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
Recently, Joe and Matt of Thumbs Up Wine paid a visit to the Castello, and had a blast making this fantastic video. It's THE CASTLE!
Matt and Joe from Thumbs Up Wine
"If you're coming to the Napa Valley either for a day or for a week, there are certain things you have to see. We call them the Seven Wonders of the World, and this is one of them: THE CASTLE!" - Joe, Thumbs Up Wine
Toasting our Il Barone with Dario
The Thumbs Up Crew with Dario
Thank you Matt and Joe for such a great review of the Castello! We're looking forward to your next visit!
Castello di Amorosa's 2008 La Castellana Super Tuscan Blend
93 points, The Wine Enthusiast, May 2013
Made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with a splash of Sangiovese, this super Tuscan-style blend is powerful in every respect. It shows massively concentrated blackberry and crème de cassis flavors, with notes of dark chocolate and spices. The oak is rich and toasty, the tannins thick but as soft as silk, and the acidity lively enough to give all this richness a racy hit. Best enjoyed now and over the next 2–3 years for sheer Napa exuberance.
View Wine Enthusiast's review in their Buying Guide here
I have always rooted for the underdog, drawn to the dark horse; sure things and odds on favorites need not apply…..My Dad would have said being a Dodger fan has taken its toll. And so it goes; when it comes to wines my preference also leans to the runner-up. I often pass on the popular choice and instead, opt for its viticulture next of kin. When Cabernet Sauvignon is what’s for dinner, trust I will be sipping Merlot.
Not to say dark brooding Cabernet isn’t tempting with its flirtatious undertones of blackberry, cassis, dark cherry and chocolate…..wait…..am I describing Merlot? Yes. In fact, on a palate chart Cabernet and Merlot are kissing cousins and easily confused. If you want to have some fun, (admittedly wine-geeky fun) invite a few friends for a blind-tasting featuring Cabernet and Merlot. Make certain the wines are of similar pedigree, bottles in the $25 to $45 price range offer worthy contenders. Castello di Amorosa’s 2006 and 2008 Merlot are two of my favorite wines produced by Brooks Painter and his Castello team. Put these beauties in the lineup and even in the presence of well-seasoned palates, I predict a dead heat; a 50/50 split. In tasting panels Merlot is said to possess a softness or a roundness not typically associated with Cabernet. Why then the ridicule for this benevolent cultivar, which is, in fact, the most widely planted grape in all of France!? (Sacre bleu). Truth be told, Merlot is prolific in many regions and quite possibly this is at the root of its undoing.
Merlot could wear the banner "Just Because You Can Grow Something Doesn’t Mean You Should" but we’ll cover geography in Part 2. This over-abundance and plenitude eventually lead to Merlot becoming the marketing darling of the 90’s. Finally a wine our thick American tongues could pronounce. (I wonder how many “peanut noyas” were ordered?) Restaurants eagerly filled their wine lockers with this fashionable red. However, this trend ran its course as the over-planted Merlot often bordered on insipid rather than inspiring and earned a “sideways” glance.
Seemingly overnight Merlot became ‘persona non grata’ in tasting rooms as an often quoted movie line rang through the wine country. Out went Merlot and in came the next grape of favor. (shh, don’t tell me chateau Petrus!)
Well, fear not Merlot loving readers! Merlot is back with a vengeance and it’s better than ever. Next I’ll cover a few regions that are cultivating this classic with new vigor and excitement.
Until then, go drink some Merlot!
Mary Davidek C. S., S.W.