What: Wineries don’t usually celebrate anniversaries of a particular wine, but as Markham Vineyards marks the 35th vintage of its flagship merlot, the excitement is justified.
Markham has been one of the premier producers of merlot for many years, helping propel it to prominence in the New World. Merlot comes from Bordeaux, where it often is the backbone of great blends. Merlot and cabernet sauvignon are the stars of most of the great red Bordeuax wines. In blind tastings it can be hard to tell the two varietals apart.
The Markham merlot is an easy-to-drink wine, but one that has some backbone. It is a gorgeous dark ruby color, with seductive aromas of cherry, vanilla and dark chocolate. On the palate are vibrant cherry, blackberry and blueberry. The finish is long and graceful with some subtle herb flavors. Nice chewy tannins give the wine good structure.
The wine is 86 percent merlot, 12 percent cabernet sauvignon and 2 percent petite sirah, mostly from estate fruit grown in vineyards throughout the Napa Valley. The Oak Knoll grapes add the cherry character, while Yountville fruit adds cherry aromas. The rich fruit notes come from warmer upper valley Calistoga vineyards.
The vineyard managers spend a lot of effort approaching harvest to maintain the canopy in the vineyard, allowing the fruit to mature and color evenly out of the direct sun. After picking, the grapes are fermented in separate lots, allowing the characteristics of each vineyard to show up in the finished blend.
The grapes are fermented with skin contact for 11 days in stainless steel. Then the wine is aged 15 months in 28 percent new oak barrels.
The firmness of the tannins and the luscious fruit make me think this wine will age well, perhaps for as long as another six to seven years. It is drinking so well now, it will be difficult for wine lovers to let it go that long.
Winery: Markham merlot may be 35 years old, but the land for the winery goes back to the 19th century when Bordeaux immigrant Jean Laurent came to California to find gold.
He built his first winery in 1874 and in 1879 he built the stone cellar that is the heart of Markham Vineyards winery.
Bruce Markham entered the picture almost 100 years later, arriving in Napa Valley in 1972. He was one of the pioneers who bought premium vineyard land before most people realized the great wine that could be produced there.
He bought the old Laurent winery in 1977. It is the fourth oldest continuously operated winery in Napa County. By 1980, he produced the first vintage of his merlot.
Markham has helped push merlot to one of the most popular wines in California. In 1994, California’s consumption of merlot reached 2.8 million cases, growing to 18 million cases by 2014.
Markham owns 350 acres of vineyards strategically located in several of Napa Valley’s best growing regions.
“The expressions of terroir from each unique location create a greater whole,” said winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls, explaining the benefits of using grapes from different regions of Napa. “Each vineyard complements and elevates the next. The result is endless blending options to weave together the rich fruit flavors, elegant acid structure, broad texture and velvety tannins we want in our wines.”
Today Markham is owned by Mercian, a Japanese winemaking and importing company.
Goes With: We had this with barbecue night on a recent weeknight. We didn’t have time to cook so we just heated up some barbecue we had on hand.
I started with some great barbecue from Lexington, N.C., where they make some of the best barbecue on the planet. It was great, but my favorite of the night was a barbecue I made with chicken in a slow cooker.
The Markham merlot paired well with the two types of barbecue, with the warm fruit flavors cutting through the tangy meat and sauce. My wife, Teri, described the wine as having a “lovely, long raspberry finish.”
It’s great for sipping by itself, but the flavors really come alive with food. The winery suggests duck sausage on a brioche bun with a colored trio of sauteéd peppers. I think an Italian sausage would work, too.
Here’s my recipe for the slow cooker chicken barbecue, adapted from an idea given to me by my friend Keith Dyer:
Buy a package of rotisserie chicken breasts sold at Costco. After rinsing the chicken put it in a slow cooker. Add a jar of your favorite barbecue sauce. (When I have it, I use Mumbo Sauce, but Abrams also works well.) I also added some Lexington Barbecue mop sauce made from cider vinegar.
To that, I added a cup of white wine, paprika, six-pepper blend, a prepared Cajun spice mix and Morton Nature’s Seasons.
The meat will be ready to eat as soon as it is heated, but I let it go for about five hours to give all the spices time to blend. The chicken comes out fork tender with plenty of sauce. Serve on slider or regular buns.