Merlot: It’s (expletive) fine!

By Published On: January 31, 2024

“Merlot: It’s (expletive) fine,” exclaimed Jonathan Cristaldi, the moderator for “Merlot Renaissance: Celebrating Two Decades Beyond Sideways,” at the annual Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento January 23-25.

The session began with a brief overview of the “The State of Merlot” 20 years after the grape variety was disparaged in that single misunderstood line from the 2004 movie, Sideways – “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving, I am NOT drinking any (expletive) Merlot!”

According to a 2022 USDA report referenced in a January 24, 2024 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, “This famously overlooked wine is commanding new attention in Napa Valley,” 183,500 tons were crushed in California alone. While down from the reported 311,000 tons in 2020, Merlot remains a popular variety among enthusiasts, winegrowers, and winemakers. 

Markham Vineyards’ winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls sang the phrases of Merlot in Napa Valley, where its aroma and taste profile varies from south to north depending on the vineyards’ proximity to marine influence, soil types, elevation and more. “It can show red fruit flavors like zippy raspberry and sour cherry, to darker ones like blackberry, blackcurrant, and plum. Merlot is velvety, sexy, and lush,” she said.

The majority of the session was devoted to tasting four samples of Merlot at varying price points – two from Napa Valley, one from Yakima Valley, and one from Bordeaux – all of which showed why Merlot is still a sought-after wine. The four winemakers – Kimberlee Nicholls (Napa), William Camarda (Washington), Omri Ram (Bordeaux), and Chelsea Barrett (Napa) – led attendees through the tasting of their wines – the session highlight – and demonstrated how great Merlot can be.

Kimberlee Nicholls, Markham Vineyards, California
2019 Markham Napa Valley Vineyards Merlot Yountville Ranch Vineyard, Napa Valley ($67 winery direct)
Nicholls only made 16 barrels (approximately 230 cases) of this single-parcel 100% Merlot (100% clone 181). Aged for 25 months in French oak (69% new), it is deep, dark, and dense with flavors like juicy blackcurrant, ripe plum, dark chocolate, and a dash of baking spices – an age-worthy beauty that is sure to please now and for decades to come.

William Camarda, Andrew Will Winery, Washington
2020 Andrew Will Winery Two Blondes Merlot Yakima Valley, Washington ($36 winery direct)
Camarda’s wine is also 100% Merlot (clones 181 and 348) from the winery’s estate vineyard, Two Blonds. It is native yeast fermented, bottled unfiltered and unfined, then aged in French oak (20% new) for 23 months. Silky-smooth, soft, and round with bright red cherry flavors, it is a fine example of what Merlot should be.

Omri Ram, Château Lafleur, France
2020 Château Grand Village Bordeaux Supérieur (SRP around $24 – winesearcher.com)
This classic Bordeaux from Pomerol’s renowned Château Lafleur – a blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc – is vibrant, yet rich – like a bowlful of freshly picked black cherries and black plum enveloped in coffee, chocolate, and baking spices. This wine delivers well above its price.

Chelsea Barrett, California
2021 Materra Right Bank, Oak Knoll, Napa Valley ($65 winery direct)
Barrett only made 1008 cases of this homage to Bordeaux’s Right Bank and the vineyard’s proximity to the Napa River – a blend of 91% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Cabernet Sauvignon aged in French oak (51% new) for 18 months. Sour cherry and ripe red plum take center stage with a backdrop of toasty oak and vanilla and a silky-soft texture.

The session concluded with a lively discussion with the author of Sideways, Rex Pickett – and a sneak peek and signing of his next book which will feature New Zealand.

But I could not get my mind off of Merlot.

Upon my return to Napa, I raided my wine stash and found another example of Merlot worth adding to the list.

2021 Matt Parish Special Bottling Napa Valley Merlot ($51.99 market price)
Parish’s wine is a blend of 92% Merlot and 8% Cabernet Sauvignon harvested from vineyards in Carneros and Oak Knoll, left on the skins for over a month after fermentation, then aged 18 months in French oak (25% new). It is lush – a rush of red cherry melds with fine oak spice to deliver an elegant, plush rendition of Merlot.

“Merlot, in my opinion, is coming back – if it actually ever left,” wrote Parish. “To be honest, Merlot never left – even in Bordeaux, Merlot is still the most widely planted variety – and that’s for good reason!”

Indeed. Merlot: It’s (expletive) fine!

About the Author: Elizabeth Smith

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Dr. Elizabeth Smith is a former college professor and wine club manager turned award-winning wine writer, copywriter, and marketer. Elizabeth is a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier International Sacramento and Sonoma Chapters, the Circle of Wine Writers and the Food, Wine, and Travel Writers Association. Connect with Elizabeth at easmith.net/contact.