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Washington Merlots

By: Jeff Cox

Quick—what grape variety makes the world’s most expensive red wine? The answer, of course, is Merlot, which makes up 95 percent of Chateau Petrus. A bottle of the 2008 Petrus will set you back about $3,000 and prices go up from there.

The vineyards of Petrus are just a little north of the 45th parallel, and if you follow that latitudinal line westward across the Atlantic and across North America, you come to the wine-growing regions of Washington State where, maybe not so surprisingly, Merlot is also king.

Good buys in central to eastern Washington Merlots abound, but the sensory differences between Walla Walla and Petrus are at least as profound as the price differential. There is magic in Petrus, if you’ve ever been lucky (or wealthy) enough to have tasted it. It is like a sunrise in the mouth as its pure fruit slowly reveals its dazzle.

That being said, many Washington Merlots are perfect for us ordinary mortals, with our limited budgets and penchant for gusto. I recently tasted through six Merlots in the $17 to $53 range, wines that were grown in the sandy, silty, rocky scablands left in Washington by the ancient megaflood.

Never heard of the scablands or the megaflood? They are what make eastern Washington what it is today. From 12,000 to 20,000 years ago during the last ice age, glaciers clogged the path of water high in the mountains of what is now Montana, forming a lake half the size of Lake Michigan. Eventually the ice dam crumbled and in three days all that water flowed across Washington to the sea. The maximum rate of flow during the breach is estimated to have been 10 times more volume than the entire world’s freshwater river flows combined!

When it was over, the scablands were left. Huge channels were gorged out of living rock, hills of glacial till were heaped up, monstrous boulders perched anomalously on flat mesa tops. All in all, perfect land for growing fine wine grapes, although it took 480 generations before folks got around to planting them.

Here’s the result:

2010 Fielding Hills ‘Riverbend Vineyard Wahluke Slope’ Merlot (Alc. 14.5 %) $36. Score: 16/20.
The wine presents a smoky nose of ripe, crushed berry aromas. It’s tannic, rich with black fruit flavors, and could use a good five years of cellaring. Showing gobs of licorice on the lengthy back end.

2008 Terra Blanca Winery ‘Signature Series’ Merlot (Alc. 13.5 %) $40. Score: 18/20.
A huge, inky black Merlot cellared for 28 months in 50 percent new French oak. On the nose, cigar box, dried herbs, and a fruity perfume. A huge mouthful of blackberries and varietally correct Merlot flavor with underlying minerality. The tannins are smooth. A finish that lingers. Drink now or hold it for years.

2010 Seven Hills Vineyard ‘Walla Walla Valley’ Merlot (Alc. 14.6 %) $35. Score: 15/20.
A lush, light, bright nose tinged with vanillin. Tannins are still gritty, but that will change. On the palate, a combination of red and black fruits: elderberry, black raspberry, red plums. Medium finish. Needs 2-3 years in the cellar to calm down.

2010 Pepper Bridge ‘Walla Walla Valley’ Merlot (Alc. 14.5 %) $50. Score: 16/20.
A fresh, pretty, and fruity nose with hints of spice and smoke. A pleasant note of aromatic herbs—not herbaceousness—and lots of red fruits like red currants and plums on the palate. Medium bodied. A good food wine. Drink now or cellar for up to five more years.

2010 Dusted Valley ‘Stone Tree Vineyard Wahluke Slope’ Bordeaux Blend (Alc. 15.3 %) $53. Score: 17/20.
This big, ripe blend—mostly Merlot—yields a deep, rich aroma of smoke and salumi followed in the mouth by dark plums, ripe berries, minerals, a touch of apricot, and a hint of summer savory herb. It has a complex, mouth-filling flavor. Very ripe fruit gives elevated alcohol along with complexity. Long finish.

2010 Barnard Griffin ‘Columbia Valley’ Merlot (Alc. 13.4 %). $17. Score: 19/20.
Deborah Barnard and Rob Griffin founded this winery in 1983 and have learned over the years how to make a real palate pleaser. Bright red fruits, yeast, and vanillin nose. The cherry-berry fruit is pure pleasure and lingers on the long finish. Stylish, lean, and ready to drink right now.

To sum up: The big, inky, tannic Merlots need some cellar time to emerge smooth and silky, while the most balanced wines are ready to drink now. The group shows an impressive depth and cements Washington’s reputation for robust Merlots.

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    Jeff Cox

    Jeff Cox
    Jeff Cox (B.A. Journalism, Lehigh University) has written three books and hundreds of magazine articles about wine for Decanter, The Wine News (where he was Contributing Editor), Men's Health, Diversion, Fine Wine Folio, and many other publications. Read More About Jeff