wine features washington merlot
Where and What on the Winelist: Washington Merlot
March 2010


Washington. Outside of the wine industry, many people think of Seattle’s infamously drizzly weather and assume that the Washington’s vineyards must face similar, cool conditions. However, a drive over the Cascade Mountains reveals the flip side of the state: dry, rolling hills, with temperatures that can get into the triple digits in the summer. Irrigation is a must for most vineyards.

Most of the state’s 32,000 acres of vineyards are in the southeast part of the state; in fact, the Columbia Valley AVA (the state’s largest) actually extends a bit into Oregon, and Merlot dominates the vineyards there. Many wines are labeled simply Washington State or Columbia Valley, but there are several sub-appellations of note. The northerly Wahluke Slope is a large sub-AVA inside the Columbia Valley which grows quite a bit of Merlot; other AVAs of note including the Horse Heaven Hills, Walla Walla, and Rattlesnake Hills. Many wineries have vineyards or purchase grapes from different areas around the valley, regardless of the winery’s actual location.

Merlot. It may not be the “it” grape it once was, but Merlot’s not going away, especially in vineyards where it grows particularly well, like much of Bordeaux, parts of California, Long Island, and Washington. While Chardonnay remains the state’s most planted grape, Merlot has been vying with Cabernet Sauvignon for the title of most planted red since the early 90s—the latter has troubles ripening reliably in some sites, and 10 years ago many Washington Cabs could have unwanted green notes (In the new millennium, Syrah has also been on the rise). Many producers have found success blending Merlot together with Cabernet Sauvignon and that third Bordeaux variety, Cabernet Franc, plantings of which have expanded dramatically in the past few years.

The cliché about Washington’s red wines is that they combine the body and fruit of California’s wines with the earth and structure more common in Bordeaux. These lines get more and more blurred, but this remains basically true for Merlot. A typical Washington Merlot is medium to full-bodied and well-structured, with dry tannins and well-balanced acidity; some portion of the wine may be aged in American, as opposed to French, oak. The mouthfeel of these wines is generally smooth—even creamy; rusticity is atypical. Dark fruit notes (blackberry, black plum) are common, along with some smoke, chocolate, or vanilla touches. Like many Californian wines, they may often pass the 14% mark alcohol-wise, but their structure means they may still be food-friendly in spite of that, pairing well with lamb, steaks, and other meats.

Only a handful of Washington’s wineries don’t work with Merlot in some capacity or another. Even some of the newest producers, who typically focus more on Rhône varieties, seem to find Merlot cropping up in their portfolio either as a varietal wine or in a Bordeaux-style blend. Several producers who genuinely give Merlot pride of place include Canoe Ridge, L’Ecole #41, and Bookwalter. Canoe Ridge makes a regular Merlot and a Reserve; the former shows a bit more red fruit and chocolate, while the Reserve is darker and smokier in character. L’Ecole #41 has three bottlings: one from the Columbia Valley, one from Walla Walla, and a single-vineyard wine from the Seven Hills vineyard, also in Walla Walla. In each case, these wines are about 80% Merlot, with the difference filled out by other Bordeaux varietals (state laws allow for just Merlot to appear on the label if it makes up 75% or more of the blend.). Bookwalter uses Merlot in several blended wines, and even their varietally labeled Foreshadow Merlot occasionally has touches of Malbec and Petit Verdot. The wine is typically spicy and rich, with lots of lead pencil notes.

Woodward Canyon is another well-established Washington winery with a strong reputation for Merlot; their second-label, Nelms Road, is a value-driven version that stays true to the house-style, which is medium-bodied, but muscular and focused, with clean fruit and spice notes. Other well-priced Merlots include Hogue (try the regular Merlot for brighter fruit, or the Genesis for darker fruit and spice), Powers, and Columbia Crest’s Two Vines. Charles Smith also makes a Merlot called Velvet Devil which shows that even those behind the big rush toward Syrah aren’t turning up their nose at Merlot.