I’ve been drinking California Merlot for 20 years, and it still makes me crazy. It’s one of the most popular red wines in the United States, but so much of it is damn boring.
The funny thing is, I still like drinking it. As Wine Spectator's lead critic for California Merlot since 2005, I’ve come to appreciate the challenges.
Merlot’s reputation as a soft and supple red is only partially deserved in California. In the 1990s, wineries and growers all over the state planted Merlot with the assumption it would thrive. It didn’t.
California learned what France found out long ago. Merlot is a persnickety grape, good for blending but challenging by itself. It’s every bit as difficult to grow and just as finicky about the growing season as Pinot Noir.
Merlot, if allowed, will produce a huge crop of insipid wines, so growers need to carefully manage production through techniques such as pruning and green harvest. If the region is too cool, Merlot’s trademark hint of herb or tomato leaf turns hard and vegetal. If it’s too warm, it can become a freaky blend of cooked cherry and stewed veggies.
But thousands of acres are still out there, either planted in the wrong place or tended by growers who are unwilling or financially unable to make the difficult choices.
I do taste some consistently outstanding California Merlots: Pahlmeyer, Pride, Shafer, Switchback Ridge, Selene, to name a few, but they cost $50 or more a bottle and production is limited. If your budget allows, buy them and you won’t be disappointed.
Many California Merlots that sell between $40 and $20 just aren’t worth the money. No matter how hard wineries try to develop complexity and extraction through techniques like soaking the juice with the grape skins for an extended period, or how much new French oak they use to gain richness and toastiness, some Merlot vineyards just can’t be great.
The biggest chunk of Merlot sold in America is $15 or a lot less. These days you’ll recognize them on discount shelves by their cute labels. Most of them are so-so, rather generic and a hint sweet to hide any flaws, but it’s possible to find a decent bottle for the price.
I’ve recently given good to very good scores to under-$15 Merlots such as Estancia Merlot Central Coast Keyes Canyon Ranches 2008 ($12), Bogle Merlot California 2008 ($9), Angeline Merlot Russian River Valley 2009 ($14) and Pennywise California Merlot 2008 ($12). (WineSpectator.com members can read full tasting notes and see scores.)
So are you pro or con on California Merlots? Are they underrated or overvalued? What are your favorites?