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Memorable Merlots

The 1999 vintage shows how admirable this wine can be

James Laube
Posted: October 30, 2002

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  Top-Scoring California Merlot  
  Smart Buys in California Merlot  
  California Merlot Vintage Chart

California Merlot ended its decade of discovery and stardom on a high note.

Merlot is often derided because of its meteoric rise in popularity yet lack of substantive wines. The 1999 vintage, however, is nothing to laugh at. It is first-class in quality, one of the best years ever for California Merlot. About the only sore spot is prices, which are high, especially for the top wines.

"Our best vintages have been the late ones," says John Kongsgaard, winemaker for Arietta in Napa Valley. In 1999, Arietta made both a Merlot (92 points, $75) and a Cabernet Franc-Merlot blend (92, $75) that were dense, earthy and concentrated. Winemakers were favored by a growing season that saw a long, cool, drawn-out spring and summer of nearly ideal growing conditions, with seasonal change slowing to a snail's pace in October, allowing ideal ripening and harvesting at optimum ripeness, Kongsgaard says.

After a mixed 1998 vintage marked by many herbal, tannic wines, the 1999s were, says Steve Reeder of Chateau St. Jean, "like a breath of fresh air." They are much riper, much more complex and flavorful, and far more interesting. This vintage should help steady Merlot's quirky reputation because it shows how good the wines can be. The best 1999 bottlings cast Merlot as a complex and distinctive wine that shares many characteristics with Cabernet Sauvignon, including flavors, intensity, structure and aging potential.

The Pahlmeyer Napa Valley Merlot (94, $80) is my top-rated 1999. It is an enormously rich, multifaceted wine, very ripe and concentrated, with lots of depth and dimension to the flavors. It comes from three vineyards located in different parts of the valley. One source is Thorvilos Vineyard, which is co-owned by Ric Forman and David Abreu and planted at the base of Howell Mountain. A second source is Napanook in Yountville, which is owned by and is the source of grapes for Dominus. The third is a property in Carneros that Jayson Pahlmeyer describes as "the ugliest vineyard you've ever seen, but it grows wonderful grapes. It's what the French call terroir -- a perfect place for Merlot."

Three other Napa wines hit the 93-point mark in 1999: Duckhorn Estate Grown ($80), a dense earthy wine; Pride Claret Reserve, a Merlot-Cabernet blend that showcases ripe, plump fruit ($110); and von Strasser Diamond Mountain Sori Bricco Vineyard ($60), a well-structured, mountain-grown effort. From 2000, the Hartwell Stags Leap District 2000 (93, $60) also is stunning, with its depth, richness and purity of ripe flavors. Shafer too made a strong comeback in 2000 (92, $39), bottling a plush, multilayered wine.

With Merlot, you have to pay for quality. Over the past year, we tasted nearly 250 Merlots, with the lion's share, almost 180 wines, coming from the 1999 vintage. Noticeably absent from this group are great buys. There are few values on the scale of the Chateau Souverain Alexander Valley 1999 (92 points), an elegant, supple, harmonious wine that retails for just $17. Another good buy is the Luna Napa 1999 (91, $32), also made by Kongsgaard. Lambert Bridge Sonoma County 1999 (89, $24) is another excellent value. But be prepared to pay upwards of $35 or $40 for most of the top wines. Still, the quality of the vintage is deep, as there are dozens of wines that scored 88 or 89 points; these wines are close to outstanding, and many just need time in the bottle to develop more complexity or harmony.

One reason Merlot is expensive is that it's a much more difficult grape to grow than Cabernet, and quality from year to year is far more variable. It typically produces three or four great vintages a decade, whereas Cabernet in Napa can make great wines in seven or eight. "You can make a 90-point Cabernet even if it's not a great vineyard," explains Kongsgaard, a Napa native who has been making wine in the valley for 35 years. Great Merlot, however, only comes from select, carefully managed sites.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Merlot caught fire with consumers looking for something new and different to drink. They found the name easy to pronounce and many of the wines supple and charming. Many of the early Merlot producers -- Duckhorn, Shafer and St. Francis, for example -- made sumptuous wines, inspiring other wineries to follow their lead, hoping to cash in on Merlot's newfound fame.

As the wine gained popularity, however, vineyard plantings escalated, leading to a flood of mediocre wines. By the mid-1990s, Merlot's popularity had peaked; now, it is fighting for respectability, challenged in the red wine category by Pinot Noir and Syrah. "This industry has a tendency to overdo things," admits Bob Foley of Pride Mountain Vineyards in St. Helena, referring to the Merlot boom. "Clearly, the pendulum has swung the other way."

"If you grow [Merlot] in the wrong place, it's not only weak wine, it's awful," adds Kongsgaard. Instead of rich currant, blackberry, herb and earthy flavors that characterize the world-class Merlots, Kongsgaard says, Merlot rooted in the wrong site produces thin, weedy, vegetal, even asparaguslike flavors, with coarse texture.

What usually sets Merlot apart from Cabernet -- and makes it special -- is its supple texture and smooth tannins. Those attributes are why it is used so frequently as a blending partner with Cabernet, as they help round out Cabernet's sturdier tannins.

Many winemakers think Merlot is still riding Cabernet's coattails, which is fine, they say. Merlot is still a relative newcomer to California, and many of the best wines do share Cabernet's robust, full-blown personality.

"Merlot can have two distinct personalities," says Reeder. "It can be meek and it can be mighty." In 1999, might won out. Vintage 2000 should be very good but mixed, more in line with 1999 than with 1998.

Senior editor James Laube is Wine Spectator's lead taster on California wines.

Top-Scoring California Merlot

Wine Score Price
PAHLMEYER Merlot Napa Valley 1999 94 $80
Rich, deep and concentrated, with currant, blackberry, raspberry and wild berry flavors and well-integrated tannins.
DUCKHORN Merlot Napa Valley Estate Grown 1999 93 $80
Layers of seductive smoke, mocha, and currant aromas and flavors. Finishes in a rich, seamless aftertaste.
HARTWELL Merlot Stags Leap District 2000 93 $60
Complex, with juicy currant, blackberry, mocha, anise and cedary oak. Remarkably elegant and refined.
PRIDE Claret Reserve Napa Valley 1999 93 $110
Rich, dark fruit aromas, with currant, black cherry, mocha, sandalwood and cherry flavors that are intense on the finish.
VON STRASSER Sori Bricco Vineyard Diamond Mountain 1999 93 $60
Dark, chewy currant, earth, tobacco, cedar and mocha flavors push through on a focused finish.
ARIETTA Merlot Napa Valley 1999 92 $75
Full-bodied, with excellent structure and a solid core of earthy currant, herb, cedar, pencil lead and mineral flavors.
BARNETT Merlot Spring Mountain District 1999 92 $45
Appealing currant, tobacco, and toasty oak, with hints of anise, black cherry and mocha. Long, complex finish.
CHATEAU SOUVERAIN Merlot Alexander Valley 1999 92 $17
Rich and spicy, with exotic chocolate, black cherry, plum, nutmeg and mocha-scented oak.
DUCKHORN Merlot Napa Valley Three Palms Vineyard 1999 92 $70
Smooth and harmonious with currant, herb, tobacco and light oak. Elegant and well-crafted.
ETUDE Merlot Napa Valley 1999 92 $48
Delivers gorgeous currant, mocha, blackberry and black cherry flavors and a long, intense finish.
JADE MOUNTAIN Merlot Mount Veeder Paras Vineyard 1999 92 $50
A focused band of currant, spice, blackberry, plum and raspberry flavors, with a zingy finish.
SELENE Merlot Napa Valley 1999 92 $42
Spicy currant, blackberry, mocha, earth and clay notes, finishing with great length and complexity.
SHAFER Merlot Napa Valley 2000 92 $39
Smooth-textured, with polished currant, mocha, cranberry and cherry, touches of tobacco, coffee and spice.
S. ANDERSON Merlot Stags Leap District SAV Reserve 1999 91 $48
Ripe, rich and intense, with layers of currant, tobacco, cherry, cranberry, anise and cedar. Long, integrated finish.
CHATEAU ST. JEAN Merlot Sonoma County Reserve 1997 91 $90
Ripe, rich, well-focused currant, plum and blackberry flavors, with touches of anise, sage, mineral, mocha and cedar.
FLORA SPRINGS Merlot Napa Valley Windfall Vineyard 1999 91 $50
Seductive, with toasty, vanilla-scented oak, a ripe, juicy core of plum, cherry and wild berry and a long, sophisticated finish.
LUNA Merlot Napa Valley 1999 91 $32
Waves of ripe, supple coffee, currant, black cherry and anise flavors, finishing with dense tannins.
JOSEPH PHELPS Merlot Napa Valley 1999 91 $42
Dark, rich and plush, with spicy currant, mocha-hazelnut, wild berry and herb flavors. Long, complex aftertaste.
PRIDE Merlot Napa-Sonoma Counties 2000 91 $48
Dusty cedar and pencil shaving aromas lead to rich currant and blackberry flavors and a long, complex aftertaste.
SELENE Merlot Napa Valley Blackbird Vineyards 1999 91 $48
Ripe, rich, black cherry, currant, anise and wild plum flavors. Holds its tight focus on the long, complex aftertaste.
VINE CLIFF Merlot Napa Valley Reserve 1999 91 $50
Ripe, rich and spicy, with currant, plum and black cherry flavors, plus herb, tobacco, cranberry. Persistent finish.

Smart Buys in California Merlot

Wine Score Price
LAMBERT BRIDGE Merlot Sonoma County 1999 89 $24
Herb, chocolate, coffee, leather, blackberry and currant aromas and flavors. Smooth texture and long finish.
PEZZI KING Merlot Sonoma County Susie's Reserve 1999 89 $24
Rich, with black cherry, plum and chocolaty flavors. Offers wonderful depth and complexity, with plush tannins.
CARMENET Merlot North Coast Dynamite Vineyards 2000 88 $18
Supple in texture, with ripe plum, herb, currant, game and cherry notes, holding its flavor and focus.
CHAPPELLET Merlot Napa Valley 1999 88 $24
Tightly wound, and tannic, with rich currant, chocolate, mocha and herb and firm tannins.
CHATEAU ST. JEAN Merlot Sonoma County 1999 88 $25
Rich and complex, with currant, blackberry, plum, cedar and spice. Turns elegant and polished, with firm yet supple tannins.
CLOS DU VAL Merlot Napa Valley 1999 88 $25
Complex currant, herb, rhubarb and black cherry aromas lead to similar flavors in a rich, focused, fruit-packed style.
FRANCISCAN OAKVILLE ESTATE Merlot Napa Valley 1999 88 $22
Spreads out plenty of ripe, tasty flavors, with a core of currant, blackberry and cherry and toasty, cedary oak.
MURPHY-GOODE Merlot Alexander Valley 1999 88 $19
Ripe, rich black cherry, cola, herb and sarsaparilla flavors, with firm, well-integrated tannins on the finish.
PINE RIDGE Merlot Napa Valley Carneros Estate 1999 88 $25
Wonderful balance, dark and rich, its grapey, beefy, leathery currant flavors supple and focused, with silky tannins.
STERLING Merlot Napa Valley 1999 88 $22
Ripe, well-centered plum, currant and black cherry flavors, with fine, integrated tannins and pretty oak shadings.
TRENTADUE Merlot Alexander Valley 1999 88 $20
Dark, rich, black currant, plum and chocolate flavors are nicely accented by generous toasty oak and ripe, firm tannins.

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