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Review: Merlot Round-up – Top Wine Picks

Written By | Oct 4, 2013

SEATTLE, October 4, 2013 — The season of “Fall Food” is upon us. Think succulent meats, such as beef pot-roast, pork tenderloin, prime rib, and duck as well as the fresh game brought in by those who hunt. Merlot has an ample amount of dark fruit and earthy components that tend to go so well with the foods of this beautiful season.

To complete the Fall Table several Merlots can be recommended. These are what may be described as “sexy” Merlots, available all at various price levels for a range of budgets and tastes.

Twitter crazes, such as the #MerlotMe campaign last month, may come and go. Still, it is always a great time for Merlot. This noble varietal makes up some of the best wines in the world out of Bordeaux and here in the New World. The two leaders in production and quality for Merlot are Washington State and California; between the two of them, find astonishing world-class Merlot.

Washington Merlot:

2010 Chateau Ste. Michelle Cold Creek Merlot – $16:
On the nose: Notes of cola, oak, blackberry, boysenberry and spiced blueberry. Also hints of vanilla, cocoa and cigar.

On the palate: A wine that clearly exhibits a lot of oakiness on the nose and palate. It’s a wine that easily caters to those who appreciate the notes of vanilla and spiced cocoa. For a 2010 vintage out of Washington State, there should be more acidity poking through. Overall, a wine that appeals to those who are in love with oak.

2010 Chateau Ste. Michelle Ethos Reserve Merlot – $45:
On the nose: Lightly toasted blackberries, blueberry, peppercorn, star anise, forest floor, bramble, smoked caramel and violet.

On the palate: A wine that is super young and tight right now but opens up nicely with some decant time. Firm tannins, dark fruits, bitter chocolate with enough acidity to chomp through most earthy dishes. It’s interesting to note the 15.2% alcohol, considering that the 2010 vintage in Washington was such a cool one. This can be attributed to the warmth of the Cold Creek Vineyard compared to other vineyards and that they allowed the grapes to ripen longer.

2012 Charles Smith Velvet Devil Merlot: $18
On the nose: Ripe blackberries and blueberries for days. Laced with hints of cocoa, vanilla, turmeric, leather glove, pepper and clove.

On the palate: A merlot that has tons of fruit and body but very little acidity. This is a wine that caters to those who prefer a heavy oak influence. Lush flavors all the way through.

2008 Five Star Cellars Merlot – $28:
On the nose: Cocoa-laced plum/blackberry sauce with notes of old shoe leather, tobacco and spice. There are also notes of black licorice, lightly toasted vanilla and shoe polish.

On the palate: Easily a Merlot that will not leave a lacking sense on the palate. Gorgeous notes of dark fruit, spice, fennel, leather, dark chocolate and tobacco abound. Soft tannins, solid fruit and enough acidity to keep things solid across the entire palate make this a very stellar Merlot for the money.

2009 Gifford Herlinger Merlot – $27:
On the nose: Blackberry, marionberry, cigar, bramble, plum sauce, peppercorn and toast.

On the palate: A solid, though very young, Merlot that is showing nicely for now with solid fruit, acid and finish. It should improve with another 3-5 years in the bottle.

2011 JM Cellars Merlot – $25
On the nose: Dried cherries, peppercorn, gym sock, bramble, raspberry, a hint of Big League Chew Bubblegum, Twizzlers and pomegranate.

On the palate: A very balanced mouth feel with good acids, which are indicative of the 2011 vintage in Washington and tannin. It does have a strong fruit taste on the initial attack but it stays “in-check” for the entire duration of the taste. A good effort for the money.

2010 K Merlot Stoneridge Vineyard – $45:
On the nose: Bramble, black currant, spice, tobacco, coffee and leather.

On the palate: A wine that needs some time to open up but once it does, you’ll be rewarded with flavors of spiced black currant, black plum, pepper, tobacco leaf and old leather shoe.

2011 Leonetti Cellar Merlot – $90:
On the nose: Dirty plums, black raspberry, cola, anise, blackberry and a hint of blue berry.

On the palate: 2011 was a tough year for the Walla Walla valley to get ripe as it was one of the coolest vintages on record. This wine reflects that challenge but does bring some interesting character to the party. Flavors of black fruit, ground coffee, bitter chocolate, licorice and spice abound. Good acidity and some decent fruit components lead to a good finish. Drink now after a long decant time, or hold for 8-12 years.

2010 Long Shadows Vintners Pedestal Merlot – $50:
On the nose:  Blackberry, pepper, cigar, dark chocolate, bramble and spice.

On the palate: Sublime structure, great mouthfeel, fruit acid and tannin to be found here. This is a sturdy Merlot that exhibits a very good sense of structure with a solid mix of fruit, acid and tannin. This wine is one that has a great deal of complexity and a finish that lingers.

2009 Nelms Road Merlot $24:
On the nose: Spiced-blackened plums, blackberry and bramble. I also get a bit of graham cracker action, vanilla, fresh-tanned leather, cigar smoke, black currant and peppercorns.

On the palate: At 16.2% alcohol, it’s surprising how balanced this wine really is. There’s still some fruit and acidity strong enough to “punch through” that alcohol level. This is a wine that begs for blackened pork chops or even a peppercorned steak.

2010 Northstar Walla Walla Valley Merlot – $50:
On the nose: Blackened plum sauce, bramble, blackberry, dark chocolate, violet, cola, a hint of that “new car smell”, licorice and pink peppercorns.

On the palate: This is a wine that has it all, fruit, acid and solid tannin structure. This wine is still very young and the firm tannins grip your tongue and the sides of the mouth and ride them like a bucking bronco. Decant this wine a few hours or lay it down for 6-10 more years and they’re very lush. Good finish and a solid Merlot for the money.

2010 Spring Valley Mule Skinner Merlot – $45:
On the nose: Blueberry, blackberry, leather-bound book, cassis, forest floor, licorice and dark chocolate.

On the palate: A merlot that rewards the palate with very nice acidity, dark plum, spice, blueberry and bitter chocolate. Very nice acidity with a finish that begs for a peppercorned steak in a reduction sauce made from this wine.

2009 Tulpen Merlot Columbia Valley – $34:
On the nose:  Cola-soaked cherries, juniper, currant, pipe tobacco, cocoa powder, “Christmas spice,” and a bit of clove, nutmeg and cinnamon. Augmenting notes of plums and black raspberry.

On the palate: This is easily one of the most “under the radar” Merlots to be had right now. At $34, it’s a complete no-brainer and should be highly sought by wine lovers everywhere. It has superior complexity, strong oak integration and a finish to die for.

2010 Woodward Canyon Merlot – $44:
On the nose: Cramini mushrooms, black raspberry, blackberry, bramble, forest floor, fresh herbs and a hint of lavender.

On the palate: An inky Merlot that showcases note of blackberry, roasted coffee beans, licorice, dark chocolate, tobacco, leather and well-integrated tannins. The mid palate has good acidity and tannins which lead into a lingering finish. Drink now or hold for 5-9 years.

California Merlot:

2009 Bolen Merlot – $85:
On the nose: Notes of blackberry, dark chocolate, vanilla, spice, peppercorns, marionberry, leather and tobacco.

On the palate: A very memorable Merlot that has a tremendously “chewy” mouthfeel. Gorgeous flavors of cocoa powder, ink, blackberry, black plum, old leather and blueberry embrace your tongue like a long, lost lover. The finish entices you to keep going back.

2011 Buena Vista Carneros – $25:
On the nose: Tart blackberry, peppercorn, veraciousness, prunes and golden raisins with a hint of leather.

On the palate: Herb-wrapped blackberries and bramble with a hint of rhubarb brine. While still a bit on the tart side of the flavor spectrum, it’s a Merlot that’s very food friendly as it has cutting acidity with tannins that should mellow out in a few more years of bottle age.

2011 Decoy Merlot – $25:
On the nose: An interesting mix of black raspberry, plum, forest floor, a hint of rosemary, licorice, star anise and peppercorn.

On the palate: A merlot that comes across a bit “cab-like” with a mix of cherry and black raspberry right off the bat. But that’s closely followed with notes of bramble, blackberry and marionberry with spiced plum. Good acid and tannins. The finish could hang out just a tad bit longer.

2010 Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard – $90:
On the nose: Cigar box, blackberry, plums, dark chocolate, leather glove and black cherry.

On the palate: A sublime Merlot experience that exhibits all of the classic flavors we love about this grape. Deep, dark fruit like blackberry, black plum, currant, cigar smoke and dark chocolate-covered black cherries. The mouthfeel, tannins and finish on this wine rock. A great wine at its price point. Drink now or hold for 12-18 years.

2009 Fields Merlot – $28:
On the nose: Black plums, hoisin sauce, peppercorn, old shoe leather, star anise, licorice, tobacco and dark chocolate.

On the palate: A very luscious merlot reminds how good this grape can be when grown in California. It invites flavors of plums, blackberries, bramble, ash, dark chocolate and leather. The mid palate has a very pleasant transition with hints of lavender that lead to a warm, inviting finish.

2010 Fields Merlot – $28:
On the nose: Lightly charred blackberry, marionberry, dark chocolate, leather, vanilla, bramble and piecrust.

On the palate: A beautifully young merlot that exhibits good acids, fruit and finish. It’s a nice example of how wonderful California Merlot can be, even at a very young age. Drink now after an hour decant or hold for 10-12 years.

2011 Frog’s Leap Rutherford Merlot – $38:
On the nose: Black licorice-laced black cherry with hints of dusty blackberries, raspberries, star anise, leather strap and cocoa powder.

On the palate: A good mix here of dark fruits with peppered dark cocoa and licorice. Lush fruit at mid palate leads into a lingering finish of vanilla, black cherry and leather.

2010 Peju Merlot – $35:
On the nose: Spiced blackberry, loganberry, black licorice, Mexican chocolate, shoe polish, leather and cigar wrapper.

On the palate: A nice effort showcasing good fruit, tannin and acidity, but this wine has a relatively short finish. Very nice black fruits, spice, leather and chocolate.

2011 Plumpjack Merlot – $55:
On the nose: Dried cranberry, toast, anise, peppercorn, tart raspberry, chai, coffee and black raspberry.

On the palate: This is an interesting Merlot that seems more Pinot Noir-like on the nose with the dried cranberry and smoky notes coming through. Good fruit and tannin here with some pretty solid acids too boot. In fact, this is a very low pH wine that should age well for 12-18 years.

2010 Raymond Napa Valley Merlot – $24:
On the nose: Licorice, blackberry, bramble, dirt, black cherry, baseball mitt, black cherry, cola and dark cocoa.

On the palate: An interesting wine in that it has so much of what makes Merlot sexy – dark fruit, some earthiness and hints of spice. Good lush fruit, acids and tannin, however, the finish comes across as slightly more disjointed than it should be. That aspect should hopefully come together better with more time in the bottle.

2011 Spellbound Merlot – $16:
On the nose: Black currant, blackberry compote, plum sauce reduction, plus a hint of tar bubble, cassis and leather.

On the palate: A lush merlot that has a great deal of fruit, mouthfeel and texture. Good dark fruit notes with a bit of fig and dried plums with leather and dark chocolate. A very tasty Merlot for the money and would be an easy pick for those on a more modest budget.

2009 Stag’s Leap Napa Valley Merlot – $45:
On the nose: Caramel-vanilla-laced blackened fruit. Plums, blackberries and black raspberry are all in tow.

On the palate: Approachable, but still youthful, tannins really speak to the ageability of this wine. It delivers quite the knock-out punch as a California Merlot and is hands-down one of the best in its respective price range.

2010 St. Supery Rutherford Merlot – $50:
On the nose: Very ripe plums, dusty lavender, fresh herbs, vanilla, chocolate, clay and a nice hint of forest floor funk.

On the palate: Take some blackberries and plums, drag them through some red dirt and that’s what you have going on at the start of this wine. It has earth, dark fruit, dark chocolate, leather glove and “funk.” Super tight tannins, however, produce a high pucker-factor that may require a decanting of this bad boy for 2-4 hours. Better yet, let it age another few more years.

2010 Trefethen Merlot – $38:
On the nose: Black licorice, plums, tar, tobacco and dark cocoa. Shaved fennel, cassis, jicama, a hint of mushroom funk and cigar wrapper.

On the palate: A gorgeous Merlot that embodies flavors of dirty cherries, dark plums, black currant, blackberry compote, fig and dark chocolate. A beautiful wine that has nice acid tannin and fruity influence with a finish that hangs out a long time. Drink now or hold another 8-10 years.

Top picks:

$30 and under:
2008 Five Star Cellars Merlot
2011 Spellbound Merlot
2009 Fields Merlot

2009 Tulpen Merlot
2010 Long Shadows Pedestal Merlot
2010 Northstar Walla Walla Valley

2009 Bolen Merlot
2010 Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard
2009 Stag’ Leap Cellars Napa Valley

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Duane Pemberton

Duane Pemberton is a lifestyle writer and CDNs Auto Editor. Pemberton loves anything that helps bring people together which is why he writes about food, wine, cars, and travel.