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Merlot strikes back!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

In 2004 the movie Sideways seemingly dealt a deathblow to Merlot for a generation of wine drinkers. In the movie, the character Myles famously states, “If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any f#!ing Merlot!” Merlot sales subsequently dropped and Pinot Noir, the character’s preferred wine, correspondingly rose.

Why did Myles malign merlot? With good reason. Merlot, especially when made cheaply and at high volume, can be light, fruity and inoffensive – but also entirely uninteresting. There are millions of gallons Merlot made in a style that is essentially a red wine for white wine drinkers.

Washington State was not immune from the so-called ‘Sideways effect.’ For many years Merlot was the grape that Washington was looking to hang its hat on. Washington Merlot is a different beast than that found to the south in California. Here the grape can be as tannic if not more tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon while retaining the fresh red fruit flavors the grape is known for.

As Washington looked to establish an identity for itself around a particular varietal, Merlot seemed an obvious choice. Once things went Sideways, the search for a signature varietal continued.

Although most say the Sideways effect was temporary in terms of sales, Merlot still has a big hill to climb to get back to respectability. Consumers now think they aren’t supposed to like Merlot, otherwise they are unsophisticated. To wit, I have repeatedly blind tasted out-of-town friends on Washington State Merlot. They have in almost all cases thought that the wine was Cabernet Sauvignon (a cool grape) and liked it – until I told them that it was Merlot (a not so cool grape). Then their enjoyment suddenly waned.

With a lot of mediocre wine out there on the shelves, the only way for Merlot to make a comeback in Washington and elsewhere is for the wines themselves to change people’s minds one bottle at a time. The 2007 Merlot releases from Northstar Winery seem destined to do just that.

Northstar is part of Ste Michelle Wine Estates’ ‘string of pearls.’ The winery was founded in 1994 with the goal of creating the world’s best Merlot. While the winery has had numerous successful and critically acclaimed vintages, the 2007 vintage wines perhaps reach the closest to these aspirations.

2007 was a spectacular vintage in Washington State where all of the elements lined up to produce top quality Merlot. The weather was hot and even and the growing season was long. In addition to exceptional growing conditions, several changes were made at Northstar that also seem to have improved the resulting wines.

This was the first vintage Northstar used a sorting table, which winemaker David Merfeld said both cleaned up the fruit and allowed him to do whole berry fermentation on 40-60% of the grapes. Merfeld also dialed back the oak and kept the fermentation temperatures a bit lower with the goal of softening up the tannins.

Northstar makes two Merlot bottlings each year – one from the Columbia Valley and one from the Walla Walla Valley. Merfeld describes these wines as, “two different animals.” The Columbia Valley offering is designed to be more crisp and dense, the Walla Walla Valley wine more sleek and seductive.

For each wine, Northstar gets the pick of the litter from Chateau Ste. Michelle’s extensive vineyard sources. The Columbia Valley Merlot comes from 14 separate vineyards and 18 different blocks within these vineyards. The 2007 Walla Walla Valley offering includes Merlot from Anna Marie Vineyard, near Seven Hills, and Loess, one of Leonetti’s estate vineyards.

Northstar always tries to walk a balance beam between the here-and-now crowd and those looking for long-term cellar potential. Merfeld says, “I think we nailed it in 2007.”

Nail it the winery did. These are not your mother’s Merlots. The 2007 Northstar Merlots are both muscular, opulent, hedonistic wines, showing extremely well now but promising to thrive for many years in the cellar. The Walla Walla Valley offering in particular is a stunner that is bound to change a lot of minds about Merlot. The integration of tannins in these wines is exceptional. Both are about as good as it gets from Washington - or anywhere else for that matter. Taken together with other top offerings from around the state, they are proof positive that Washington Merlot at its best is simply too good to ignore.

Northstar Merlot Columbia Valley 2007 $40

Rating: * (Excellent) An aromatically appealing wine with incense, cherry, red currant, black fruit, whiffs of coconut, and mocha. Broad, tart, and lush on the palate with a muscular fruit profile and ripe, well-integrated, fine grained tannins. A deliciously long finish. 75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot. Aged 18 months in French oak (60% new). 14.7% alcohol. 11,500 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Northstar Merlot Walla Walla Valley 2007 $50

Rating: ** (Exceptional) Leaps from the glass with complex aromas of earth, black tea, black fruit, cranberry, raspberry, licorice, chocolate, spice, incense, and mocha. A thick, dense, muscular wine with rich fruit flavors and exceptionally well-integrated, silky tannins. Capped off by a hyper-extended finish. An exclamation point for the varietal that is bound to change a lot of minds about Merlot. 78% Merlot, 16% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 6% Petit Verdot. Aged 18 months in French oak (56% new). 14.7% alcohol. 400 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

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7 comments

  1. These are wonderful and very age-worthy examples of Washington Merlot. We had the 2000 Northstar Columbia Valley Merlot on the weekend which was delicious. A massive wine with an almost endless finish and beautiful bouquet. At age 11 it was singing, with years still in front of it.

     
  2. thewinegnome Says:
  3. Time and again I find myself leaving a tasting room in Washington State with a bottle of Merlot. Often, it seems to be the most balanced and "food friendly" wine produced around here and is often quite tannic as you said. Usually, the conversation shifts to discuss the damage done by the film "Sideways" for our poor little Merlot grape. It just goes to show the power of media that can sway our attitudes towards everything, regardless of whether it is true or not. Thank you for sharing this!!

     
  4. Rand Sealey Says:
  5. I'm going to have to check Northstar out. It looks like they've made great strides in the last couple of years.

     
  6. Rand, I'm interested to hear your thoughts. Very impressed with these two wines. I think Merfeld has done great things at the winery.

     
  7. Rand Sealey Says:
  8. I went to Northstar yesterday. I found the '07 Columbia Valley Merlot impressive. Also the '08 Walla Walla Valley Merlot and '08 C.V. Petit Verdot (both sold at winery only). They didn't have the WWV Merlot open for tasting, but I bought a bottle. More later!

     
  9. Rand Sealey Says:
  10. Correction: not the '08 WWV Merlot, but Cabernet Franc. The WWV Merlot is '07.

     
  11. Rand Sealey Says:
  12. I got around to tasting the '07 Northstar Walla Walla Valley Merlot and found it to be one of the best Merlots I have tasted from that vintage. It was deliciously svelte and seamless, yet deep and complex. I will be reviewing it and the '07 Columbia Valley bottling in the July issue of my Review of Washington Wines. I hope these wines will change people's minds about Merlot which seems to be out of fashion these days.

     

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