Tasting Fine Napa Valley Merlots

Attendees at the Masters of Merlot tasting seminar are, L-R Moderator Anthony Giglio, Chris Carpenter ( Mt. Brave/LaJota), Cleo Pahlmeyer, (Pahlmeyer), PJ Alviso (Duckhorn), Ted Edwards (Freemark Abbey). (Special to the Examiner/Lyle Norton)

At a recent “Masters of Merlot” event at the COPIA Center in Napa, winemaker Chris Carpenter, referenced the film, “Sideways,” when he said, “Miles had a problem with his ex-wife, not Merlot.”

Just as sales of men’s undershirts sharply declined when Clark Gable appeared bare-chested in the film, “It Happened One Night,” Miles Raymond’s declaration of “not drinking any @&%#ing merlot” created a setback to one of the most esteemed grape varieties in the world. Estimates place peak California merlot plantings at 60,000 acres and, after some recovery, it seems to have stabilized at 44,000 acres.

Ironically, “60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer’s 1991 segment, “The French Paradox” highlighted the health benefits of red wine and created a boom for all red varietals, including merlot.

Carpenter also added that while “Sideways” turned the Carneros to pinot noir, what survived were the sweet spots for merlot in the Napa Valley.

It makes sense that the Napa Valley, birthplace of California’s Bordeaux-style blends, would produce the finest Merlot releases. While cabernet sauvignon is still dominant, pioneer Napa Valley winemakers like Dan Duckhorn fell in love right-bank Bordeaux wines where merlot is king.

Duckhorn Vineyards has been the source of fine merlot wines for over 40 years. Vice President of Winegrowing P.J. Alviso recalled several stories, including the acquisition of the legendary Three Palms Vineyard, on the Silverado Trail, south of Calistoga, which produced the 2014 Duckhorn Vineyards Three Palms Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley ($98), Wine Spectator magazine’s 2017 Wine of the Year.

Alviso characterized the Three Palms Vineyard as an amazingly self-regulating site that includes fifty acres of low-yield merlot vines. The current 2015 Three Palms Merlot ($98) release had slate and berry aromas with complex flavors balanced with earthy elements on the finish. Duckhorn also produces a Napa Valley Merlot ($60) sourced from over fifty growing lots from numerous vintners.

Freemark Abbey is storied in California wine history because its vintage 1969 Cabernet Sauvignon and 1973 Chardonnay were both included in the 1976 Paris Tasting. Winemaker Ted Edwards shared that their first merlot release was the result of an abundant 1985 harvest. Plans to sell off the excess changed after sampling the quality and they have released merlot as a single varietal wine since.

Freemark Abbey produces a Napa Valley Merlot ($30),aged 16 months in French oak, with 11 percent added between cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, malbec and cabernet franc. However, the 2015 Freemark Abbey Merlot Bosche’ Vineyard ($60), with 99 percent merlot from the Rutherford district, expresses exceptional depth of flavor and aroma. It’s rich, concentrated flavors of black cherry combine with nuanced spice elements.

Known primarily for their Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red, President Cleo Pahlmeyer talked of her father Jayson’s switch from law to winemaking in pursuit of creating a “California Mouton,” referencing an iconic Bordeaux wine from Chateau Rothschild. She introduced the estate grown 2015 Pahlmeyer Merlot, Napa Valley ($85), sourced from vineyards at 2,000 feet elevation on Atlas Peak, describing it as drinking like a cabernet sauvignon.

In this impressive release, the aromas were timidly wild, structure was excellent and there was a slight perfume element to the flavors of black cherry and vanilla. As is often the case, the rich mouthfeel is credited to a late rain that reduced net yield by 30 percent.

Mt. Brave and LaJota Vineyard Co. winemaker Chris Carpenter described the challenges of mountain vineyards in dealing with rocky soils, angles to the sun and tree lines. He produced 250-300 cases of the 100 percent 2015 Mt. Brave Merlot, Mt. Veeder ($80) that had all the elements of an extraordinary wine with dark fruit and espresso flavors that lingered.

For LaJota, Carpenter delivers two fine merlot release from estate Howell Mountain vineyards in the town of Anqwin including the 2015 La Jota Vineyard Co. W.S. Keyes Merlot Howell Mountain ($150), awarded 96-points by Robert Parker, Jr. Sourced from old gnarly vines in what was described as the “most highly prized merlot vineyard in the country,” the Keyes Vineyard release was one of the finest and most complex merlots that

I have tasted from the color, bold flavors and mineral elements through the long finish.

The wine community has declared that merlot is back! Those of us who were fortunate to taste new releases from these five top Napa Valley wineries realize that it never left. I suggest that we selfishly make amends by drinking more merlot.

Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 15 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email him at sfewine@gmail.com.

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