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Merlot.   Once a go to staple of American wine consumers, the grape fell out of favor when a hapless character in a (silly) movie, the 2004 blockbuster Sideways, served up Merlot as Pinot Noir’s doormat.

If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving, I’m not drinking any fucking Merlot.”  

These words, uttered by the cantankerous oenophile Miles Raymond (played by Paul Giamatti) is widely considered the catalyst for the abrupt drop in American Merlot sales.  

The results of study by Sonoma State University confirmed the movie did have a notable negative impact on American Merlot sales (referred to as the Sideways Effect).

The glut of inferior, industrialized Merlot (at the lower price points in particular) also contributed to the grape’s popularity nosedive to be sure.

The Sideways Effect is long since over and the change of season is a good reason to get reacquainted with food-friendly, versatile, easy-drinking wines made from Merlot.

I recently gathered with our local tasting group on a warm Sunday afternoon to taste a few American Merlots not from Napa.  I contributed several Virginian Merlots while the others brought bottles from California, Washington, North Carolina, and New York.

Following are six of my favorites from the tasting:

Breaux Vineyards 2002 Merlot Reserve
USA, Virginia, Loudoun CountyIMG_7531
100% Merlot
13.8% abv | $39 (release price)
One of the most recognized Virginia wineries, Breaux is located in Loudoun County,  about 50 miles west of Washington, DC.  After a dozen years in bottle, this Merlot is still fresh and delivers great fruit and acidity.  Darker garnet color in the glass, this wine offers notes of dark cherry, tobacco, and earth with mocha on the edges.  From year-to-year, Breaux may be Virginia’s premier Merlot producer.  If you can find it, buy it.  If you have it, drink it.

North Gate Vineyard 2013 Merlot
USA, Virginia, Loudoun County
90% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot
13.5% abv | $19
Not part of Sunday’s tasting, I tasted this wine on Thursday during the September Virginia Wine Chat.  Another gem in Virginia’s Loudoun County, North Gate winery was opened in 2007 by husband-wife team of Mark & Vicki Fedor.  Known for their well-made, balanced wines, the Fedors planted their first estate vineyard in 2002. This is my favorite North Gate wine. Delicious. Fresh. Balanced. Easy drinking.  Ruby color in the glass, this wine smells of ripe plums, cedar and cocoa.  Flavors of dark berries mix with spice and mocha.  Writer Isaac James Baker joined us for the ‘chat, read his review of North Gate Merlot here.

Annefield Vineyards 2012 Merlot
USA, Virginia, Charlotte County
100% Merlot
12.2% abv | $22
IMG_7527Dating back to 1746, the beautiful, historic Annefield property is located in Charlotte County, about 110 miles due south of Charlottesville, VA.  The property was purchased by Stephen Ballard and Michael Leary ten years ago.  In 2006, Ballard and Leary planted the first three acre block and today the Annefield estate vineyard is just over eight acres.  Noted winemaker and viticultural consultant, Michael Shaps, serves as Annefield’s winemaker.  Ballard authors one of my favorite (and best written) winery blogs, called Bottled Poetry.  About the Merlot; aromatic, blackberry, baking spice and cocoa on the edges.  Balanced with lively tannins.  

Barboursville Vineyards 2013 Merlot Reserve
USA, Virginia, Orange County, Monticello AVA
95% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot
13% | $31
Founded in 1976 by Gianni Zonin of the noted Italian wine family bearing the same name, Barboursville is arguably Virginia’s best-known winery today.  Virginia wine pioneer, Gabrielle Rausse, also from Italy, helped establish the modern-day Virginia wine industry as the first winemaker at Barboursville. Twenty-five years ago, Luca Paschina, from Piemonte, took over winemaking at Barboursville and is today one of the most renowned vintners on the east coast making some of the most recognized wines — like their flagship red blend, Octagon — in the region. The Barboursville property is rich with Virginia history.  The ruins of former Virginia Governor James Barbour’s home, designed by Thomas Jefferson, largely destroyed by a fire on Christmas Day in 1884, serve as the historic centerpiece of the Barboursville property.  The Merlot for this wine was grown in the Goodlow Mountain Vineyard in the Monticello AVA.  Complex, concentrated without being over-the-top, with loads of fruit and hints of cedar and smoke. The small amount of Petit Verdot adds color and body.  Like the rest of Paschina’s Reserve wines, this Merlot is superbly balanced.

I believe Merlot is Virginia’s most underrated and underappreciated grape.  Thanks to wineries like North Gate, Breaux, Barboursville, Chester Gap and a few others producing quality Merlot, this grape is having a bit of a Renaissance here in the Commonwealth.

Liberty School 2013 Merlot
USA, California, Central Coast
100% Merlot
13.5% | ~ $15
Part of the Hope Family Wine group that includes Treana, Austin Hope, Can*Dor, and LibertySchoolMerlot Troublemaker brands. The Hope family acquired the Liberty School label in 1995 from Chuck Wagner of Caymus.  With the bottles still bagged, one of my fellow tasters declared, “this is textbook California Merlot” referring to the big, fruit-forward style.  I don’t drink much California Merlot so I’m not able to validate his comment with my own experience but, this was one of the overall favorites of the tasting.  Dark ruby color, aromas of ripe dark berries, leather, and mocha jumped from the glass.   Flavors of blackberries mixed with cedar and chocolate for a smooth, round mouthfeel.  Silky tannins. Solid value at this price point.

Chateau Ste Michelle Canoe Ridge Estate 2012 Merlot
USA, Washington, Horse Heaven Hills
90% Merlot, 10% Cab Sauvignon
14.5% | $36
IMG_7533I tagged this one as a Virginian Merlot.  I was only 3,000 miles off.  Aromatic and geographic dyslexia I suppose.  A pleasant surprise. I continue to be impressed with the wines I taste from Washington state (especially the Syrahs) and the Horse Heaven Hills AVA in particular.  This wine is made from fruit grown in the 559 acre (whoa!) Canoe Ridge Estate vineyard in this ‘must watch’ region. Situated in southeastern, Washington, Horse Heaven Hills is bordered by the Yakima Valley on the north and by the Columbia River and Oregon on the south.  Several months ago I included HHH in an article I wrote for Wine Awesomeness — ‘Off the Radar American Regions.’  Consider this wine the next time you grill burgers.

For a Merlot splurge, consider the stunningly delicious Matthiasson 2011 Red Hen Merlot (100% Merlot, ~ $80) from Napa, CA, or the exceptional 2007 Merlot ($48) from Breaux Vineyards.  Neither of these wines were opened at the recent Merlot tasting but I have enjoyed both in recent months.

As the risk of stating the obvious, there are no shortage of excellent Merlots from St. Emilion, Pomerol, and especially Fronsac as well as Italy and Chile.  

Remember, the perfect Merlot is the one you like.  

Drink what you like with people you like!

* Each wine was provided as a sample with the exception of the Annefield Merlot.