Snidely debating what wine is "in" and what wine is "out" is a favorite pastime of industry insiders. First, Merlot was in, and then it was out. In and out, in and out-you get whiplash after a while. How much of that trickles down to consumers is hard to say. I'm not sure they care.
The 2010 vintage in California certainly didn't show Merlot at its best, and it's too early to call the 2011s, which are just being released. For my annual Merlot report, I tasted more than 180 wines, and I offer my take in the Nov. 30 issue.
Despite the challenges of recent vintages, there is a solid selection of California Merlots on the market that sell for $20 or less. These are wines that can compete with values from Argentina, Portugal and Washington state.
At this price point, you don't expect a lot of complexity. These are Tuesday night wines, or wines you buy for a party. They're generally soft, juicy Merlots that offer just enough depth to keep them interesting.
But buy carefully—the retail shelves are stocked with dreck Merlots that carry a generic "California" designation. Here are a dozen wines priced at $20 and below that I recommend, and you'll notice that most of them come from a specific region like Sonoma County.
My favorite in the category now is Kendall-Jackson Merlot Sonoma County Vintner's Reserve 2010 (90 points, $19) which is zesty and polished and has well-structured dark cherry, caramel and herb flavors.
Bogle is a reliable source for good value Merlot, which the California 2010 (88, $10) demonstrates. Another standby for me is Alexander Valley Vineyards with its Alexander Valley 2010 (88, $20), which has winning flavors of dried cherry, underbrush and roasted spice. Another best buy is the Merlot-based Kirkland Signature Meritage Napa Valley 2010 (87, $11), which has mocha and cherry aromas and easygoing plum, spice and herb flavors.
Eight other well-priced Merlots you can look for in my report:
Ancient Peaks Merlot Paso Robles 2011 (88, $17)
Benziger Merlot Sonoma County 2009 (88, $19)
Buena Vista Merlot Carneros 2011 (87, $20)
Clos LaChance Merlot Central Coast 2009 (87, $15)
Kenwood Merlot Sonoma County 2010 (86, $14)
WineSpectator.com members can read the full reviews by clicking on the review links, but this free chart gives you a taste of all my reviews in the annual Merlot report.
Do you drink value Merlot? What's your favorite?