Tim and Kelly Hightower own, operate and share the winemaking duties at Hightower Cellars on Red Mountain. With them is their dog Riley. (Richard Duval Images)

Tim and Kelly Hightower own, operate and share the winemaking duties at Hightower Cellars on Red Mountain. With them is their dog Riley. (Richard Duval Images)

Merlot a workhorse grape that merits acclaim in the Northwest

Wines featuring this red Bordeaux vareity are crafted for the cellar and meant to be cherished over time.

Many of the Northwest’s most storied producers used merlot to help establish their reputation both regionally and internationally.

And in many cases, the wines produced featuring this red Bordeaux grape variety are crafted for the cellar and meant to be cherished over time.

During the rise of the modern wine industry in Washington, in particular, merlot has become a workhorse variety. A decade ago, it was the state’s most harvested wine grape.

It now ranks No. 3 in terms of production, trailing only cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, and remains a favorite of both growers and winemakers. Merlot ripens dependably and early. On famed Red Mountain, merlot vines often are among the first harvested, which makes it a favorite of both growers and winemakers.

In recent years, Washington merlot has made delicious inroads in Texas, where consumers appreciate both its bold structure as a natural complement for well-marbled steak as well as its affordability compared with cabernet sauvignon. Merlot also has become the foundation for many of the Northwest’s most-recognized proprietary red blends.

At this year’s Cascadia International Wine Competition, Merlot ended up being one of the most decorated categories, and below are several of the top-rated merlots, each one having earned a gold medal. Find the full results at www.greatnorthwestwine.com. Ask for these at your favorite wine merchant or order them directly from the winery.

Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2018 Umiker Vineyard Merlot, Lewis-Clark Valley, $28: From Wine Press Northwest magazine’s 2020 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year, and this merlot serves as another example of the award-winning wines Karl and Coco Umiker are producing from their estate in the Lewis-Clark Valley. Rich dark fruits of cherry and blackberry along with a touch of minerality make for a full-bodied Merlot with a long, palate-caressing finish of velvety tannins.

Hightower Cellars 2017 Merlot, Red Mountain, $30: Year after year, co-winemakers Tim and Kelly Hightower produce some of the Northwest’s most balanced wines. Their use of petit verdot (7%) and cabernet franc (7%) in the blend creates magic. Blackberry, dark cherry and a hint of cedar lead into a full rich palate of more dark fruits and blackberry pie. Abundant and well-integrated tannins make for a long and generous finish.

Orenda Winery 2017 Merlot, Columbia Valley $33: Tucked away in the historic dairy town of Carnation, Orenda Winery reached across the Cascades into the Columbia Valley for the fruit for this merlot. Xander and Samantha Kent opened their young winery just last year, and this merlot was one of three gold medals the Kents received during the Cascadia. Fans of Columbia Valley merlot will find it matches their expectations, offering both floral and herbal aromas on top of black and blue fruit. In the mouth, it’s a fulsome drink of blackberries, dark plum and blueberries that lead to well-managed tannins and a long finish.

Browne Family Vineyards 2017 Merlot, Columbia Valley $35: Walla Walla Valley winemaker John Freeman crafted this merlot from grapes sourced from the Columbia Valley. Black cherry, blueberry and dried herbs fill in the aromas followed by a full and rich structure of dark purple fruits with blueberry skin tannins and chocolate on the finish. Enjoy alongside lamb rubbed with thyme and sage.

Mt. Hood Winery 2016 Dry Hollow Vineyard Reserve Merlot, Columbia Valley, $52: Rich Cushman in Hood River, Oregon, crosses no stateline for this opulent expression of merlot, which he pulled from Dry Hollow Vineyard just upriver in The Dalles. Black cherry, sugar plum and ripe black currant please the aromatic senses. On the palate, you’ll find gobs of blackberry, blueberries and more blackcurrant. The soft oak tannins integrate nicely with the rich dark fruits making for a delightful finish.

Brian Carter Cellars 2016 One Merlot Willard Family Vineyard, Yakima Valley, $85: Brian Carter, who’s built a reputation with blended wines, tapped just one source — Willard Family Vineyard in the Yakima Valley — for this One Merlot project. The result is a 2016 merlot that delivers power and finesse. Black and blue berries in the aromatics opens in the mouth with blackberry and black currant then ends with blueberries and blueberry skin tannins in its long, satisfying finish.

Eric Degerman operates Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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