As recently as a decade ago, merlot still ruled in Washington vineyards.
In 2009, merlot was the state’s No. 1 grape at 26,700 tons harvested that fall. In fact, merlot was the grape and the wine that helped put Washington on the world stage. The red variety from France’s Bordeaux region, and the round, supple resulting wines brought Washington a measure of fame.
By the next fall, cabernet sauvignon had overtaken merlot as the state’s favorite red. By last fall, merlot accounted for 37,500 tons, No. 4 behind cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and riesling.
While plantings of merlot has slowed in Washington, it remains steady and continues to play a significant role, both as a stand-alone wine as well as in red blends. Many other wines, including cabernet sauvignon, often have a bit of merlot in the mix, often to add complexity as well as soften the tannins and approachability.
Here are four red blends, all of which lead with merlot. All won gold medals at this year’s Cascadia International Wine Competition. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or buy directly from the winery.
Mercer Estates Winery 2016 Reserve Cavalie, Horse Heaven Hills, $42: This is a delicious Bordeaux-inspired blend built upon merlot (51%) with cabernet sauvignon (23%), malbec (11%) and petit verdot (8%) receiving just a drizzle of syrah to provide some suppleness. Prosser native Jeremy Santo blended it to be led by blackberry and dark cherry with subtle oak spice aromas. A big, rich and fruit-forward drink that shows more dark cherry and blackberry jam with a hint of purple fruits. Soft tannins lead the fruit into a long, enjoyable finish.
Amelia Wynn Winery 2016 Cuvée, Columbia Valley, $26: Bainbridge Island vintner Paul Bianchi, who used a grenache to win best of show at the 2019 Washington State Wine Competition, continues to prove himself as one of Washington’s top winemakers. Merlot (57%) leads the way in this blend rounded out by cabernet sauvignon (25%) and petit verdot. Scents of sugar plum, bay leaf and coffee grounds give the nose complexity. Silky tannins let the sweet cherry, plum and mocha flavors slide around on the palate unhindered and uninhibited creating a sensual delight.
Cana’s Feast Winery 2016 Two Rivers, Columbia Valley $18: Carlton, Oregon, winemaker Patrick Taylor takes a Right Bank-Bordeaux approach to this affordable blend of merlot (35%), cabernet franc (29%) cabernet sauvignon (26%) and malbec (10%) that he traditionally pulls from Washington vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills and Red Mountain. The deep garnet color glistens in the glass and gives a clue to oncoming aromas of intense dried cherry, red plum and blackberry. A touch of milk chocolate is also dribbled all over that fruit. A well-balanced acid and tannin profile gives the round, full body lift and pizazz. Sweet bright berries, olive tapenade, a slight herbal note and a Cherry Garcia ice cream finish make this scrumptious.
Lodmell Cellars NV Sublime, Columbia Valley $30: The Lodmell farming family has its tasting room in the elegant lobby of Walla Walla’s iconic Marcus Whitman Hotel. This merlot-based blend is well suited to the surroundings. It includes cabernet sauvignon from their estate and a touch of carmenere from Dwelley Jones Vineyard, and opens with hints of mint, spice and blackberries, then presents late-summer wild blackberries, blueberries and black currant on the palate, followed up with a juicy finish and carefully managed tannins.
Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman operate Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.