Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Bottle shots by the producers and importers.

Merlot Grapes on the Vive

The 2021 “Judgment of New York”.

The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, also known to the oenophiles as the Judgment of Paris, was an event that changed the perception of California wines vs. Bordeaux vintages and positively influenced sales of bottles of California producers for year to come.

Merlot is a grape that, in conjunction with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah and a few other varieties, is used to produce Bordeaux-style blends in some of the more important viticultural areas. Merlot tends to be noticeably lower in tannins and acidity than Cabernet, with a much more voluptuous taste and, on the palate, provides lots of fruity deliciousness. It makes a lush and plummy, velvety wine that softens the more austere Cabernet, so it is also used as a blending grape in Europe, while in the Americas many producers create exceptional Merlot-dominated blends, especially in Chile and California. California’s Duckhorn boasts about being among the first producers of single-vineyard merlot in their Three Palms vineyard. The Hahn Family Estate (see California Wine article) grows its fruit in California’s central coast at the foot of the Saint Lucia Highlands, where the soil is gravelly and the air is cool and breezy and quite similar to the Bordeaux terroir.

In Bordeaux, Merlot is typically blended with a bit of Cabernet Franc – for example, it may make up the largest part of a St-Émilion; Château Le Dome, La Mondotte and Château l’Arrosse are three of the best wine-estate-Merlot producers in the region.

Much of the world's Merlot is grown in France, but it is also widely grown in north-east Italy, particularly in Friuli where it makes fleshy wines. Quality varies, from basic light red monovarietals to rich, dense barrique-aged wines, often blended with a bit of Sangiovese. Merlot is grown as a blending partner for Cabernet in Australia and New Zealand but few bottlings of real distinction have yet to emerge. South Africa has shown just how stunning an oak-aged Merlot from a warm climate can be.

Angelus Estate Red Wines 2

A few years ago, I even found a brilliant Merlot-dominated blend from the Angels Estate winery (previously known as Angelus Estate) in the Thracian Region of Bulgaria (see Golden Stallion story).

Montes Archangel Vineyard and press group

Chilean winemakers have found perfect spots for Merlot cultivation; Apalta in Colchagua Valley, Cachapoal Valley and Casablanca Valley as well as Peumo Valley, and the best-made examples exhibit obvious sweet fruit. Chilean Merlot is rarely as alcoholic and substantial as a California Merlot, but it has usually the aromas of a very good red Bordeaux. The most inspiring Chilean Merlot producers I have come across are Casa Lapostolle, whose Clos Apalta bottlings bring out a Pomerol-like opulence, Montes, Concha y Toro, Santa Ema, and the lower priced but still delicious Cousiño Macul.

My first Merlot tasting occasion was in the early 1960s, while I lived for a time in Paris, when John Mentzelopoulos invited me to visit Château Margaux that his family owned. They were experimenting with possibly bringing new blends to the market and that was my first wine-tasting experience. I don’t think they ever really marketed most of the barrel samples we tasted, but I loved many of the Merlot-dominated blends better than the more tannic and acidic Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated samples. Since then, I have experienced many visits to many wineries throughout Europe and the Americas that produce good Merlot-dominated wines.

Recently, going through my cellar, I found a number of Merlot-predominant bottles I’ve been ageing so I decided to try a tasting with the “gang of the usual suspects”, now that all of us have been vaccinated.

The “gang of the usual suspects” is a group of my friends whose palates I trust when it comes to evaluating wines. They are all retired, none (except for me) is a professional wine writer but, through the years, all have drunk many outstanding wines from the best wineries in the world. Their consensus, when wine-rating, usually comes within – plus or minus -- a point or two of professional wine tasters and writers.

Scallop in Kataifi

We usually get together at someone's home or apartment, have a very good meal – the way wine is supposed to be tasted not as a “slosh and spit” exercise – and then we decide on a rating for particular bottles. Some of the tastings are blind, but many others are not. In these tastings we use Riedle grape-specific glasses that many of us have accumulated through the years.   

One of the oldest bottles that I had was from  Château de Lavagnac, a 2010 Bordeaux Supérieur wine that is rather inexpensive for a Bordeaux bottle. It is made from 75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc and it is a rather typical Bordeaux blend.

Concha y Toro tasting station

An inexpensive but usually good bottle was the 2017 Casillero del Diablo from one of the premier Chilean wine producers, Concha y Toro. They have been making exceptional wines for the last 140 years. It is one of the winery’s workhorse brands and it is a silky, smooth wine with low astringency and an elegant, balanced finish. And from the same producer I still had the 2012 Marques de Casa Concha from their Peumo vineyard; a robust premium wine, with concentrated black-fruit aromas that shows spice and grapefruit accents. When young, the palate is rugged, with flavors of blackberry, spice, fig and dark chocolate at the finish; but by now it had considerably mellowed and was delicious.

Clos Apalta Casa Lapostolle

Casa Lapostolle, in Colchagua Valley’s El Condor de Apalta, is the love-child of Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle. A small, by Chilean standards, group of vineyards has the winery buried inside a hill overlooking one of the better plots, with an agrotourism Relais & Châteaux boutique property and tasting rooms at the top of the hill (the winery is gravity-fed where fruit is hand selected and destemmed at the top, softly pressed and then vinified and aged in large temperature-controlled barrels and barriques inside the hill).

Casa Lapostolle Carmenère Barique

The winemaker is Andrea León; in my humble opinion she has one of the better winemaking palates in Chile. They produce exceptional biodynamic wines based mainly on five grapes: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Carmenère, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Their 2014 Clos Apalta, was an organic wine made of 66% Carmenère, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Merlot. I have included this wine in the Merlot-dominated group because, in Chile, Carmenère tastes very much like a slightly spicier Merlot and for many years it was actually thought of and handled as a Merlot clone. The bottle we opened showed blackberry, plum, floral and cedar and cigar-box characteristics while the palate ended with a chocolaty taste and lapsang souchong aromas.

Montest Alpha Merlot with fried fish

Another age-worthy Merlot wine, I’m very fond of, is the Montes Alpha Merlot. Montes was founded in 1987 by Aurelio Montes and Douglas Murray with the aim of producing high-quality wines. Today, the company's vineyards span the length of the country, from Casablanca Valley in the north to Apalta in the south and they export bottles throughout the world. The Montes winery in Apalta is a state-of-the-art facility, where grapes are hand selected and destemmed at the roof of the building, gravity-fed to presses and fermenting barrels and aged in large cellars where tapes of Gregorian chants play day and night. Plums, figs and spicy notes of nutmeg and black pepper blend together with vanilla aromas from the French oak, along with dark chocolate, tobacco, and toasted nuts.

Oberon Merlot 2

The final wine was from California, an Oberon Merlot. The winery is in Napa Valley’s Oakville, and our sample was a young, mid priced bottling that surprised everyone with its velvety structure. Pure flavors of plum and black currant fruit are prominent, with chocolate and coffee notes rounding out the finish. The wine is finished with Syrah and Zinfandel (I don’t have component percentages), adding a touch of spice and firm acidity, perfect for grilled meats.

And the results of the tasting:

Clos Apalta took the top spot with 98 points. But, surprisingly, the Oberon Merlot took the second spot with a rating of 96, the same rating given to the Marques de Casa Concha. The Montes Alpha garnered 95 points. The Casillero del Diablo was rated at 90 points; the Château de Lavagnac’s bottle which, unfortunately, has been sitting in the cellar too long and had started to fade a bit, only took 87 points. A pity, because I had a bottle from the same case a couple years back and, I thought, it tasted considerably better.

To your health!

 

 

 

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