Merlot is the whipping boy of California wine, and I've done a little flogging myself sometimes. When I find a good Merlot at a fair price, it's worth singling out and—just as important—trying to find out why it's so good.
Exhibit A is the Frei Brothers Merlot Reserve Dry Creek Valley 2008. It's focused and nicely structured, with notes of black currant, anise and cedar. I rated it 88 points, blind, and the suggested retail is $20, but you can often find it on sale for around $16.
Frei Brothers is a Gallo label so you know it isn't some small artisan winery we're talking about. More than 27,000 cases of 2008 were produced at the company's Frei Ranch facility in the hills above Dry Creek General Store outside Healdsburg.
Scott Kozel was the winemaker and he gives a lot of the credit to the vintage. "I think Dry Creek got lucky with Merlot in 2008," Kozel said. "We were able to pick at our leisure and make our own decisions about how things should play out."
Good Merlot starts in the vineyard. It's every bit as hard to grow as Pinot Noir. "Avoiding the vegetal character is one of the big challenges," Kozel said, and that means keeping an open canopy to ripen and mature the fruit, otherwise Merlot can taste a little like "tart cherry juice and cranberry juice mixed together with bell pepper and asparagus."
The vineyards at Frei Ranch were the main grape source and about 13 percent actually came from a vineyard in Russian River Valley (85 percent is the legal cut off). Kozel has access to Gallo's many winemaking tools and gadgets. About half the juice, for example, went through a computerized rotary fermentor to bring better density and darker fruit, Kozel said, and the wine was aged in the facility's football field-sized barrel room, mostly in French oak and about 20 percent new.
After about six months in barrel Kozel and his team put together the final blend. "We're generally big fans of blending early," he said. About 3 percent Petite Sirah and 1 percent Cabernet Sauvignon were added to give the Merlot more structure, then back in the barrel it went for another six months, a little longer than usual.
"We held off bottling it a couple of months to give it more time in the barrel," Kozel said. "It still tasted still a little rough after that first year."
The resulting wine has both polish and structure, and sadly all too rare for Merlot at that price point. Oops, there's that whip again.