Just over three years ago, I wrote that “Merlot is Back.” I claimed that the unheralded grape “deserves a good deal more credit and appreciation than it receives for all the hard work it does in wineries around the world” based on its use in cabernet sauvignon and red blends, and also made a case for drinking varietally-labeled versions of it as well.
I dissected the notion that the movie Sideways put a major dent in merlot sales (it did not), and discovered that sinking merlot sales were the result of the industry going so hard in the merlot paint in the 1990s that they flooded the market with bad merlot. Consumers responded by buying less of it. Recognizing that they had planted a lot of subpar merlot vineyards, the industry replanted those to other varieties and focused their merlot attention on the best vineyards.
The result from these dynamics is that the percentage of merlot that is “good” shot up (because (a) the overall pool of merlot shrunk and (2) a focus on site quality went up), and it began to regain its reputation as quality wine.
In terms of market share, however, merlot is still doing terribly. This year’s Silicon Valley Bank State of the US Wine Industry 2022 report found that merlot was the worst performing varietal with the most significant negative growth rate (-13.7%).
Despite this decline, merlot’s central role in the industry remains as a critical blending grape for all ranges of wines, from the $12 Apothic red blend one finds in the grocery store to many of the world’s best red wines, including those from Bordeaux, Tuscany, California, Washington, Chile, Australia (and more!).
Regardless of whether it’s merlot’s role in the Apothic blend or its role as the plurality of the blend of Cheval Blanc (one of the world’s pre-eminent red wines), merlot is there for some very important reasons. Often it is used to smooth the tannin structure, provide weight in the mid-palate, or add characteristic flavors and aromas. Without these critical doses of merlots, many of our favorite red wines would be lacking an important characteristic or two and feel incomplete.
As a stand-alone grape, merlot has much to offer as well. In its less expensive version, it can be approachably full bodied with dark fruit, chocolate, and vanilla notes. This easy-drinking version offers enough to be enjoyable on its own and pair with a huge range of food (my favorite pairing is traditionally-made carne asada tacos). It also needs no aging once it’s been bottled, and actually should be consumed within a few years of being sealed.
Finding the best entry level merlot is easier than it once was because there are fewer on the market now. It’s at this price point especially that merlot can really outdistance cabernet sauvignon, it’s most similar and direct competitor in terms of profile and place at the dinner table.
Cabernet sauvignon is prone to being a structural “donut” wine, meaning that the mouthfeel has a hole in the middle. To achieve completeness on its own, cabernet requires especially good vineyard sites, great vintages, and tons of experienced tender love and care, meaning it is rare to find a complete wine made from 100% cabernet sauvignon for less than $50 (if not more). Not so for merlot, where complete wines are easily found at half the cost of a good cabernet.
Below I offer a range of merlots, from under $10 all the way up to $100, that I was able to taste for this piece. There are some real winners in the mix, and after all of the notes about them I suggest a few ways to explore merlot that I promise are worth your time. A note before we get into the reviews: these wines, with the exception of the rosé, were tasted blind.
For this article, I tried and was drawn to the 2019 Bonterra Organic Merlot, which can be found for less than $10. The saturated fruit-forward nose wafts cherry compote, boysenberry jam, rich black plum, Craisins, black pepper, and tar. Barely medium in body, the tannins are modest and slightly gritty while the acid is big and juicy. This is quite chuggable from a structure perspective. Flavors include bitter cherry, Acai, strawberry, cigar tobacco, vanilla bean, and black tea. Drink it over the next few years, and try it with tacos (avoid significant spice), things with marinara sauce (pizza, spaghetti, meatball subs, etc.), or classic non-vinegar barbecue. 91 points. Value A+
The $25-50 range is where I find merlot to be the most compelling from a quality-to-price ratio perspective. The domestic industry standard at this price point is Duckhorn Vineyards’ Napa Valley Merlot, which you can usually find for around $50 in many stores across the country. Duckhorn has received many awards over many years, and was just named one of Wine & Spirits’ Top 100 Wineries for the fourth year in a row. It’s top-flight Three Palms Vineyard merlot, from the 2014 vintage, was named Wine Spectator’s top wine of 2017.
I was able to taste the 2019 vintage of the Napa Valley merlot and found its reticent nose to feature cherry, boysenberry, maple, and vanilla. Even after letting the bottle sit for 24 hours, the nose remained relatively closed. The palate delivers some of the sweetness promised in the bouquet, with modestly broad gritty tannins and juicy acidity delivering cherry, strawberry, black plum, vanilla, and tar. Straightforward, and error-free, it does gain some density with exposure to air. I’d wager this will be significantly better in three or four years, and am giving it 89 points with a value rating of B-.
A perpetually top-performing merlot in this $25-50 range is the Napa Valley bottle from Rutherford Hill, one of the more prolific merlot producers around. The 2019’s nose features cherry, fruit leather, dark cocoa powder, orange zest, and pink pepper. It’s on the heavier end of medium body with taut, densely grained tannin and well-managed acid forming a highly structured wine that delivers copious amounts of tobacco, leather, and black tea that provide the foundation for modest amounts of cherry, strawberry, and dried herbs. This really loosened up with 24 hours in the bottle, though ideally it’ll get a good five years of cellaring to fully expressing itself. Ten years might be best. 92 points, value A+.
I’ve also found Duckhorn’s Decoy Merlot to be a perennial performer, and the 2019 is no different. The bright and very red bouquet includes aromas of raspberry, strawberry, Sweetarts, spring flowers, and cherry pit. Medium bodied with soft and fairly smooth tannin, it’s main physical feature is the juicy acid that coats the mouth. The flavor profile includes bright cherry, strawberry, red plum, blood orange, and rose hip. Very nice right now. 91 points, value A.
If you’re looking to venture outside of California and are willing to spend in the $60s, you might want to try the Pedestal from Washington State’s Long Shadows Winery. A collaboration with famed Bordeaux-based wine consultant Michel Rolland, the Pedestal is one of Washington’s classic merlots. Compared to California, and acknowledging the broad generalization, I find Washington’s merlots to be more minerally-driven. This attack is often led by a note of graphite and followed by scorched earth.
I was able to try the 2018 Pedestal for this article, which I decanted for about three hours before tasting. Kirsch, black cherry, boysenberry, graphite, and scorched earth feature on the dark nose. It takes on weight in the mouth as the long, finely grained tannins oxygenate and build towards a nearly full-bodied structure. Balanced by slightly juicy acid, the tannins do some drying service that exposes cherry, cocoa, black plum, black pepper, scorched earth, and Worcester sauce. The black tea tannin brings a slightly bitter licorice flavor to the finish. This New World meets Old World merlot is likely just starting to come out of its original dormant phase, and I imagine it’ll evolve positively over the next five or so years. 92 points, value D.
The Bottles of Revelations
There were two revelations of the tasting, the 2019 Markham Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot and the 2019 Tom Mackey Cellars Woolard Family Vineyard Merlot, the latter a sample I was sent last year and only got around to tasting for this article. From Sonoma, the Woolard Family Vineyard is not available on the winery’s website nor does it, or any vintage, show up on wine-searcher.com. That’s unfortunate, because I found it to be the most fun and engaging wine from the entire line up to drink.
The super-rich nose features saturated cherry, violet, bruised strawberry, baking spice, kirsch, and tobacco. Medium bodied with long, astringent tannin and really bright acid, the structure builds a great amount of physical depth in the wine. Cherry, rhubarb, black tea, tobacco, and florals feature on the slightly salty palate. This needs an overnight decant now to expose its depth, but better yet put this in the cellar for 3-5 years. 93 points, value indiscernible.
The Markham has a quiet nose that features cherry, strawberry, rose petal, red plum, and red currant. A very polished mouthfeel makes for a full body with thick, soft tannin and modest acid; it’s a drink-now structure. Flavors include cherry juice, Chinese plum sauce, salmon berry, moist earth, and black pepper. This is one to drink over the next few years, and a little different from others in this tasting profile-wise. 93 points, value A+.
Best for the Cellar
At the far end of the stylistic spectrum, merlot can be highly structured and stuffed with flavors and aromas that take at least a decade to fully unwind and integrate. It’s usually at the higher price point where these wines are found. I was able to taste two such wines for this piece: the 2019 La Jota Vineyards Merlot and the 2019 Mt. Brave Merlot.
I decanted half of each bottle for a few hours, then poured the decanters back into their respective bottles, let them sit out for 24 hours, and then tasted them over a few nights. The tasting notes below are reflective of what I experienced 72 hours into the process.
The nose of the La Jota is at half mast, showing sweet blackberry and plum, black currant, blueberry, and clove. Full bodied, the structure is a nice combination of precise acid and broad and soft tannin. The longer it’s in the mouth, the more grit and chew that develops (and becomes mouth coating). Red plum and cherry, blackberry, raspberry, violet, tamari, and black tea are all pronounced in the flavor profile. This shows, if barely, primary development and is one to cellar for at least seven or eight years, if not fifteen to twenty if you can wait that long. I gave it 93 points and a value of C.
The Mt. Brave similarly takes a lot of time to really come out of its shell. The modestly boastful nose includes black cherry, muddled strawberry, black licorice, mulling spice, and black plum. Full bodied with broad, lush, and finely grained tannins and juicy acid, the youthful structure and significant chew and depth indicates a long positive evolution ahead. Flavors include salty plum, cigar tobacco, dark cherry, blackberry, tar, and cassis. Far too young to fully enjoy right now, I wouldn’t touch this until at least 2026 and can easily see it reaching the height of its evolution around 2030. 94 points, value C+.
Best Application (and Wine of the Tasting)
Back in 2019, I published a Try This Wine focus on the 2018 Rutherford Hills Limited Release Rosé of Merlot in which I point out that, among other things, the wine represents two things people don’t buy: merlot and $34 rosé. Nevertheless, I recommended people try the wine because “substantive rosés are rare in availability and especially good, and because it’s a great way to experience an unfairly stereotyped grape.”
The 2021 vintage is no different in that it remains one of the most impressive, substantive, and memorable rosés I’ve had. When rosé is purpose-built like Rutherford approaches this bottle each year, it can be more than red fruit flavors and lively acidity. It can develop additional types of fruit flavors, put on some floral qualities, and offer enough heft to stand up to just about any food you want to have with it.
For my palate the royal family of rosé is those produced in Bandol, a tiny appellation in France’s Provence region. The good stuff, which is most of what comes out of Bandol given its size, has red and black fruits, fennel, pepper, and even some game. If I were to ever stock up on rosé, my focus would be Bandol.
And if I were to do that, I’d put some of this Rutherford rosé alongside it. While it’s not inexpensive (and neither is Bandol), it’s not a wine you blow through, either, because it offers similar substance and therefore engages the mind enough to elongate the time between sips. This 2021 vintage has a potpourri-esque nose that features ripe cherry and strawberry, watermelon, rose hips, and orange zest. Fuller bodied for a rose, it offers broad and lush acid that delivers strawberry, red plum, red currant, lime zest, and tangerine. 92 points, value A.
2018 Peju Napa Valley Merlot: The soft, floral-driven nose features pastel florals, cherry, strawberry, plum, and soil. It’s an elevated medium body with bright acid and finely grained medium-sized tannins that present a flavor profile of tart cherry, young strawberry, blood orange, and plum, all laced with tar and wet soil. Only after extended aeration did the tannins not overwhelm the lightness of the acid. This makes it both easily accessible and a little out of balance. 88 points, value F.
2018 Markham Vineyards Yountville District Merlot: The nose suggests real depth, though it’s a bit shy at the moment. Aromas include sweet cherry and plum, milk chocolate, and Allspice. Nearly full in body, the acid is bright and the tannin both mouth filling and finely grained. Structurally this is very pleasant with no imbalances at the moment, though the tannic grip – and associated black tea flavors – grows with exposure to oxygen. Flavors include tart cherry, strawberry, red plum, orange zest, and rhubarb. One might mistake this for Sonoma pinot noir. Tasting nice now, I imagine it’ll have an interesting evolution over the next five or so years. 92 points, value: D.
Not a lot of people tell me merlot is their favorite wine, and it’s certainly not mine, either. I’d wager that most of my wine friends don’t stock or seek merlot out. However, I’m a big believer in the grape namely because of what it can do on three fronts: it’s critical to producing good varietally-labeled cabernet sauvignon (and is a big value-add in red blends), it’s among the best quality-to-price ratio red wines in the $25-50 range, and it makes among the best and most complete rosé out there.
On these three fronts I really encourage readers to pursue merlot. Put some time into finding cabernet sauvignons with 10-25% merlot and see how they compare to your go-to 100% cabernets. Try the Decoy and Mackey and Markham and Rutherford merlots when you need super-well performing red wine values. Get yourself some merlot rosé (especially the Rutherford Hill). And what the hell, if you don’t mind investing three figures and ten-plus years, lay a bottle of the high end stuff down and see what you think when it’s fully mature. It’s hard for me to imagine an open mind trying each of these approaches and not finding at least one a favorable and worthwhile experience.