Is There A Difference Between Merlots? - Printable Version

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- Dpruett - 09-25-1999

Being new to wines, we typically enjoy Merlots at $10-$12 per bottle. At what price do you find a "great" Merlot that can be distinquished from the lower priced bottles? What is an example of a great Merlot?

- Thomas - 09-27-1999

That is the infinite question.

Great Merlots come from Bordeaux, California, Friuli (Italy), and a few upstart places. Perhaps you should get yourself a book about wine grapes and wine regions. Start with Jancis Robinson -- someone on the board can give you the titles to her books; don't have them handy right now.

- Tabby - 09-27-1999

Weeellll, how about starting off with "Jancis Robinson's Wine Course" (BBC Books, 1995), a superb book for the beginner (I recommend this book so often I reckon JR should start paying me commission! [img][/img]), or, to be more grape specific, try her "Vines, Grapes and Wines" (Mitchell Beazley, 1986).

- n144mann - 09-27-1999

I will second the Vines, Grapes and Wines recommend.

- Randy Caparoso - 09-27-1999

Well, I'm not exactly sure how Jancis will help you when you're walking into a store and facing a few thousand different bottles. She'll larn you about Merlot, but not how to pick'em.

For California ratings, there are number of good periodicals to read which also put related books you can find in your nearest good bookstore. The Wine Spectator, of course, as well as Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate and Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine.

For a paperback, for instance, The Connoisseurs' Handbook of the Wines of California and the Pacific Northwest (Alfred A. Knopf) put together by Norman Roby and Charles Olken is now in its third or fourth printing and update. These guys have been following California wine for years, and they can pretty much steer you to the best brands. As someone who's followed the scene for over 20 years myself, I can't really argue with their picks of the best California Merlot producers. Here are the ones I agree with, in roughly ascending order of greatness:

Beringer "Bancroft Ranch"
Lewis "Reserve"
Matanzas Creek
Chateau Ste. Michelle "Reserve"
Havens "Reserve"
St. Clement
St. Francis "Reserve"
Robert Sinskey "RSV"
Robert Mondavi

This is as good a shopping list to start with as any. Generally speaking, the top growths receive lavish care in the vineyard and winery; this fact, plus the great demand, have effectively pushed their retail prices into the $18 to $40 range. Are they worth it? Yes, if you really like the juicy, sumptuously layered, "hedonistic" (as Parker would put it) feel and flavor of the best Merlots. You certainly can find some nice Merlots for $8 to $15, but generally speaking you can expect to find half or less the flavor -- or sometimes more vegetal than fruit (for Merlot, you want a lush, black cherry flavor) impressions -- in those wines. That's the difference.

Of course, as with all things, there are exceptions. Smart shoppers, for instance, know that a Waterbrook or Taft Street at about $10-$12 and a Swanson at about $22 often offer just as much flavor and plush nugget-ness as a Duckhorn or Cafaro at $35-$40. Recently, I enjoyed a supple, succulent '96 di Lorimer ($17-$19) from Alexander Valley, and the '96 Voss ($15-$17) is an absolute jewel (dripping with velvety, red fruit flavors) for the price.

Imports are extremely up-and-down. People talk about Chilean Merlots being great values; but for $8 to $14, you get what you pay for. One of my favorites, for instance, is the Veramonte from Casablanca, which goes for only about $9. It is nice, soft, and fruity, but also a tad herbaceous (veering towards olives and crushed, green eucalyptus -- which is fine if you don't think about "cat pee').

My favorite import come from Italy. You can't go wrong, for instance, with a Falesco (about $11) or Stella (about $7), which are both made from a master Umbrian winemaker named Riccardo Cotarella. These wines are as luscious as anything you'll find for $10, $15 more. In other words, you usually get what you pay for; but if you keep your eyes and ears open at all times, you can find some majorly great exceptions.

So what are waiting for? Go out and shop!

- misterjive - 09-27-1999

I couldn't agree with you more about the Veramonte, Randy (in fact, see my comment of 9/23 in "Wines Without a Category" folder). And as far as pricing and greatness relate, I would say that while many South American Merlots appear and taste like $9 bottle, so do many California Merlots priced at $12-20. A $9 bottle of Errazuriz, Finca Flichman, or Santa Rita clearly beats many $12-20 California "battling varietal" producers at their own game. As I have noted on this bulletin board before, I tell friends that Flichman Malbec (until recently $3.99 at my favorite wine store), "drinks like a twenty-dollar bottle of wine." What I mean when I say this is a $20 bottle of CALIFORNIA wine.

I agree with all, I am sure, on the excellence of the above list. The folks at Chateau Ste Michelle probably resent being stuck in a list of "top California producers," but otherwise the list is dead-on. Ravenswood single vineyard selections, Dry Creek Reserve, and even KJ Grand Reserve (in the great vintages) deserve to be on this list, too.

On a pricing note, I would say that you can't make this list for under $26 in nearly any marketplace. Indeed, many of these of these wines typically start at around $40. The challenge, it would seem, is to find the fantastic Californian Merlot for $20-24!

Finally, to plug Jancis one more time, I would recommend to anyone on the planet who does not have it to pick up a copy of the Robinson-edited OXFORD COMPANION TO WINE. At roughly $60, it is easily worth ten bottles of Chilean Merlot, and then some!

- Thomas - 09-28-1999

As usual, Randy provides a good listing of available wines, but in this case I think Dpruett would be better off first learning about the grape, merlot, (and other grapes, and about what makes a wine great or not) before dropping cash on wines that he/she may or may not understand or like.

The point is: if Dpruett asks a basic question, he/she needs a basic learning experience. Jancis Robinson (among other writers) offers same.

- Randy Caparoso - 09-28-1999

It is true that with all wines in current great demand, prices are inflated. Although gauging wine prices is forever a nebulous affair, one could say that a Merlot that you may see for about $20 is probably actually worth about $15. Top quality Zinfandels are probably $3-$4 more than they should be; and Cabernet Sauvignons, anywhere from $5 to $50.

Unfortunately, for West Coast brands, it doesn't mean that you can necessarily get a good deal with Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Barbera, Mourvedre, and Syrah, even though these varietals are not quite so "hot." California wines in general are currently overpriced. But that's the way it goes, right? Fifteen years ago this wasn't exactly the case; and we shall see what another ten-fifteen years will bring. Some people (like Curmudgeon) are predicting a price leveling much sooner; but I never hold my breath.

I think the important thing to remember is that "fantastic" Merlot has been known to occur at many price levels -- from $8 Stella (from Italy) to $800 Petrus (from Pomerol in France's Bordeaux region). How do we define it? Most everyone agrees that for Merlot, it's palate feel -- the taste of luscious, juicy, round, opulent fruit (like perfectly fresh -- not overripe or syrupy sweet -- dripping, fleshy cherries) without any rough or tough edges. Actual tannin level is not even the issue. At low tannin levels, the Stella delivers this flavor; and at high tannin levels, Petrus, Duckhorn and Beringer "Bancroft" do, too. Difficulties occur when vintners attempt to achieve the combination of lush fruit and full tannin like Petrus, but fall somewhat short in the fruit department. That's when you get thick but hard, tough, lean, even vegetal tasting bottlings, and what's the point of that? Might as well drink Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, where you're bound to get lots of toughness but probably more flavor interest.

At any rate, that's my take on the original question about what to expect in a "great Merlot." It's a good idea to read Jancis, but when it comes to selecting your Merlot you'll need some common sense, a modicum of experience and an open mind. In the end, nothing beats tried-and-true!

- Jerry D Mead - 09-29-1999

Tasted the Sterling 1997 "Napa" last night...and let me say this about that...the Sterling reds are making a major's $20 and I'll giving it some very big points in an upcoming review.

[This message has been edited by Wine Curmudgeon (edited 10-02-99).]