I am a proud, but picky Merlot drinker and I have stoically supported the varietal, especially after the movie, “Sideways,” gave the grape such a black, er, purple eye.
The conditions are perfect in eastern Washington State to grow the dark-blue-colored grape. When it is cultivated properly, the wine produced is lush and velvety, a little soft, and can be as silky and sexy as a great Oregon Pinot Noir. I’ve generally found that Merlot falls into three styles—a fruitier style with little tannins, a middle-of-the-road wine expressing fruit and some tannic structure, and a beefy, highly tannic style that stands up to a classic Cabernet Sauvignon.
Because it is so prolific in the vineyard, winemakers tended to over-produce the grape and the resulting wines were cheap, thin and offered little character. In some respects, those California merlots were the target of Myles disgust in “Sideways.”
I’ve tasted the grapes on the vine and know how great this fruit can be, especially in the hands of a skilled winemaker. In fact, a few years ago, I interviewed Zelma Long (at right,) a terrific winemaker and consultant who travels globally in her consulting business. She also believes that Washington State grows some of the best Merlot in the world (http://www.northwest-wine.com/zelma-long.html).
About five or six years ago, I noticed that some wineries were no longer offering Merlot from their portfolios, such as Quilceda Creek and Andrew Will. The grapes are used in many of the top blends, but I thought it odd that the grape that really put Washington State on the wine map had suddenly taken a side role, a backseat to the more preferred Cabernet.
Last night, I opened a bottle of Abeja’s 2009 Merlot, made by John Abbott in Walla Walla and wanted to scream, “Merlot is Back Baby!” Abbott also stopped making Merlot, even though he produced some very nice versions when he was the winemaker at Canoe Ridge. While perusing through a wine shop with a friend recently, I spotted the Abeja and immediately bought it.
Abbott calls it a “gentle giant,” and I would agree. It has beautiful structure and classic descriptors for Merlot—black cherries, dark plums, chocolate and espresso, but this wine also has an earthiness and subtle wood flavors that make it something more unique and delicious. It is achingly good with food and a prime example of why winemakers should be embracing this variety as a star instead of a bit player.