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WBC18: Merlot Deep Dive with Masters of Merlot

October 18, 2018 2 comments

I remember my first “deep dive” into the Washington wines at the Chateau Ste. Michelle winery a few years ago, where I was told about the power of Washington Merlot. The explanation was given on the example of a group visiting Chateau Ste. Michelle from California, who were complaining that Washington Cabernet Sauvignon was too soft and mild as opposed to the Cabernet Sauvignon from California. The group was offered to taste the Washington Merlot wines next, and this is where they found the right amount of “power” they were looking for (or maybe even a bit more).

WBC18 Masters of Merlot tasting

While attending Wine Bloggers Conference 2017, I was able to start the conference experience on a very high note with the deep dive pre-conference session on the California Cabernet Sauvignon, where we learned about one of the most classic California Cabs you can find – Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon. This year, at WBC18, we started on the equal, or maybe even higher note with the pre-conference session on Merlot. Very appropriately for being in Washington, and for the October being the #MerlotMe month, we were able not only taste a line of Merlot wines but to compare side by side the wines made by two of the Merlot pioneers and, unquestionably, the Masters – Duckhorn Vineyards from Napa Valley and L’Ecole No 41 from Walla Walla Valley.

Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot

Dan and Margaret Duckhorn started Duckhorn Vineyards back in 1976, becoming one of the first 40 Napa Valley wineries. Even in those early days, it was clear that Cabernet Sauvignon was The Grape everybody wanted to work with. At that time, Dan and Margaret decided to proceed in their own way, and instead of joining the Cabernet Sauvignon movement, be unique and different and embrace the Merlot. Ever since their inaugural vintage in 1978, they never looked back and became known as Napa Valley Merlot pioneers and one of the best Merlot producers in the world, starting with their first release of Napa Valley Merlot in 1979. Today, Duckhorn Vineyards expanded dramatically and now comprise multiple wineries and brands around the USA – however, Merlot is the heart and soul of Duckhorn wines, and it is not surprising that 2014 Duckhorn Vineyards Three Palms Vineyard Merlot was the Wine Spectator’s 2017 Top 100 Wine of the Year.

L'Ecole No41 Merlot

L’Ecole No 41 was founded by Baker and Jean Ferguson in 1983 when it became 3rd winery in Walla Walla, and 20th winery in the Washington state. Today the winery is run by the 3rd generation of the family, and sustainably farms estate Seven Hills and Ferguson vineyards. Merlot is the king in Washington, so it is not surprising that the L’Ecole crafts some of the best Merlot wines in Washington – however, their Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Bordeaux-style blends are equally world-famous.

Now that you know the bit of the history, let’s talk about our tasting. In our Masters of Merlot session, we had an opportunity to taste side by side Duckhorn Vineyards and L’Ecole No 41 Merlot from 2008, 2012 and 2015 vintages, plus a cherry on top (thank you, Duckhorn Vineyards) – 2015 Three Palms Merlot. Before I will leave you with the tasting notes for these beautiful Merlot wines, I just want to share some general observations. The three vintages of Duckhorn Merlot we were comparing had a different grape composition between the vintages while maintaining the same oak treatment for all the wines. As I mentioned in my summary post about WBC18 experiences, Washington weather is very consistent, so L’Ecole No 41 maintained the same grape percentages between the vintages and the same oak regimen – the changing parameters were only harvest dates and the vineyard source composition, which gradually shifted from solely a  Seven Hills vineyard in 2008 to the 50/50 share between Seven Hills and Ferguson vineyards in 2015 (L’Ecole folks are ecstatic about the potential of the Ferguson Vineyard, now introducing more and more single vineyard wines from it).

Masters of Merlot tasting WBC18

Now, it is (finally!) time to talk about the wines. Here we go, in the tasting order:

2008 L’Ecole No 41 Estate Merlot Seven Hills Vineyard Walla Walla Valley (14.5% ABV, $?, 80% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 18 months in French oak)
Rutherford dust on the nose, chewy, dense, tart cherries, needs time! I want more fruit! Would love to try it in 5-8 years.

2008 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley (14.5% ABV, $70, 86% Merlot, 9.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3.5% Petit Verdot, 1% Cabernet Franc, 16 months in French oak)
Raisins on the nose, very explicit, beautifully dry on the palate, sage, anise, tart, showed a bit of Rutherford dust after swirling, great acidity. Amarone! I want to drink it NOW!

2012 L’Ecole No 41 Estate Merlot Walla Walla Valley (14.5% ABV, $30, 80% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 76% Seven Hills Vineyard, 24% Ferguson Vineyard, 18 months in French oak)
Espresso, Rutherford dust (a bit less explicit than 2008). More fruit on the palate, bright, beautiful.

2012 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley (14.5% ABV, $65, 88% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 1% Malbec, 16 months in French oak)
Delicate, fresh plums, a touch of truffle notes, plums and lavender on the palate, delicate, fresh, round.

2015 L’Ecole No 41 Estate Merlot Walla Walla Valley (14.5% ABV, $36, 80% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 50% Seven Hills Vineyard, 50% Ferguson Vineyard, 18 months in French oak)
Dark fruit, Rutherford dust, dark berries, a bit of bell pepper on the palate, plums, sapidity, interesting minerality. Needs time.

2015 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley (14.5% ABV, $56, 85% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot, 16 months in French Oak)
Closed nose, a touch of mint, however – palate is beautifully ripe, open, clean, fresh fruit.

2015 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Three Palms Vineyard Napa Valley (14.7% ABV, $98, 91% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1.5% Petit Verdot, 0.5% Cabernet Franc, 18 months in French Oak)
Rich, opulent, caramel, anise, sage, on the palate coffee, ripe fruit, mocha, dark chocolate. Big and delicious.

Masters of Merlot tasting

Were these wines similar, even between the different wineries? Of course. I love the presence of the Rutherford dust on many of the wines we tasted – after tasting best of the best in Rutherford in Napa Valley – the BV wines, I picked up that term and I always use it describe the perceived dusty impression of the wine’s aroma. L’Ecole Merlot was a lot more structured and minerally-driven. I would safely say that 2-3 hours in the decanter would help those wines a lot. The Duckhorn Merlot were a lot more fruit driven but offered an impeccable balance with that fruit. If I have to pick the favorite, it would be between 2008 Duckhorn (ahh, that Amarone-like beauty) and 2015 Duckhorn Three Palms, but there were really no bad wines in this tasting.

There you have it, my friends. Beautiful Merlot wines, easy to love and appreciate, and most importantly, offering lots of pleasure. How is your Merlot Me month going? What are your discoveries or the old favorites?

I have to say special thank you to Constance Savage of L’Ecole No 41 and Kay Malaske of Duckhorn Vineyards for offering this special tasting to the wine bloggers! Cheers!

Wednesday’s Meritage – Wine Quiz Answer, Cost of Everyday Wine, National Chardonnay Day, What the MS Do?

May 21, 2014 5 comments

satrapezo.jpgMeritage time!

Let’s start with the answer to the wine quiz #103, Grape Trivia – Blends, Part 3.

For the long time, the grape trivia series was focused on the single grapes. But now we are stirring things up, so all the questions in the quiz are about blends (well, even if it is a blend of one ), as most of the wines in the world are actually blends. This quiz’s focus was on the red grape blends, and as usual, it consisted of 5 questions.

Here are the questions, now with the answers:

Q1: As you know, Merlot is one of the Bordeaux stars. Below are some of the best Merlot wines Bordeaux can produce, but only some of them are made from 100% Merlot. Do you know what wines are those?

a. Château Le Pin, b. Château Petrus, c. Château Hossana, d. Château Certan Marzelle

A1: It really wasn’t a tricky question – I believe if you carefully read the question itself, it should be clear that more than one answer is possible. Another reason that this was not a tricky question is that two Châteaux from that list of four are growing only Merlot grapes thus they never produce a blended wine. So the correct answer is a and d – both  Château Le Pin and Château Certan Marzelle grow only Merlot grapes thus their wines are always made out of 100% Merlot.

Q2: What is common between the following 3 Bordeaux producers: Château Trotte Vieille, Château Belle Assise, Château Le Bel

A2: While very unique and different for Bordeaux, all three of these Châteaux produce wines made from 100% Cabernet Franc grapes.

Q3: Wine lovers around the world are well familiar with so called GSM wines and their great range of expression, coming from Rhone valley in France, Australia, US and may other places. If we are to replace the Syrah in GSM blend with the Cinsault, which will produce powerful, dense, concentrated, long living red wines, where do you think such a wine most likely will come from? You need to name not just the country, but the exact region in order to get a full point here.

A3: Bandol! Mourvèdre grape is the star in Bandol, with Grenache and Cinsault often added to the blend, thus we can say that the abbreviation for the Bandol blend should’ve been MGC.

Q4: Sangiovese is a star grape of Italy, used in many regions and producing great range of wines. Montepulciano is another well known red Italian grape, most often associated with juicy, delicious and versatile wines made in the region of Abruzzo. If the wine is made as a blend of Montelpuciano and Sangiovese, often in 50/50 proportions (doesn’t have to be always 50/50), can you name the region where these wines would most likely come from?

A4: Rosso Piceno is the red wine from the Region Marche which is often made out of the 50/50 blend of Montepulciano and Sangiovese.

Q5: Below is the [partial] list of grapes which I personally call “Power Grapes” (I’m contemplating the blog post under the same name for a while). When used on their own (at a 100%, no blending), these typically black-skinned grapes produce powerful, dense, extremely concentrated wines, often with gripping tannins. For each grape below, can you identify the region(s) and the country(ies) making best known wines from those grapes? You don’t have to name all countries and the regions, one per grape is enough:

A5:

a. Alicante Bouschet – Alentejo in Portugal, Valencia in Spain

b. Sagrantino – Sagrantino is the unique grape in Montefalco DOCG in Umbria, Italy.

c. Saperavi – Georgia. Actually Saperavi has a wide range of expression, but it is very much capable of producing extremely dense and concentrated wines.

d. Tannat – Madiran in France and Uruguay

e. Vranec (or Vranac) – Macedonia and number of other Balkan countries.

When it comes to the results, all the respondents voiced their concern with the level of difficulty of the quiz. It was definitely unintentional, but I still can’t promise that “I wouldn’t do it again”. Anyway, the Wayward Wine came the closest to the winning with 4 correct answers out of 5, and I would like to acknowledge both asueba and vinoinlove for their great effort. Well done everyone!

Now, to the interesting stuff around the vine and the web!

First, I want to bring to your attention an interesting post and the poll at the Wine Curmudgeon blog, pondering at [almost] an eternal question – how much the everyday wine should cost? Yes, of course it all depends, but assuming that you drink wine as it gives you pleasure, what do you find to be a reasonable price of the bottle of wine? In this post, you will find both an analysis and the poll to share your opinion. The poll will be closed on May 22 and the results will be published on May 24th, so make sure to have your say before.

What kind of wine to you plan to open on Friday, May 23rd? Well, you can open any wine, with one condition – it have to be the Chardonnay! On Friday, May 23rd, we will be celebrating the National Chardonnay Day, so it is obvious that Chardonnay for Friday is in order. California, Virginia, Washington, New York, Chile, New Zealand or Burgundy – you got plenty of choice and no excuses not the celebrate the noble white grape.

[Updated after the original post date] It appears that it is Thursday, May 22nd that is an actual date for 5th Annual #ChardonnayDay celebration. As explained by Rick Backas, who started the celebration, the #ChardonnayDay is always celebrated on the last Thursday before the Memorial Day holiday in US, which this year is on the May 26th, thus #ChardonnayDay falls on the 22nd. My take? You get to drink Chardonnay for two days now. Yay!

Last for today, an interesting article by W. Blake Gray, conversing on the subject of the MS and what they do. As you can guess, considering that this is the wine blog, MS stands for Master Sommelier, one of the most educated group of people in the world of wine (at the moment, there are only 214 MS in the world). The blog post analyzes how many of the Master Sommeliers actually work the floor and help people to have best possible wine experiences in the restaurant. Take a look the post, it is an interesting read – and, as usual, don’t forget to read the comments section.

And we are done here. The glass is empty – but the refill is on its way! Cheers!