In the movie Sideways, the lead character, Miles, exclaims “…if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any f***ing Merlot!” Why all the hatred for poor Merlot? The Merlot grape comes from Bordeaux, France and is mostly grown on the right bank of the Gironde estuary. Its blending with Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux grape varietals creates iconic, legendary wines. Because of the grape’s versatility in adapting to different climates and soils, it has become the second most planted red wine grape worldwide. In the 1980s, as California was becoming a major producer of wine and demand was increasing, Merlot, being easy to mass produce, experienced a meteoric rise. Changes in cultivation to meet the needs of mass production led to a bland, overly herbaceous end product. Merlot’s sudden popularity ended up being its downfall. After the fall of Merlot, producers generally returned to more traditional cultivation and enology, making wines that better reflect the nature of the grape, terroir, and winemaking.
While some of you were suffering through Dry January, we were practicing Dry Two Days A Week with Wednesday being the oasis in the dry midweek desert. We began the new year with four budget-friendly California Merlots to fit our Wine & Small Plates Wednesday routine.
At about $12 a bottle, 2018 Noble Vines 181 Merlot is a super bargain that we’ve added to our regular repertoire. The family-owned company is located in Lodi, California. The Merlot 181 vine stock imported from Pomerol, France is grown in the clay soil and temperate Mediterranean climate of their Clay Station Vineyard. Their winemaking goal is to create a balance of bright acidity and big fruit flavors and they have succeeded. Aromas and flavors of blackberry, plum and vanilla mingle with spicy notes. Well-rounded body with oak and light tannins. Noble Vines is one of our best bang-for-the-buck picks for weekday wines.
In the same price range, we tried the 2018 Line 39 Merlot from California. The company sources grapes from along the 39th parallel in Northern California. Winemaker Steven DeCosta leads a team of young winemakers in making four varietal wines for the company. Earthy, fruity aromas mingle with leather. Blueberry, plum and vanilla on the palate with a smooth, long finish, especially for this price point. My drinking buddy enjoyed the extra fruitiness. Line 39 is one we will buy again.
For a few dollars more, at about $18, we tried 2018 Markham Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot. Founder Bruce Markham created the cannoneer logo found on the label. The grapes are estate grown on their 311-acre vineyard in Napa Valley. Winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls blends the Merlot with small amounts of Cabernet, Petite Sirah, and Syrah for added complexity. The earth and prune on the nose started off a bit reserved so I probably should have taken the time to decant. Plum and cherry on the palate with a hint of dark chocolate on the finish. A little more complex and subtle than Noble Vines and Line 39. Subtlety was a minus for my drinking buddy who preferred the fruitiness of Line 39.
The restaurant at our local public golf course carries a small selection of wines by the bottle and we gravitated toward the William Hill Cabernet Sauvignon to pair with their old school Sunday prime rib special. Located at the foot of Atlas Peak on the Silverado Bench in Napa Valley, Willian Hill Estate Winery was founded in 1976 by vineyard developer William Hill. Their estate wines are quite prestigious and somewhat pricey, but they also make a more budget-friendly line called “Coastal Collection” with grapes sourced from Central Coast, California. Interestingly, the Estate Winery website appears to have disowned their lower cost, non-estate wine like a poor red-headed stepchild. Nevertheless, the Central Coast Merlot for under $15 is a good weekday wine option. In the glass, the wine begins with a herbaceous nose combined with vanilla and fruity candy. The mouthfeel is dense and tastes of prunes and dark chocolate with some bitter notes. It opened up more in the second glass to reveal riper fruit and ended with a medium-length, uneventful finish. A “nice for the price” pick.
Check out Creating New Habits: Wine & Small Plates Wednesday for food ideas and recipes.