THE Blending Grape
2014 THORN MERLOT – Napa Valley
A mere yet memorably malignant mentioning of Merlot in one movie thirteen years ago virtually decimated its market (how’s my alliteration?). This month’s offering of not one, but two examples is The Wine Steward’s defiant reply: This varietal is as good as any.
Merlot is the most planted red grape in its homeland of Bordeaux. Shouldn’t that count for something? It makes beautiful wine in Northern Italy. It may be Washington State’s finest varietal. Napa Valley players such as Duckhorn, Keenan, Truchard, and Pahlmeyer persist in producing terrific examples. For the open-minded Napa drinker there may be no more fascinating a red than Merlot from Carneros. So there.
Besides Hollywood’s jab, Merlot suffers from its own one-time success. In the early nineties it arose as the darling varietal around these parts. Tannin-sensitive red wine drinkers – particularly women venturing beyond Chardonnay – found that Merlot approximated Cabernet’s flavors without the astringency. Long before Pinot Noir became the rage there was mellow Merlot to soften the blow. The fad induced a big uptick in acreage and much Merlot was mis-planted, i.e.: Grown where it did not belong, resulting in large production bottlings of very unattractive examples. So, by the time Miles was proclaiming his distaste Merlot was already an out-of-favor victim of its own popularity.
But back to Bordeaux . . .
Lesson 1, already delivered: It’s the most planted red grape there.
Lesson 2: In Bordeaux it is nearly always “assisted” by another grape or two. Merlot, like so many other great wines, benefits from BLENDING.
And so we bring you Thorn which, with full transparency, we identify as a product of Prisoner Wine Company. Made in much smaller quantities than the producer’s eponymous flagship, this consists of 77% Napa-derived Merlot AND 23% Malbec and Syrah. Having never tasted these specific components separately I can only surmise that our subject Merlot is providing the plum and herbal effects. Syrah could be furnishing the cured meat and the polished mouthfeel. Malbec is probably responsible for the red peppercorn snap providing a sense of freshness to this otherwise sumptuous wine.
Few are the grapes that are more successful alone than by having a little help from their friends. Should such dependency harm Merlot’s reputation? We’ll leave job that to Hollywood!
Guzzle this soon – within five years
Merlot at its most graceful
2012 STEPHANIE MERLOT – Napa Valley
Jeff Gaffner may be best known as a part of the team making Wine Spectator Magazine’s “Wine of the Year” 1996 Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cepages. His own Saxon Brown line of tiny production wines is expertly crafted. The sought-for Black Kite wines also benefit from his talent. It’s no wonder that culinary entrepreneur / innovator Stanley Cheng brought Jeff aboard for the “Stephanie” project of Hestan Vineyards wines.
Like many of its peers from the vintage, this 2012 is ready to go and should go soon. Merlot’s anticipated herbal-ness is joined by cherry pastry, vanilla, and tobacco. In the mouth we find a supple texture (Merlot strikes again!), fresh acidity, and then a grippy finish of mineral which should induce a craving for protein as a partner.
I like Jeff’s description, too:
“With flavors of brown spice and baked blueberry pie, this wine shows round, long tannins with a firm elegant finish."
This wine exudes the generosity of 2012 and – more to the point of this month’s theme – the potential beauty of Merlot!