Gary and Martha Cunningham of 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards in Eagle, Idaho, produced the top merlot at the 2017 Idaho Wine Competition. (Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Gary and Martha Cunningham of 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards in Eagle, Idaho, produced the top merlot at the 2017 Idaho Wine Competition. (Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

State’s merlot second only to cabernet sauvignon

The red grapes grown in Washington make a sturdy wine, with tannin structures that often rival cab.

With nearly 33,000 tons harvested in Washington last fall, merlot, one of the noble red grapes of France’s Bordeaux region, particularly on the right bank of the Gironde River, where it is most prevalent, remains popular in Washington wine country.

Merlot has been famous in Washington for many years, and was, in fact, Washington’s No. 1 grape until about a decade ago, when the growing popularity of cabernet sauvignon overtook it. It remains popular as both a stand-alone variety and a blending grape in Washington, despite the rise of cab. A big part of this is because Washington merlot makes a sturdy wine, with tannin structures that often rival cab. In other regions, it produces a wine that is much softer in character.

Its robust nature in Washington has everything to do with the climate of the Columbia Valley, which tends toward sandy soils and little precipitation, the result being the vine struggles to grow and thrive. This forces the vine to reduce its natural vigor and produces berries with thicker skins (where the tannins and flavor come from).

Merlot may not be as fashionable as it was in the past, but Washington produces some of the best examples in the American wine scene. Here are several from throughout the Northwest we’ve tried recently. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or buy them directly from wineries.

Boomtown by Dusted Valley 2015 Merlot, Washington, $19: Merlot tends make for a rather strapping red wine in Washington, but each vintage the boys at Dusted Valley Vintners in Walla Walla work with the Mattawa-based Wahluke Wine Co. to produce an approachable wine for this their entry-level Boomtown brand. They use small additions of cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot to create a long, juicy and somewhat silky merlot. Sweet blue fruit aromas of blackcurrant and plum include dried cherry and caramel. Inside, there’s bing cherry, more plum and ripe blueberry flavors, backed by black tea, clove and milk chocolate from the 20 percent new French oak.

Browne Family Vineyard 2013 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $35: Each year, Precept CEO Andrew Browne bottles his own brand’s merlot as an homage to his mother, and Walla Walla-based winemaker John Freeman continues to use Red Mountain fruit — from Klipsun and now Taylor Mag vineyards — to build the structure of this classically bold 100 percent Washington merlot that already received two years of bottle age prior to release. Credit the combination of a 22-month barrel program of 44 percent new French oak with Canoe Ridge Vineyard and Weinbau fruit for the pleasing notes.

3 Horse Ranch Vineyards 2014 Single Vineyard Eagle Foothills District Merlot, Snake River Valley $40: The Cunningham family established their vineyard at one of the highest elevation sites in Idaho and along the edge of the Snake River Valley, so Mother Nature sometimes thins their crop for them. A mere three barrels of merlot made it into this prized bottling by their winemaker, Greg Koenig, and he turned it into the top merlot at the 2017 Idaho Wine Competition.

Airfield Estates 2014 Merlot, Yakima Valley, $18: The Miller family quietly continues to rank among the leaders in Washington’s wine industry, and this year it celebrates the 50th anniversary of grandfather Don Miller planting a commercial vineyard on the family’s Airport Ranch near Prosser. It’s now spans nearly 900 acres, supplying many winemakers throughout the Northwest with quality fruit. Marcus Miller turns this lot into a rush of dark red fruit, as strawberry, cherry and red plum notes lead to a merlot of impressive depth that’s smooth, bright and balanced with notes of anise and minerality.

Pedestal 2014 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $65: Pomerol’s globetrotting vintner, Michel Rolland, released his 12th version of a merlot-based blend for Long Shadows Vintners in Walla Walla. A program of 22 months in 85 percent new French oak leads to aromas of dusty plum, Chukar Cherry, lavender and leather. Those ripe, dark purple fruit tones return to the palate with a great approach that picks up fine-grained tannins, marionberry acidity and a finish of espresso.

Vino La Monarcha 2013 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $20: Few drive as many miles throughout the Columbia Valley as Victor Palencia, who makes wine on the Wahluke Slope and in the Walla Walla Valley — but he draws from Frenchman Hills Vineyard near the Royal Slope for this expressive merlot under his entry tier. It spent 14 months in French oak and releases aromas of cassis, red cherry, vanilla, pink peppercorns and toast.

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

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