Buyers Guide to VINTAGES – March 17th, 2018

Middle of the Road Merlot
by David Lawrason with notes from Michael Godel and Sara d’Amato

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

I have been waiting for a reason to write about much maligned, middle of the road merlot – the lounge singer of red wine grapes. VINTAGES has finally served up the opportunity with its “spotlight” on one of the world’s most prevalent red grapes.

I have a confession to make. I like merlot, if it’s good.

I was in Napa last week, on a quick scouting mission for a Gold Medal Plates tour I am hosting next year. It was not a tasting trip per se, but I was very impressed by two Napa merlots that crossed my path. One was from Stewart Family at their ‘main street’ tasting room in Yountville, with a tiny production of wines made under the stewardship of consultant Paul Hobbs (an upstate New York raised winemaker who has also worked with Stratus in Ontario). The other was from Girard (represented in Ontario by Azureau Wines & Spirits) in their tasting room across the street. Both were absolutely delicious, involving and satisfying. They possessed ripe, rich, inviting aromas of plum, blackberry, chocolate – with a side order of gentle herbaceousness. They were full, soft and comforting, yet obviously of very high quality.

But merlot has become a variety where most producers cut corners, shave the edges, and deliver a rounded, sweetish red that no one really cares about – except that it be rounded, fruity and sweetish. Even winemakers themselves often seem not to care much about making merlot, perhaps because it is not as challenging as fitting it into a blend. It is one of the least talked and written about wines.

California Wine Fair

Once the most important red grape in California, merlot’s death knell was sounded in a famous scene in the 2005 Academy Award nominated film, “Sideways”, when the well lubricated, sensitive, writer, pinot noir-loving character named Miles, instructed his equally lubricated hedonistic sidekick named Jack, not to order any f-ing merlot in a restaurant they were about to enter. Three years after the movie aired, I was at Matanzas Creek winery in Sonoma which had built its reputation on merlot. I was told they had grafted over a significant portion of their merlot vineyard to pinot noir.

Merlot has always hung its pedigree on Bordeaux where it remains the most planted red variety. It dominates in the blends of St. Emilion and Pomerol – some elevated to the most expensive red wines on the planet, like Chateau Petrus. Yet it is also the work horse of many less expensive Bordeaux appellations, where real value is to be found nowadays. Heads up: my favourite unsung merlot appellation is Castillon, up-stream from St. Emilion.

But the right bank Bordeaux wines usually have very little to do with the New World incarnation of merlot, because indeed most are blends. And because Bordeaux is cooler, they are leaner, more restrained and driven by more savoury and earthy flavours. Simply, they are less fruity. So if I were a vigneron making a living in Bordeaux I would not be hitching my wagon to the New World idiom, or even putting the word Merlot on my labels.

The selection in the VINTAGES’ merlot feature offers the opportunity to compare the two styles side by side. And it does have a couple of good New World examples, although the California editions are pricey.

Elsewhere in this release there are some other dandy New World wines, so read on. And, in case you missed it, John featured the Euro wines last week in Part One.

Buyers Guide to VINTAGES March 17th


Rutherford Hill 2014 Merlot, Napa Valley, California ($39.95)
David Lawrason – This is a straight-arrow Napa merlot that captures some of the easy richness and fruit of the variety, but underpins it with some tannic structure and even a touch of minerality. Some subtle sage and fine oak spicing is found on the finish. Expensive but well done.
Sara d’Amato – Napa merlot specialist, Rutherford Hill has been producing this varietal in the Valley since 1972, inspired by the great right bank merlots of Pomerol. Still, 75% of production is dedicated to merlot and this incarnation shows distinctive finesse. Rich and fleshy but offering firm tannic structure, an appealing peppery aroma and impressive concentration. Hold onto this merlot for another 2-3 years for best expression.

Château Langlais 2010 Puisseguin-Saint-Émilion, Bordeaux ($39.95)
David Lawrason –  This is the same price and achieved the same 90-point rating as the Rutherford Hill, but it is a very different Bordelais experience. It was a great vintage in Bordeaux, and now seven years on this has evolved to peak perfection. There is just a wisp of must here but I really like fairly intense nose of raspberry, dried herbs, earth/graphite and oak. Some florality as well. It is medium weight, quite firm and a touch green.

Rutherford Hill Merlot 2014Château Langlais 2010Wildass Merlot 2016Kim Crawford Merlot 2016

Wildass Merlot 2016, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($18.95)
Michael Godel – Long hang time, attention paid to sorting and just enough wood elevate the grape and put this merlot in mind of something more expensive, perhaps Hawke’s Bay, the Western Cape or even South America. Plush, liquid argilo tannins and fine acidity seal the deal. Must be a merlot vintage on the Peninsula.

Kim Crawford 2016 Merlot, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand ($19.95)
David Lawrason – NZ merlots are pretty much confined to the warmer Hawkes Bay region on the east coast of the North Island. This conforms to almost every expectation of merlot, if missing some plummy richness on the palate. It is medium weight, fairly mellow and creamy with some earthiness on the finish.

New World Whites

Robert Mondavi Winery 2013 Reserve Fumé Blanc To Kalon Vineyard, Napa Valley, California ($59.95)
David Lawrason – To-Kalon is the historic home vineyard at Robert Mondavi, and other than the Cab Reserve, this is the signature wine of the site. This is a powerful, intense-barrelled sauvignon with some semillon. Expect intense aromas of toasty oak, spearmint, fresh herbs and exotic persimmon/orange. It is full-bodied, fairly creamy and thick but driven by this intense greenness – lime peel, arugula and huge hit of citrus and bitterness on the finish.
Michael Godel – As with all the Mondavi Fumé Blanc wines the minor amount of sémillon is not the kicker. It’s the texture provided by To Kalon fruit so that vineyard voice is always louder than that of varietal(s). That said the Reserve is a very different wine to its Oakville sister, less flinty, smoky and sharp. Its smokiness is but a wisp and its acidity is finer than many, which is saying a lot.

Greenhough 2016 Sauvignon Blanc, Nelson, New Zealand ($20.95)
Sara d’Amato – The sunny, surfing town of Nelson, on the north tip of the south island, is home to significant plantings of sauvignon blanc. The sunshine and clay soils give rise to wines that are a touch rounder and riper than those of neighbouring Marlborough. Low-yielding, organically grown grapes are fermented with wild yeast and a portion with aromatic strains to give generous lift to the nose. The style is fresh but not austere with less green and more authentic stone fruit character than you might be used to from New Zealand.

Robert Mondavi Winery Reserve Fumé Blanc To Kalon Vineyard 2013Greenhough Sauvignon Blanc 2016Tohu Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2016Wakefield St. Andrews Chardonnay 2015

Tohu Single Vineyard 2016 Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand ($21.95)
David Lawrason – This fruit salad sauvignon sports a very lifted nose of passion fruit, spearmint and grapefruit. It is medium weight, intense and very fresh, almost spritzed. Essentially dry but the very concentrated passion fruit on the palate leaves a sweetish impression.

Wakefield St. Andrews Chardonnay 2015, Single Vineyard Release, Clare Valley, South Australia ($34.95)
Michael Godel – From plantings that date back to 1982, young by Clare Valley but wise by chardonnay standards, it is Wakefield that aims high, deals in tight reduction and delivers a fine bite of fruit and barrel. It’s quite a sweetly spiced masala of and for chardonnay that will settle into a waxy, honeyed and suede skin with another year or two.

New World Reds

Burrowing Owl 2015 Syrah, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia ($44.95)
Michael Godel – With classic Burrowing Owl heft, depth and great layering this syrah continues to develop its character, even at it sits in the glass. Putting a nose in this 2015 is like standing in the great butcher shop hung with marbled steers and legs of most perfect jamon. As if the meaty bovine and porcine confluence were not enough, this syrah delves deep into warm climate accents, of smoky Barque char, briny black olive and garrigue.

Wither Hills 2014 Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand  ($29.95)
David Lawrason – This is a quite flavourful, smooth and intense pinot with rather overly-generous wood smoke and vanilla. But there is considerable sour cherry/rhubarb pie fruitiness as well. It is smooth, warm and creamy with low tannin. Ready to roll, slightly sour edged.

Burrowing Owl Syrah 2015Wither Hills Pinot Noir 2014Obsidian Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

Obsidian Ridge Estate 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Obsidian Ridge Vineyard, Red Hills Lake County, California ($49.95)
Michael Godel – At 800m Obsidian Ridge Vineyard is a place of great California altitude and the fun doubles down with black rock origins in the volcanics of the Red Hills Lake County. Few vineyards are higher, edgier or as interesting in the Mayacamas Range and so there is great anticipation for this cabernet sauvignon. It does not disappoint. The mountain fruit rocks, the acidity is righteous, alcohol generous and the young fruit nearing a jammy curve.

Monterra Fleurieu Peninsula Nero d’Avola 2016, Fleurieu Peninsula, South Australia ($18.95)
Michael Godel – The alternative varietal play is made with a light and amaro-herbal nero d’avola by Monterra off of the Fleurie valley floor. The idea here is to habituate a Mediterranean grape variety in a far away place with both soil and climate capable of simulating the Sicilian ideal. It does so albeit with some reduction and just past centre black cherry ripeness.

Monterra Fleurieu Peninsula Nero d'Avola 2016Barossa Valley Estate E&E Black Pepper Shiraz 2014

Barossa Valley Estate 2014 E & E Black Pepper Shiraz, Barossa Valley, South Australia ($89.95)
David Lawrason – This monumental shiraz is one of Australia’s great reds. It has such an immediate, generous and complex nose – packed with black cherry/kirsch, pepper, oak vanillin, wild herbs/thyme/mint (not menthol), oak chocolate and some graphite. It is full-bodied, dense, smooth and creamy with great internal combustion; yet so elegant for such a big wine. 95+

And that’s a wrap for this edition. I will see you next week with the Part One Preview of the March 31 release.

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

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