Tasting Wine: Encouraging words about merlot

In the last five years, merlot has become a pariah grape. It was bashed in “Sideways,” shunned by wine geeks (not all, to be fair) and supplanted by pinot noir as the new “must drink” wine grape.

I do understand the merlot backlash. The truth is, in the early and mid 1990s when merlot started to come on strong, it was viewed by many as being a kind of “cabernet light.” Full-bodied with some though not all of the same flavors as cabernet sauvignon, it is inherently less tannic, making for a smoother ride on the palate.

The problem, then, was that some folks started to make merlot as if it were cabernet sauvignon, doing whatever they could to extract tannin. Others chose another route of just accentuating the fruit, making innocuous yet boring versions of the wine.

While Havens and a few others have always made merlot that has distinction, the ideaof a California merlot with a distinct personality was never fully realized.

I’ve tried several merlots during the last few months that are encouraging. Here are some of my favorites:

Stubbs Merlot, 2005 (Marin County): Organically made in west Marin, this wine is a very unexpected surprise. Medium-bodied with plump berry, plum fruits, a little spice and bright acidity, it is hugely pleasant. The irony here is that winemaker Dan Goldfield is well-known for his expertise with pinot noir and indeed, Stubbs pinot noir is very enjoyable. For me, though, the merlot is the more intriguing wine. Suggested retail: $32

Cafaro Cellars “Emily Elizabeth” Merlot, 2004 (Napa Valley): Joe Cafaro started Cafaro Cellars in 1986 and 10 years later purchased and planted his own vineyard south of the Stags’ Leap district. Named after his daughter, this wine is full-bodied yet not overbearing with black fruits, a hint of unsweetened chocolate, spicy oak and firm acidity. Suggested retail: $22

Rancho Sisquoc Merlot, Flood Family Vineyards, 2005 (Santa Barbara County): This understated producer on the central coast puts out some of the most interesting wines (i.e. eclectic with good quality) in California, and the merlot is tried and true. With aromas of chocolate-covered cherries, vanilla and notes of cedar, plum and dark berry fruit, it’s not flashy, but it grabs attention. Suggested retail: $20

Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.

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