We’ve all seen Sideways and remember the infamous words of Miles Raymond, Paul Giamatti’s character: “I’m not drinking any f***ing Merlot.” These six little words impacted Merlot for the next decade in domestic and international sales. We are now finally seeing Merlot appreciated for what it is: a Noble wine, one of the most expensive wines in the world, and one that we’ve stood behind as a beautiful, age-worthy variety since before the movie even existed. Our first vintage of Merlot was back in 1997 and we’ve produced over 37 bottlings of Merlot in our winery’s history.
One of the six Noble Bordeaux varietals, Merlot is the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Magdeleine Noire des Charentes. The name is thought to stem from the French word “merle,” which means blackbird. Some believe it’s in reference to the color of the grapes whereas others believe the name stems from the fact that blackbirds like to eat the fruit on the vines. With over 600,000 acres worldwide, Merlot is one of the most planted varieties and comes second to Cabernet Sauvignon on an international scale.
Merlot was regularly planted starting in the 1800s in the Medoc region, or “Left Bank,” of France where its heavily used as a blending agent for its body and softness, but some parts of France, particularly the Right Bank regions of Pomerol and St. Emilion use it as the main component in a blend or even as a single varietal. Today, Merlot is the most planted variety in all of France, and it also is the main component in one of the most expensive bottles of wine, Chateau Petrus selling between $2,000-5,000 depending on the vintage.
Merlot is a bit of a chameleon as Merlot can be found in a variety of climates and adapts. It grows in cooler climates like France, Italy, Chile and Canada, but can also be found in many warm wine regions, like California, Washington, Australia and South Africa.
Merlot is also the earliest ripening variety of all six Noble Bordeaux reds, sometimes being the first grape to hit our crush pad during harvest, even before Viognier, Chardonnay and Semillon!
According to Chuck, it’s always so much fun and a great way to start off each vintage.
“It’s easy to get anxious though and pick the Merlot early since it’s always the first fruit to bring in. The Merlot from Bacchus [for our Helix Merlot] is so intense, but I need to be patient and show some restraint in my exuberance to start harvest because more complexity will come to the fruit the longer we wait.” And the Walla Walla Merlot at Pepper Bridge is found in high clay soils, mimicking a similar environment to Right Bank Merlot like Petrus. It’s no wonder that Walla Walla Merlot can compete on the world stage for producing some of the top varietals.
Here in Walla Walla, our Merlot is rich and complex, sometimes mistaken for Cabernet Sauvignon, with notes of dark cherry, plum, cedar and chocolate, and rounded tannins compared to our Columbia Valley Merlot, which tends to have brighter acidity and ripe red fruits. It is one of the only wines in the REININGER and Helix portfolio that highlights more American oak than French as the baking spices lend itself nicely to the natural mocha and chocolate notes in the wines.
At our Walla Walla winery and Spokane tasting room, we just released our latest vintage (2015) of our Walla Walla and Columbia Valley Merlots. 2015 was our hottest and earliest harvest on record and as per usual Merlot was one of the first grapes we harvested. We experienced extreme, early summer heat and consistent hot temperatures followed by a very welcomed cooling trend beginning at veraison. The results were higher than expected acidity and even ripening. Thanks to the early harvest, the Merlot was brought in with plenty of acid from both our Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley vineyards, and Chuck thinks both the 2015 REININGER Merlot (retails $30) and the 2015 Helix Merlot (retails $22) are some of our most exceptional Merlots of the past several vintages.
And if you think a Washington Merlot surely can’t aged as well as the top Bordeaux wines, like a ‘61 Petrus, think again! We might not have a library that goes back 60 years, but being around for 22 years, we’ve definitely acquired a Merlot collection. We’ve been regularly opening library vintages of our REININGER & Helix Merlot monthly at our Wine Down Wednesday, and last June we opened our inaugural 1997 Merlot vintage at the Celebrate Walla Walla: The World of Merlot library tasting and it’s still holding up. Last month, Chuck actually did a vertical of our 1997, 1998 and 1999 Merlot and the 1998 is just reaching its prime and the 1999 was one of the best vintages of Merlot we’ve ever had and still has beautiful nuances of cherry, chocolate and baking spices. Chuck is also favoring the 2003 and 2010 vintages. Cheers!