 90 points. The coffee, dark chocolate, cherry and herb aromas bring appeal. Plump, rounded fruit and barrel flavors follow. Lightly grainy tannins provide support. Best after 2023. –S.S.
California: Keeping Cool in the Napa Valley
While the Napa Valley has long been famous for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot is an important supporting player. It accounts for 4,294 acres, or 9% of its total acreage, which makes it the most significant red grape after Cab.
Often used in blends to soften grippy tannins, Merlot is also an important standalone variety for many producers like Duckhorn. Its Three Palms Vineyard bottling has made a statement for the grape since 1978. Beringer, Chappellet, Pahlmeyer, Mayacamas and La Jota Vineyard are other Merlot names to know.
The grape is picky about where it lives. It prefers rocky, well-drained soils and not a lot of heat. There, it’s better able to develop bright fruit aromas and the soft, supple mouthfeel that make the wines so attractive.
Thanks to the growing ascendency of Cabernet (and, of course, Sideways), producers dedicated to the grape worked on eliminating its previous mediocrity. Increasingly, it’s farmed in well-chosen places across the Napa Valley, with cooler-climate Carneros a standout.
It excels in the rolling hills of vineyard at Hudson Ranch, where Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Rhône varieties also thrive. The Merlot sourced by Arietta Wine was planted there in 1986 from Three Palms’ clonal material, and it’s incredibly complex.
Napa Bottles to Try
Arietta 2018 Hudson Vineyards Merlot (Napa Valley); $75, 95 points. This is a deliciously memorable Merlot, youthful in tannin and oak, with an herbal, earthy elegance that remains lengthy on the palate. Dark chocolate, crushed rock and beautiful black fruit balance against each other and provide substance and great style. Editors’ Choice. —V.B.
Beringer 2017 Bancroft Ranch Merlot (Howell Mountain); $90, 92 points. Robust in chalky tannin and a broad swath of red currant, plum and cherry, this wine is powerfully structured and ripe, with fistfuls of clove, mocha and black pepper. From a warm vintage and a mountain appellation, it will do well in the cellar; enjoy best from 2027 through 2030. Cellar Selection. —V.B.
Different Styles Mark Sonoma
It does well in the relatively warm—but not too warm—appellations of Bennett Valley, Chalk Hill and Sonoma Valley. The latter is where Gundlach Bundschu has farmed it for generations, harvesting spicy red fruit from the cooler areas of its estate, and lush black fruit from the warmer parts.
Pride Winery’s offerings show Merlot’s grasp of structure and power. Its grapes come from 2,000 feet up at a mountainside site on the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas. The winery, which borders the Spring Mountain appellation, bottled its first vintage in 1991.
Winemaker David Jeffrey of Calluna Vineyards finds inspiration at another high-elevation site in Chalk Hill, in an estate Merlot block devoted to Bordeaux’s Alain Raynaud, with whom Jeffrey once worked with Raynaud in Pomerol and St-Émilion. Calluna’s site is relatively cool, with maximum sunshine, excellent drainage and minimal frost exposure.
Along Westside Road in the Russian River Valley, Oded Shakked of Longboard Vineyards gets similarly soft, supple and complex Merlot from his DaKine Vineyard, field-blended with Malbec. It’s a great example of Sonoma County Merlot’s consistent excellent value. Look for bottles from Kendall-Jackson, St. Francis Winery and Folie à Deux. —V.B.
Sonoma Bottles to Try
Calluna 2017 Aux Raynauds Merlot (Chalk Hill); $40, 94 points. Blended with 14% Cabernet Franc, this is an herbal, classically structured wine, with enduring elegance and class. Tart and tangy red fruit is lifted by underlying acidity and girded in a pushy tannic structure that is still unwinding. Enjoy 2025–2030. Cellar Selection. —V.B.
Longboard 2017 DaKine Vineyard Merlot (Russian River Valley); $36, 90 points. Blended with 16% Malbec, this red is hearty and high toned, expressing tense, focused layers of red currant, cranberry and plum. It maintains an energy across the palate, finishing in a hit of dark chocolate. —V.B.
Central Coast Recovers its Reputation
The Central Coast, specifically Santa Barbara, served as the setting for the greatest assault ever levied on any grape variety. It was perpetrated by the hit film Sideways, which lampooned Merlot. It depressed the Merlot market nationwide and sent much of the widely planted variety into grocery store blends.
Since then, the Central Coast has been dominated by two types of Merlot: cheaper, often bland, usually mass-produced versions that reinforce the Sideways sentiment, and carefully constructed, boutique bottlings that showcase the grape’s delicate ability to translate terroir.
Steve McIntyre, whose company Monterey Pacific farms more than 12,000 vineyard acres, says land devoted to the grape has steadily declined since, but 2020 might have marked a turning point. This season was the first in a decade where I actually started to see some demand,” he says.
For Santa Barbara Merlot makers, “there’s a little bit of vengeance there, let’s be honest,” says Bradley Long of Grassini Family Vineyard. When he started there in 2014, previous winemakers had ripped out most of its Merlot. He saw potential, however, and it’s now one of the producer’s most expensive offerings.
“Merlot just shows the more delicate side of Bordeaux,” he says. “It doesn’t need to be this big red wine. I do prefer fruit-driven, floral, light wines over any giant red any day of the week. Merlot exists within that realm.”
As general manager of Au Bon Climat, Jim Adelman has overseen a Pinot Noir- and Chardonnay-centric winery since 1991. But Merlot grown at Bien Nacido Vineyard, in the cool Santa Maria Valley, is the heart of his own boutique label, Makor, largely just available in the region. He uses whole clusters in his fermentations, which he says is common at Bordeaux benchmarks like Pétrus.
“That adds a whole lot of complexity, which is what a lot of modern Merlot lacks,” says Adelman. —Matt Kettmann
Central Coast Bottles to Try
Grassini Family Vineyards 2018 Merlot (Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara); $80, 95 points. Black-cherry and light clove aromas meet with a delicately layered wood-spice array on the nose of this bottling, which is immediately appealing and accessible. There’s a tightness to the tannins on the palate and yet it remains a generous wine, offering bright red fruits, sandalwood and spiced toast amidst fresh and fun acidity. —M.K
Broadside 2018 Margarita Vineyard Merlot (Paso Robles); $18, 93 points. Intense aromas of baked black cherry, red berries, star anise and mace are deliciously fruit-forward on the nose of this bottling. The wine lands with a ripe quality on the palate, offering that rich and dark-cherry and mulberry character, but also presenting white pepper and minty tarragon. —M.K.
Empire State of Merlot
Merlot is grown across many of New York’s varied wine regions, from the Finger Lakes to the Niagara Escarpment, but nowhere is it more prevalent than Long Island, where it accounts for about one-third of total plantings.
The eastern end of the island, about a two-hour drive from New York City, is dotted with bucolic farmhouse vistas interspersed with rows of vines, some of which have been there nearly half a century.
The region is fraught with high humidity throughout the growing season and threats of hurricanes in late summer and early fall, which means that consistency from vintage to vintage can be elusive.
However, the fickle maritime climate and sandy, well-draining soils have proven hospitable to many Bordeaux varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. None show more consistency than Merlot, a grape that reaches peak ripeness earlier and more reliably than others.
Varietal and blended bottlings that incorporate Merlot can be found in nearly all of Long Island’s 70-plus wineries. The hallmark plushness, supple tannins and rich, plummy fruit are all here, along with a burgeoning sense of place that’s exciting to see in an evolving wine region. —Alexander Peartree
New York Bottles to Try
Harbes 2015 Proprietor’s Reserve Hallock Lane Merlot (North Fork of Long Island); $48, 92 points. Dense aromas of blackberry and dark plum meld with integrated accents of cocoa, mentholated herbs and moss in this structured Merlot. It’s full in feel on the palate, framed by velvety tannins and pulsing acidity. A plush plum flavor is studded with a mix of herbs and spices, while an energetic, lingering finish indicates this will hold well in the cellar. Drink through 2028. —A.P
Lenz 2015 Estate Selection Unfined Unfiltered Merlot (North Fork of Long Island); $35, 92 points. A concentrated, dense nose carries aromas of black plum, soy, crushed herbs and cocoa, making for a pleasing mix of savory, earthy and rich fruit tones. It’s plush in feel, framed by glossy tannins and driving acidity. Energetic flavors of plum, currant and herbs extend on the lingering finish, indicating that this has a bit of longevity in the cellar. Drink through 2030. Cellar Selection. —A.P.
A Long History in Virginia
The Virginia wine industry is full of false starts and heartbreaks from as far back as the early 1600s, but the region didn’t really start to get going until the 1970s.
When talking about Virginia wine, Thomas Jefferson’s name inevitably comes up. The U.S. president, Francophile and wine aficionado cofounded Jefferson Vineyards here in 1774. He also nearly fell into bankruptcy buying French wines, so it’s no surprise that traditional Bordeaux grapes like Merlot are planted across the state’s eight American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).
The climate in Virginia is challenging. Frost plagues the winter, while humidity and oppressive heat dominate the growing season. Careful choice in a vineyard site is not just the key to success, but to survival. All that heat gives the grapes heft, and Merlot here stays true in style to its Bordeaux roots, with soft and generous fruit flavors. But it also carries a pioneering edge with more angles and acidity, creating arguably more interesting and challenging expressions of the grape. —Fiona Adams
Virginia Bottles to Try
Narmada 2017 Merlot (Virginia); $35, 91 points. An expressive nose exudes foraged raspberry, blackberry and black currant matched by clove, holly and forest floor, touched with accents of vanilla and creosote. Juicy cherry and raspberry are quickly pushed aside by a decadent tobacco tone. The acidity is agile, and the tannins are velvety and sumptuous. Peppery spice on the finish lengthens the palate while tannin and acidity race endlessly. —F.A.
The Williamsburg Winery 2017 Reserve Merlot (Virginia); $40, 90 points. Cigar box and weathered oak smother vanilla and black raspberry aromas, but become less domineering with time in the glass. The palate is more generous in fresh cranberry, raspberry and red apple peel flavors. Sandy tannins shape the structure, with oak tones hovering just below the surface. The finish rests heavily on the tart acidity, highlighting and lengthening the apple peel tone. —F.A.
Colorado’s Fresh Approach
Colorado may seem like the ideal place to grow grapes. Its high elevation can help keep humidity at bay and offer warm sunny days and cool breezy nights. That height brings its own challenges with ripeness, though. Some wines threaten to be as thin as the air. Merlot, however, flourishes here and remains one of the most popular varieties.
Look for a style that’s light and lifted, with tart red berries as bright as Colorado’s relentless sunny days and just as welcoming and laidback with good vibes only. —F.A.
Colorado Bottles to Try
The Winery At Holy Cross Abbey 2017 Merlot (Palisade); $28, 90 points. The high-toned nose is sharp and spicy at first but mellows with time in the glass. It carries bouncy plum, cranberry and pomegranate notes with lots of bell pepper. Fresh, bright cherry juice takes the lead and powers straight through the finish, joined by pomegranate and raspberry flavors, with hints of cocoa powder and white pepper. The palate is silky, with a lazy river of acidity and light, powdery tannins. There is a dose of white pepper and vanilla on the finish. —F.A.
Varaison 2015 Bin 3115 Estate Reserve Palisade Vineyard Merlot (Grand Valley); $85, 89 points. Medium ruby with some transparency, there are spicy aromas of tart red currants, cozy Madagascar vanilla, black cherry, green chilis and a deep undercurrent of cigar box. With time in the glass, dried plum and raisin aromas emerge. It opens with flavors of rich ripe plum, tart black cherry, tobacco leaf and vanilla. The tannins give a gentle grip on the midpalate and linger lightly, turning spicy on the finish. —F.A.