The night of our 2010 Castello Holiday Party I was seated at a table with executive winemaker Brooks Painter. As dessert was served, a decadent Bouche Noelle, we were contemplating our next pour. No small task! Lovers of the sweet anxiously awaited the succulent Late Harvest Gewurztraminer. Tempting. However, in the corner of the rooms I saw a bottle of something red. To my delight it was the highly anticipated 2006 Castello di Amorosa Merlot. Rich chocolate goodness with Merlot? Brooks and I agreed; Yes, please! We toasted another great year and then…..Silence as we took a moment to contemplate the wine. This Merlot was stellar. Heavy intoxicating aromatics with a smooth velvety palate of bittersweet cocoa and blackberries. I asked Brooks where the fruit was sourced from as it differed from the past fruit-driven Merlots of Castello. For the 2006 Merlot Brooks brought in fruit from vineyards near the south end of the Napa Valley, closer to the San Pablo Bay and the fog that rolls in off the Pacific. Made sense. Cooler vineyard sites allow the fruit to mature slowly while maintaining structure and natural acidity. Our admiration was well-deserved as the 2006 Castello di Amorosa release was voted one of the best Napa Valley Merlots of the vintage.
Merlot: typically more approachable than Cabernet Sauvignon, more versatile with food – what’s with all the bad press? (pun intended) Some of my most memorable 'wine dinners’ have prominently featured this viticultural also-ran. Later that night my thoughts turned to past Merlot Super Moments. This trip down memory lane required a bit of travel.
First stop: Italy. Although not specifically known for great Merlot, a few standouts are indeed vino Italiano. Tuscany’s Galatrona Petrolo and Masseto by Ornellaia are two of the finest expressions of Merlot I’ve had. Unfortunately price and availability can be prohibitive. For lovely lush Italian Merlot that won’t break the bank, travel north to the Friuli-Venezia region. Livio Felluga produces Merlot that never disappoints. For approximately $20 this luxurious red is perfect with slow braised fork-tender short ribs and mushroom risotto…..listen closely…..those are angels singing.
Now, across the globe to South America. Chile is now the 4th largest exporter of wine to the U.S. and has 33,000 acres planted to Merlot. (2nd most planted varietal to Cabernet Sauvignon of course). I went to a BBQ last summer and brought a few bottles of one of my favorites from this exciting region; Santa Ema. This $10 Merlot has and edge and is always met with approval. Turns out this southern hemisphere bottling works great with spice rubbed grilled chicken quarters.
And back to where it all began: France. Not only is Merlot the most planted varietal in the country, in the Bordeaux region Merlot accounts for 172,000 acres planted compared to Cabernet Sauvignon’s 72,000. In St. Emilion, 70% of all planted grapes are Merlot. Wines from this region, although Merlot dominant, are primarily blends; they embody elegance and restraint. Be adventurous….pick up a few right-bank’ers in the $30-$40 range and enjoy with roast leg of lamb or grilled duck breast. Two of my favorites: Chateau Monbousquet and Chateau Tertre Roteboeuf, my favorite prime roast beef wine.
I applaud and encourage all global explorations of this soft maligned varietal. In Napa Valley, where Merlot excels at higher elevations and cooler vineyard sites, this once exploited grape is being produced with new vigor and excitement.
Be adventurous and in your endeavors may you find out why Merlot is said to be the “flesh on the Cabernet Sauvignon’s bones.”
Mary Davidek C.S, C.S.W