Once Americans learned how to say "mair-low" in the early '90s, there was no turning back. Merlot became the red wine of choice in bars, restaurants and homes across the land. Producers in California and Washington state (and the south of France) wised up and planted merlot vines all over the place, even in sites inappropriate for the grape. We were awash in merlot, much of it cheap, soft and generic.
The tide has turned, fortunately, and while there is plenty of good, inexpensive merlot around, winemakers in California (our focus today) are emphasizing the grape's distinctive minerally, darkly fruity character and polished texture and taking advantage of 1999, the best vintage for merlot since 1994 and '90. We pay for top quality; most of these are not cheap.
First, let's turn to three merlots from Kenwood Vineyards in Sonoma County, two from 1999, one from '98, all rated Excellent. Kenwood clearly differentiates among its merlots, at least in terms of production. The "regular" Sonoma County merlot is produced in 45,000 cases; the Jack London Vineyard Merlot is limited to 5,848 cases, while the Massara Merlot is even more limited, 1,865 cases. There's also a difference in oak aging. The Sonoma County and Jack London merlots receive 20 months in French and American barrels; the Massara gets a whopping 30 months in French.
The Kenwood Merlot 1999, Sonoma County, is rich, ripe and succulent; flavors of chocolate-covered raspberries vie with licorice and lavender to cut through a minerally undertone, while polished tannins keep it firm but pliant. Twenty months of oak got sucked right up into the luscious texture. Could age two or three years. Excellent. About $17, a Great Price.
Many great wines have come from the Jack London Vineyard, and the Kenwood Jack London Vineyard Merlot 1999, Sonoma Valley, is one of them. Displaying tremendous character and presence, this wine is incredibly smooth and succulent, with deep fathoms of cassis and black raspberry flavors set in a luxurious texture resting on foundations of underbrush and briars. It could age three to five years, yet is eminently drinkable. Excellent. About $30.
Last in this triumvirate is the Kenwood Massara Merlot 1998, Sonoma Valley, and here, in the broad scope and large scale, in the seriousness of the dusty, minerally elements we sense the presence of bolstering, buttressing wood that only gradually gives way to touches of leather, potpourri, dried spices and plummy black currant fruit. Great potential in four to eight years. Excellent. About $25.
These three rate Very good or Very good+:
R.H. Phillips, in the Dunnigan Hills in Yolo County, reliably turns out moderately priced wines of good quality, as this pair of merlots proves. The R.H. Phillips Merlot 1999 is fairly rustic, brambly and briary but tasty with intense cassis and black raspberry flavors that don't quite mesh with foresty tannins. Still, it would be good with steaks and hearty pizzas. Very good. About $9, a Great Bargain. The winery is well-known for its "Toasted Head" line with the fire-breathing bear on the label. The R.H. Phillips Toasted Head Merlot 1999 indeed boasts considerable toasty oak qualities but also features fresh, vivid and luscious cassis, black raspberry and cherry flavors hinting at mineral and floral elements. Very good+. About $18.
Also rated Very good+ is the William Hill Merlot 1999, Napa Valley. I'm usually a fan of William Hill's red wines, but this one is almost too pretty for its own good. Ripe, juicy, luscious, bright and vibrant it is and bursting with blueberry, cassis and black raspberry fruit touched with smoke, violets and licorice, but it needs more weight and grip to carry those heady elements all the way through. About $21.
The next merlots rate Excellent:
The Arrowood Grand Archer Merlot 1999, Sonoma County, features concentrated cassis and black cherry fruit wreathed with chocolate, mocha, baking spice and minerals; it's dense and cushiony in the mouth, and a tide of polished tannins dictates two or three years aging, though it's delicious now. Worth a Search -only 852 cases made -at about $20.
An incredibly intense and beguiling bouquet of roses and violets, cedar and thyme, black raspberry and cherry bursts from a glass of the Markham Merlot 1999, Napa Valley. It segues into a smoky potpourri-lavender bath powder state nestled in a firm, chewy structure that could take two or three years aging. About $21.
"Wow" and "beautiful" were my first notes on the St. Supery Merlot 1999, Napa Valley. First it seems all cool minerals, but then it begins to smolder in the glass with smoke, violets, dust and bittersweet chocolate; dense and velvety, plush with black raspberry and cherry flavors, a flood of polished grainy tannins leads to a slightly astringent finish. Drink now or age three to five years. About $23.
The Beringer Merlot 1999, Napa Valley, boasts another pretty, intensely floral bouquet and vivid cassis and black cherry fruit; it's a wine of "d's" - deep, dense, dark, almost deliberate - and its lovely personality is slightly inhibited by barky, bitey qualities needing two to four years to soften. About $26.
The Niebaum-Coppola Estate Merlot 1999, Rutherford, Napa Valley, defines inky, defines smoldering, defines velvety. Lots of toasty oak and glittering minerals stay just this side of flamboyant, while gorgeous cassis and black raspberry flavors seduce you. A fairly austere finish dictates three or four years aging. About $47.
And three Exceptional merlots:
Recently, I raved about two pinot noir wines from Robert Sinskey Vineyards. Now it's the turn of the Robert Sinskey Merlot 1999, Los Carneros of Napa Valley. An entrancing bouquet of violets, minerals, smoke, ripe and stewed blueberries, raspberries and black cherries leads to a texture so chewy and velvety it goes beyond voluptuous; truckloads of polished, pillowy tannins can't conceal the richness. Could age three to five years. About $27.
Big, ripe, smoky and earthy, yet coolly and sleekly elegant, the Pezzi King Susie's Reserve Merlot 1999, Sonoma County, displays the grip of profundity and the airiness of delight. Incredibly deep and fleshy, it finishes with a sweep of bittersweet chocolate and crushed berries. Wow. About $27.
Shamelessly gorgeous, the Chateau St. Jean Merlot 1999, Sonoma County, opens with a huge burst of violets and lavender and licorice, minerals and blueberry, cherry and cassis scents; spicy oak and heaps of polished grainy tannins even the balance in a plush, luxurious merlot that pulls up bittersweet chocolate and finishes on a wild berry-brambly note. About $28.
Now: It took grapes from four counties - San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Napa and Santa Barbara - to concoct the Trinchero Merlot 1999, but the result is a bright, vivid, earthy and intense merlot that offers black raspberry and cherry scents and flavors and lots of spice, cedar and pencil-box qualities in a moderately plush texture over underbrush and brambles. Warm, attractive, well-made and good with simple red meat dishes, burgers, pizzas. About $11.
Spirit. Most port houses did not "declare" in 1996, meaning that they decided not to make vintage port that year. Many will, however, release other ports of various sorts, and one you should snatch off the shelves is the Fonseca Late Bottled Vintage Porto 1996. "Late bottled" means that the port was aged in wood and then bottled four to six years after the vintage, when ready to drink. Vintage port is released after two or three years aging and can last another 20 to 30 years in bottle. The Fonseca LBV '96 is ripe, roasted and fleshy, filled with nuances of fruitcake, dried orange peel and bittersweet chocolate. It's seductively sweet entry is tempered by a dry but generous finish. $18 to $25.
E-mail Fredric Koeppel at firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o The Commercial Appeal, P.O . Box 334, Memphis, TN 38101.