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Tasting Note

Posted January 17, 2013 Delicately balances a deep structure with rich and supple fruit, showing red currant and cedar aromas and layered flavors of black cherry, tomato leaf and mineral. Tannins suggest this will bloom further with time.

And the answer is...


We can quickly eliminate Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. Pinot is typically more elegant and sleek than the wine described and shows cherry or raspberry fruit. Zinfandel’s telltale ripeness and zestiness are also missing.

Petite Sirah is typically a tannic wine with deep blueberry and tar notes, so we can eliminate that as well. That leaves us with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Cabernet Sauvignon is close but black currant is more common than red, and normally the tannin structure would be more pronounced. That narrows it to Merlot because of its rich and supple fruit, and the variety’s characteristic herbal note, such as tomato leaf.

This is a Merlot.


Right off the bat we can eliminate Oregon and Portugal. Neither is known for producing Merlot. Oregon’s specialty red grape is Pinot Noir, while Portuguese winemakers prefer local red varieties such as Touriga Nacional.

That leaves California, Chile and France. Merlot is best-known in France for its home among Bordeaux's Right Bank appellations such as Pomerol and St.-Emilion. But it’s most often blended with other red grape varieties in Bordeaux (with a few notable exceptions), and this holds true for other wine regions in France where Merlot is grown, so we can move on. In Chile, except for a handful of key producers, Merlot tends to produce inexpensive and juicy wines, not built for the cellar. This leaves California.

This Merlot is from California.


California Merlot is generally made for short-term drinking, and because the note mentions that the wine has enough structure and tannins to warrant cellaring, we can cross off the two oldest categories—this wine is still on the younger side. Yet even in California, Bordeaux varieties such as Merlot generally need to age at least a year or two before release, so that leaves us with only one category.

This Merlot is from the 2009 vintage, making it four years old.


Since we know this Merlot is from California, we have three appellations to consider. Carneros sits along the southern border of both Napa and Sonoma counties in a cool area influenced by wind and fog from the nearby San Pablo Bay. While a handful of growers have found success with Merlot, the region is largely devoted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

On the other hand, Alexander Valley and Napa Valley are two regions known for Merlot. Alexander is a long and narrow valley that stretches along the northeastern edge of Sonoma County. Summer days can be quite warm, especially at the northern tip, but the evenings cool dramatically. A few vineyards planted in the mountains can produce full-bodied wines, but Merlots from Alexander Valley are known for their supple, rich texture and soft tannins.

Now we’re down to Napa Valley, which is increasingly recognized as California’s hot spot for Merlot. Notes of red currant and tomato leaf are typical of Merlots from this area and more significant are the comments about richness and "deep structure." Both are classic descriptors used to express the balance and complexity found in Napa Merlots.

This Merlot is from Napa Valley.


It’s the Duckhorn Merlot Napa Valley Three Palms Vineyard 2009, which was rated 92 points in the Nov. 15, 2012, issue of Wine Spectator. It retails for $85, and 2,259 cases were made. For more information, see my California Merlot tasting report in the Nov. 30, 2012, issue.

—Tim Fish, associate editor

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