Anthony Gismondi on Wine
Saturday, January 9 2016

Grapes : Merlot

By: Treve Ring
Fr. merle (blackbird) from the color of the grape

Poor Merlot.

Here it was, cruising along at the top of its game, in its lustrous plum-robed glory. One of the most popular red wine varietals on the globe due to its pleasant berry fruit, accessible softness and plush mouthfeel, merlot appealed to many tastes and many demographics. The grape, borne of Bordeaux, had the genetic make up of a blue-blooded trust-fund globetrotter. Unlike its greatest rival/ marriage partner cabernet sauvignon, adaptable, blendable merlot buds and ripens early, has large, thin skinned berries resulting in lower acid and tannin, and easily achieves high yields. It rose to the top of the North American wine world in the 1980’s, achieving success with both California cult classics and Washington State pioneers. Merlot flooded the markets, and producers capitalized on the grape’s popularity with quick-to-market, uninspired wines. And then, regal merlot was smacked Sideways. In the wine geek chic 2004 movie Sideways, pinot noir-loving protagonist Miles tells his buddy that “if anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any f**king merlot!” Merlot sales dropped across North America and the UK (interestingly, Okanagan merlot sales held steady in BC). The Sideways Effect swept merlot off its velvet throne, and many winemakers have had to scramble over the years since to reinvent and reinstate.

When merlot isn’t smothered with oak, over cropped or left on the vine past its ripeness date, it produces a medium bodied red with deep raspberry, plum, mulberry, fruitcake and mocha. Popular as ever in maritime Bordeaux (the most planted red grape there), it is also gaining acclaim in other cooler microclimates.

The wines below are some of our favourites tasted at GOW over the past 12 months; fresh and characterful, like a welcome hug, and effortlessly likeable. Even Miles would agree.

90. La Stella Maestoso Solo Merlot 2012, Osoyoos, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada.  $100.00
Though merlot is planted a great deal in the Okanagan, it rarely reaches great heights. This wine is one of the exceptions. Maestoso (the Beast) absorbs all of the southern Okanagan's rich sunshine, rooted in heavy clay and gravel soils and compacts it into a dense, full bodied red. Deep blackberry, leather, black plum and cassis fills the nose. The compact palate is dominated by ripe plum, which leads wild blueberries, supple leather, bitter black cherry, finely ground spices and a hidden lift of mint along cushioned, chewy and ample tannins. An edge of tart acidity lifts all this density through a very long, bitter black cherry finish. Southern Okanagan merges with Italy via this wine. Just a baby, decant and pour now with herbed rack of lamb or wild boar, or be rewarded with 3-5 years in the cellar. Looking forward to tasting this again in future. TR

90. Mission Hill Reserve Merlot Ice Wine 2013, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada.  $60.00
This is the first ever merlot icewine to come out of Mission Hill spawned on a rare November 21 freeze in the Okanagan. The flavours are an inviting mix of cooked, ripe rhubarb and strawberries with a caramel dried herb undercurrent. Long and sweet at 303 grams of residual sugar but with some elegance. A classic dessert wine you can serve solo or with a peach cobbler. AG-ST

90. Barone Ricasoli Casalferro 2010, Tuscany, Italy.  $60.00
An unusual offering from Tuscany, a 100% merlot that has dried herb, curry leaf, cherry, tobacco, olive, gamey, vanilla, coffee, balsamic and saddle leather aromas. Round, dry, fresh palate with smooth tannins and juicy acidity. Black cherry, vanilla, coffee, leather, peppery, black olive, savoury, smoked meat and orange spice flavours with a bit of tobacco leaf. The Tuscan influence is strong here on the variety but this has intensity and can age a further 2-4 years. The Casalferro vineyard sits at 400 metres and faces south, southeast in Gaiole in Chianti. The soil is brown with a fine clay structure, very chalky, with a sub alkaline pH and little organic content. It is very stony and well drained. AG-ST

89. Upper Bench Merlot 2012, Naramata Bench, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada.  $35.00
Fresh bright plum, black cherry, briar, licorice nose with bits of chocolate, vanilla and peppery/meaty dried herb aromas. The attack is juicy and full with some light, grainy tannins the flavours a mix of peppery, coffee, roast pepper, black olive, black cherry and tobacco flavours. The finish has some tannins and oak to shed but will be fine with grilled meats now and much better in bottle a year or three from now. AG-ST

89. CedarCreek Platinum Desert Ridge Merlot 2012, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada.  $40.00
CedarCreek farms 11 acres of merlot at Desert Ridge Vineyard in Osoyoos where winemaker Darryl Brooker selects rows 50 to 90 for platinum duty. The site is stony and hot and the wine reflects that with a mineral, savoury, richness built into its flavours. The yields are low contributing to its plummy, black cherry/blueberry, licorice fruit, flecked with spice and chocolate and even a touch of orange peel. Plenty big to cellar for five years or serve now with big hearty roast beef dishes. AG

89. Intersection Silica Merlot 2012, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada. $28.69
One of two very interesting merlots that exploit the complex mix of soils at Intersection Winery along Road 8 in Oliver. Silica is a single block merlot farmed and harvested using sustainable methods. Its aged in both French and American oak for twelve months and bottled unfiltered. Silica, also boasts the 181 merlot clone, the benchmark French merlot clone in Canada. The Silica block is completely different in soil structure offering sandy loam or the remains of beach deposits from an ancient glacial lake. It tends to warm up quickly in the sun and drains even quicker keeping yield slow but flavours intense. Slightly more generous in texture and weight but still with floral undertones there is a finesse and elegance that is surely where BC merlot must go. AG

88. Sterling Vineyards Merlot 2011, Napa Valley, California, United States.  $21.09
Stylish smooth polished red wine, as merlot should be, with medium structure and fairly generous plush, smoky, dusty, Napa fruit. Balance and fun to drink and with its mix of herbal, olive and savoury notes it was a perfect match with grilled lamb. AG

88. Poplar Grove Merlot 2011, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada.  $30.00
Merlot remains undervalued, and frankly not all that well done in the Okanagan, but there is no reason we couldn’t do a better job as evidence by this Poplar Grove. This one hits many of the highs - the ripe, brambled, dark plum and medicinal cherry/blueberry notes only to be held back by its youthful, oaky somewhat hard tannins (press wine?) We love the concentration and while somewhat chunky this is a solid effort and can easily be tamed by richer, beef or lamb dishes at this stage. Heading in the right direction. AG-TR

88. Hillside Merlot 2013, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada.  $21.99
Just released after time in wood and eight months in bottle (yeah), the 2103 merlot is a well-made, straight-up merlot with attractive aromas of cassis mixed with coffee and floral notes. The attack is well balanced with pleasant orchard cherry and plum fruit with some spicy, savoury, chocolate bits in the finish. Exactly what it should be for the price. The winery restaurant often pairs its merlot with striploin, pork steaks, or creamy mushroom pastas. Impressive 1283 cases produced. AG

Written By: TR
Treve Ring
Treve Ring

Treve Ring is a writer, editor, judge, consultant, educator and certified sommelier based on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. After completing her Art History degree with Distinction from the University of Victoria and being exposed to the world of wine business at Christie's in London, England, she switched gears, leaving the realm of art for the world of wine.