You can't always trust the word on the street, especially when it comes to wine. If you listen to enough of the wrong people, you'd be convinced that no one was drinking California Merlot anymore.
But there's a disconnect. People supposedly hate Merlot, and yet it's the most popular red wine in the United States, selling just more than 29 million 9-liter cases in 2006. (Compare that to about 27 million for domestic Cabernet Sauvignon, which ranks second, according to Impact Databank.)
I wonder what consumers are doing with all those bottles of Merlot. Watering their plants? When you figure it out, let me know. (I bet it's the same explanation for why consumers are supposedly tired of high-alcohol wines, yet crowd in like linebackers at every Zinfandel Advocate and Producers tasting.)
Popularity and quality, of course, are two different things. There's plenty of insipid red wine out there labeled Merlot, some of it selling for $30 or $40 a bottle. As someone who covers the California Merlot beat for Wine Spectator, one of my biggest challenges is finding good, tasty Merlot that sells for $20 or less. That's the price point that fuels the best-selling Merlot machine, yet those wines are too often lean or green or simple or tannic, or all of the above.
But bargain-hunting Merlot fans haven't had it this good in a while. The 2004 and 2005 vintages deliver more than the usual amount of easy-drinking Merlot at decent prices.
Both years delivered generally very good growing seasons for Merlot in California. The 2004s, at their best, are ripe and balanced. 2005 was a long and cool growing season, which allowed for greater flavor development. It was also a large crop, so plenty of excess Merlot is making its way to the bulk market, which fuels many of the discount brands.
Dennis Martin, director of winemaking at Fetzer Vineyards, said the extended season in 2005 particularly benefited vineyards in California's Central Valley, which produces much of the juice that goes into Merlots at $15 and less. That region is generally blazing hot in the summer, and the Merlot often gets so raisiny ripe that the growers pick before the flavors taste fully mature. That leaves the wines with an odd combo of overripe alcohols and harsh, green flavors. There's far less of that in 2005.
Beringer Vineyards offers two excellent values from the 2005 vintage. The Napa Valley ($20) is ripe and a little showy with mocha and plum notes, while North Coast Third Century ($14) is zesty and surprisingly gutsy.
Red Truck Merlot California 2005 ($12) is a fruit bomb with black cherry and toasty oak notes. Also look for Solaris California 2005 ($10), a good quaff with cherry, spice and cola flavors. But the real steal of the 2005 vintage is Fetzer California Valley Oaks, with spicy aromas and juicy flavors. It has a retail price of $9, but is widely available and often steeply discounted.
While the 2005 Merlots are just starting to arrive, a number of solid 2004s are still available. Look for Screw Kappa Napa Napa Valley ($14) and Beaulieu Vineyard Napa Valley ($15). You also get plenty of bang for the buck in Clos du Bois Merlot North Coast ($18). It's supple and juicy, with black raspberry and spicy vanilla flavors, and with a production of about 345,000 cases, it's usually available for a few dollars below suggested retail.
With wines like these, Merlot isn't going to go away anytime soon. Even if some people think it should.
For specific ratings on these wines and more details on all the latest California Merlots, check out Tim Fish's full report in the upcoming Nov. 30, 2007, issue of Wine Spectator.
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