Back                                                                                                                                  November 14, 2009        

              Frolicking in Philly - Part 2

As a follow up to our Sangiovese Tasting earlier in the year, Rafik, Scott, Liza and I met again in Philly to taste some reds. This time concentrating on the varietal we drank a lot of in college, California Merlot. We also enjoyed a variety of great cheeses, paté and French bread, which were supplied by Rafik's cousin Hrant, who also joined us for the tasting, with some Pink Floyd (actually an extensive mix of everything they ever did) as background music. Merlot is not a favorite of mine (as many of you know, particularly when from CA), but we had been planning this tasting for several months, trying to pick the best ones we could find. We came up with six, plus one French model that I happen to like quite a bit from just outside of St. Emilion for comparison.

First Flight: Started with the French version, which I expected to be the most dry and elegant (it was), then moved on to the two odd-men-out. The Estancia, being the only Bordeaux blend that was not mostly Merlot, and the Ridge, being the oldest and from the more obscure Santa Cruz Mtns.

90   2004  Chateau de Launay  $ 25
  13.5% alc
Forestal moss and leather complexity complement cassis fruit and elegant black pepper tannins. Classic St. Emilion style that is smooth and easy to drink, yet has the acidity and complexity to go well with food. Drink now and in the next couple of years.

87   2006  Estancia Meritage  Paso Robles  $ 25
58% Cab Sauv, 34% Merlot, 8%PetitVerdot    14.5% alc
Very good black cherry fruit and acidity on the nose. Well balanced, but has a slight weedy component and a little bitterness in the finish that strike me as "cheap" compared to the quality of the other wines here. Still good and easy to enjoy.

92   1997 Ridge  Santa Cruz Mtns  Merlot    $ 40
100% Merlot        13.2% alc
Has a deep garnet color that looks young for 12 years old. Tobacco, dusty black cherry and a little black truffle in the nose (reminiscent of a Brunello). The flavor shows big, CA-style, black cherry fruit with surprisingly youthful structure, still needing time to totally resolve. This is excellent, but needs a few more years bottle age or a couple of hours in a decanter to smooth out. The dual personality of the bouquet verses the flavor in the mouth is very interesting.

Second Flight: Four Napa Valley Merlots - all highly regarded by critics.

88(?)   2006 Shafer  Napa Valley Merlot   $ 38
76% Merlot, 17%CabSauv, 7%CabFranc        14.9% alc
Shows concentrated, tart cherry fruit and excellent structure (tannin and acidity), but has a strong matchstick/sulfur component that I can't get past. I revisited this towards the end of the night after decanting, when the sulfur had finally blown off, but was in no shape to give an accurate assessment by that time. So, my score here is approximate and assumes the sulfur will blow off with time or decanting.

89   2004 Twomey  Napa Valley Merlot   $ 42
94% Merlot, 6%CabFranc  
Excellent black cherry fruit and good tannic structure. Coats the mouth nicely with excellent viscosity. Also has aged cheese rind complexity (think Brie) that most found off-putting, but I actually liked it. Decant for an hour or so, but can be drunk now.

84   2006 Duckhorn  Napa Valley Merlot   $ 45
96% Merlot, 2%CabSauv, 2%PetitVerdot        14.5% alc
Very deep, dark color with chocolatey oak and raisiny fruit. Unfortunately, this is so ripe, it has little acidity to make it lively and little tannin to give it structure, making the fruit flabby and limp. Pleasant in a boringly smooth sort of way, but Very Disappointing. Drink now.

92   2006 Paloma  Napa Valley (Spring Mountain) Merlot   $ 54
85% Merlot, 15%CabSauv     
As deep as the Duckhorn in color, but more red in tint. Has big, ripe red and black cherry fruit with excellent acidity giving it balance. A little heat in the flavor, but covered well by the fruit. Candied cherries linger in the finish. This is excellent and All-California in style. At its best now and in the next 5 years.

Final Impressions
An educational experience for all, with the former CA Merlot lovers in the group finding out just how far their palates had developed since the "good ol' days." All agreed that the CA Merlots were far from good values with the Chateau de Launay being the overall favorite of the group. I thought that the Ridge was the most interesting and the Paloma had the biggest fruit. I gave them top honors for their combination of concentration and balance, but did agree that the de Launay was the best value and most ready-to-drink. The other three CA Merlots were downright dissappointing for the price with the Duckhorn verging on pathetic. I guess these lackluster performances for the price exemplify what Miles was dreading when he blurted out his famous quote in the movie Sideways. "I'm not drinking any f**king Merlot."