Merlot making merry madness

Merlot making merry madness – account of a wine tasting event organized by Charles Krug Winery

Richard Paul Hinkle

When we first came upon Merlot in California – when Louis Martini and Sterling began offering the wine as a varietal in the early ’70s – we casually dismissed it as a lighter, lesser version of Cabernet Sauvignon: a little brother that would never grow up, never be taken seriously, and most certainly never age.

Well, Merlot has grown up, it is sure being taken seriously (not only via the incessant demand of the marketplace), and we are now learning the lesson that Louis Martini taught us in the 1950s with Cabernet. If the wine is in balance when it’s made, odds are good that it’ll age well, no matter how lacking in heft, ethanol, oak or tannin. Something to do with mature fruit, harmony, and appropriate amplitude. Too basic? Uh huh. But funny how we have to continually reacquaint ourselves with that little lesson.

Last September, as ’96’s stop ‘n’ start vintage kept everyone guessing as to what calamity was coming up next, the folks at Charles Krug (organized brilliantly by Janice Mondavi) put on an exquisite retrospective of aging Merlots that opened some eyes to the ageability of this oft-misjudged varietal. Entitled “Merlot Madness,” the 14-wine tasting was part of a benefit for the St. Helena Catholic School.

One of the evening’s highlights was the very first varietal Merlot ever produced in California, a blend of 1968 and 1970 vintages bottled in 1972 by Louis Martini. Typically, the grand old man of subtlety mused that he could improve that wonderful old wine by blending in a touch here and a taste there of some of the younger wines sitting before him at the table. Of his own wine – which still displayed lovely pomegranate and black walnut fruit and an oily, inviting texture – he told me, “I’m amazed that the color is still holding so well. Remember, this wine was made in the old style: no maceration, aging in large casks, no small oak, the juice drawn off at six brix. The blend of the two vintages was nothing more than a practical measure. We didn’t have much from the ’68 vintage, and the fruit was a little green, anyway, and the ’70 crop was a short crop year, too, due to extensive frost, and so that wine was a bit more robust.”

Martini pointed out that his inspiration to bottle Merlot as a varietal came not from St.-Emilion or Pomerol, but rather from Switzerland. Switzerland? “Liz and I were visiting the late Paco and Romilda Gould at her family’s home in Switzerland, and Paco brought out a twelve-year-old bottle of Swiss Merlot. Well, it was wonderful, and it got me to thinking that this grape that we had been using for blending with Cabernet might have some usefulness on its own. But we didn’t want to make it like we were making the Cabernet. I mean, if you’re going to make different varietals, why not make them so that they’re different, right?” Well, you’d think so, wouldn’t you.

Cary Gott, Sterling’s president, presided over the pouring of that winery’s 1979 vintage, from magnums. “This vintage was grown in our vineyard at Bale Lane, and the clone is most often referred to as the Three Palms clone,” noted Gott. The wine was tangy with cranberry fruit and some typically Merlot hints of menthol. Light and elegant in weight, the fruit was still bright and lively, and went especially well with the grilled quail prepared by Tra Vigne’s superb chef, Michael Chiarello. Two wines from the 1981 vintage were shown. That from Pine Ridge displayed sharply-defined bell pepper, fennel, anise, and a strong menthol component that bordered on the medicinal. (Far better was Pine Ridge’s toasty ’94 vintage, poured with dinner, that served as an ideal backdrop to Chiarello’s scintillating, gooey chocolate dessert.) “Because of my Bordeaux background, we’re not shy in blending in a little Cabernet franc and Malbec with the Merlot,” noted owner Gary Andrus, who’s busy these days flying his King Air back and forth to Oregon, where he has his newest winery venture, Archery Summit.

The second ’81 poured was the Rutherford Hill. “This wine came from two vineyards, one at Oak Knoll, near Trefethen, the other in Rutherford, the Shaw Vineyard,” informed managing director Jeff Jaeger. “Phil Baxter made this wine in his typical Michael Jordan style, which translates into lots of hang time for the fruit. What amazes me about these wines we’re tasting, aside from how well they’ve aged, is how many different styles and dimensions they show. And the wines are only going to get better, as the second generation of California winemakers puts the grapes in the proper sites and on the proper rootstocks.” Rutherford Hill’s ’81 expressed itself elegantly, with dusty orange peel aromas and soft, fluid bell pepper that extended nicely into the finish.

Always a soft and alluring wine, even from the day it is bottled, Clos Du Bois Merlot offers a classic example of how harmony ages well. The 1982 Clos Du Bois was one of the freshest, most beautifully crafted wines in a group that was rather elevated to begin with. The wine showed an earthy, sweet bell pepper nose, followed by bright tobacco that was soft, elegant and long, framed by just a hint of dill weed. “There’s still an amazing amount of richness to this wine,” exclaimed general manager Tom Hobart (himself a former winemaker). “This wine has about 20% Cabernet, and 1982 was a cool year, and this wine had huge amounts of jammy, ripe fruit when it was young.” Still does, Tom. Still does.

Marc Mondavi shrugged off his family’s ’84 vintage as “drying out and cedary,” but his modesty did not lessen the fresh cranberry and earthy bell pepper neatly exhibited by the Charles Krug 1984 Merlot. “This wine came mostly from our Carneros vineyard, but 38% came from a vineyard here at the winery that always had a lot of shatter. We had to pull that vineyard out, it was so unproductive.”

Clos Du Val’s 1985 was grown entirely in the Stags Leap District and aged solely in Nevers oak, as is typical of Bernard Portet’s Merlots. The wine was tightly-packed with bright, brittle berry and black currant fruit, with an edge of asparagus and green tannins in the finish. Like many ’85s, it seemed quite muscular, and in need of a bit more time in bottle.

Jim Bundschu expressed the feelings of all those in attendance when he said, “This is the best flight of Merlots I’ve ever tasted! This is like Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, the wines are so good and we’re all here sharing our best.” He went on to say that his father had been convinced to plant Merlot back in 1972 by Louis Martini. “Back then,” said Jim, “no one knew what Merlot was.” The 1985 Gundlach-Bundschu Merlot showed sturdy black currant and peppermint fruit that was bright, bold and bouncy with youth and energy, with highlights of black licorice. Just the right balance between weight and elegance.

The other ’85 at the tasting came from Shafer Vineyard, and had its own peculiar tale of serendipitous advent. “We hadn’t used much Cabernet franc in our Merlots before 1985,” explained Doug Shafer, “but that year our franc was accidentally harvested two days before it was scheduled to be picked. I didn’t have any empty tanks, but there was one tank that was half-full of Merlot. So I had ’em put the Cab franc in with the Merlot. Well, you can guess how that story ended . . . that tank was the killer wine of the year!” Typical of the region, the Shafer ’85 is rich and robust, with packed-in black currant and green olive fruit that suggests it will be just as fresh and just as defined a decade from now or even two.

Ravenswood’s 1986 Merlot was presented by Reed Foster, who suggested that this vintage was “lighter than usual.” Maybe, but there was plenty of smoky green olive and green pepper fruit in a fluid, elegant style that any discussion of lightness (as with color in the discussion of Pinot noir) was effectively rendered irrelevant.

The pair of ’87s present showed the natural harmonies of that vintage, which seemed to combine the masculine size of ’85 with the feminine subtlety of the ’86. The Markham showed sharply-defined green pepper, blackberry and menthol in a wine that has substance, but is fluid and silky enough that it’s not overbearing. “This is the best Merlot that I never made,” laughed Markham’s winemaker Rob Hunter (who was still up the hill at Keenan in 1987). “Most of the fruit for this came from the winery’s Calistoga Ranch, whose Merlot is fairly low in tannin, and about a quarter came from Oakville – the old Van Loben Sels property – which is pretty high in tannin.” Balance. Balance.

The Duckhorn ’87 was another among many highlights of this tasting. Its blackberry, fennel and green bean exposition was long, luscious and alive, as if it had just been bottled the other day. “The vintage was a long one, with moderate temperatures from beginning to end,” assessed Margaret Duckhorn. “We decided to hang our hat on Merlot in 1978 and the ’87, like most of our Merlots, was a blend of 12 or 14 vineyards. There’s about 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and some Cabernet franc as well. It’s holding up pretty well.” A typical Merlotian understatement, almost British in magnitude. If magnitude’s the right word. (Probably not, eh?)

Winemaker Dennis Johns bravely produced his St. Clement 1989. “As you all know, 1989 was a tough vintage, one where it rained like hell.” grinned Johns. “But the job of the winemaker is to deliver the fruit, which is why great wines are grown, not made. It’s the vineyard. These wines show what’s best about Merlot, their drinkability, which is a quality that all wines should have.” His, appropriately, does. Juicy cranberry and cherry fruit that is light, yet silky and finessed and perfectly proportioned.

The youngest wine in the group was the 1991 Dry Creek Reserve. “I brought this because it’s one of our favorites,” stated Kim Stare Wallace. “We like its softness, the lush cherry fruit.” Over in a corner, husband Don Wallace bemoaned the dill quality from the wine’s time in American oak, but that’s more his ultra-sensitivity than any obvious flaw in the wine, which still displayed the hardness of youth and chalky tannin amid its anise and licorice fruit.

The key to Merlot has always been its ready and early accessibility, as Dennis Johns so correctly noted earlier. “You have to remember that wine is a hedonistic experience,” adds Johns. “Wine is supposed to refresh the palate, go with food, and appeal on every pleasurable level including the tactile, texture. Even red wines should be refreshing. It’s not illegal for a red wine to have fruit, to have flavor, to be juicy. Wet. Not dried out and powdery in the finish. Wet! I want my wines seductive and fleshy and juicy and wet!” Amen, brothers and sisters!

Merlot exemplifies the Johns red wine philosophy. We have always known that about Merlot in its youth. What we are only beginning to learn is that Merlot also has that capability in its not-so-grey-haired maturity. A most pleasant, and pleasurable, surprise.

(Hinkle’s grey-haired maturity has brought out the iconoclast in him. For information about his decidedly iconoclastic “Hinkle’s Wine Laws” T-shirts, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to 2036 Stonewood Drive, Santa Rosa, Calif. 95404. His favorite, which speaks to the alluring texture of Pinot noir, but could apply to Merlot as well reads: “Great Pinot noir inspires one to create new sins . . . and wish to commit them!” Amen!)

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