Merlot Magic

Duckhorn leads the way as California vintners approach the grape with new energy

From the Nov. 30, 2017, issue

Few California wineries are as strongly identified with a single varietal as Duckhorn is with Merlot. And that’s good news for fans of the grape: Duckhorn is making some of the best bottlings in California today.

Founded in 1976, Duckhorn has made Merlot from the start at its winery just north of St. Helena in Napa Valley. One of the key sources for its success over the years has been the Three Palms Vineyard in the northern reaches of the valley. Duckhorn’s 2014 Three Palms bottling is the highest-rated California Merlot of this report, scoring a classic 95 points on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale ($98). It is among 100 California Merlots and Merlot-based blends that I have blind-tasted in our Napa office over the past year. (A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines tasted is available.)

“Three Palms is the most structured Merlot we can make,” explains Duckhorn winemaker Renée Ary. “There’s a mindset that you can’t grow a Merlot vineyard in a warm climate, but Three Palms throws that out the window.”

Merlot is usually planted in cooler sites than its leading competitor for consumer attention, Cabernet Sauvignon, but Three Palms is in one of the warmest pockets in Napa Valley, situated near the town of Calistoga.

Ary credits the rocky soils of the site with making the vines struggle, and therefore avoiding the overcropping that results in flaccid warm-climate Merlots. The 2014 is a powerful and refined rendition, with concentrated red fruit, spice and mineral flavors.

In May 2015, Duckhorn bought the vineyard from its longtime owners, the Upton family, from whom they had purchased grapes since Duckhorn’s first Three Palms Vineyard–designated bottling in 1978. Today, 50 of its 83 acres are planted to Merlot, with the rest to other Bordeaux varieties. It is part of the 240 acres that Duckhorn owns in the valley overall, from which spring a bevy of highly rated Merlots, including the Stout Vineyard 2013 (94, $98) and the Atlas Peak 2014 (93, $75). The straight Napa Valley bottling (2014: 92, $54) is notable for its sizable production (52,000 cases) as well as its quality, which gets a boost from the Three Palms fruit that makes up 22 percent of the cuvée.

The key to success at Three Palms, according to Ary, is to keep a sharp eye on the vineyard’s cultivation techniques, such as cutting lateral canes to reduce yields and thus concentrate the flavors. Also, Ary has ratcheted down the oak treatment: Formerly, at least 95 percent of the wine was aged in new French oak, whereas that figure is now down to 75 percent in order to better allow the fruit components to shine through.

Overall, the Merlot quality quotient is dominated by Napa wines. Of the 26 bottlings that scored 90 points or higher (“outstanding” on Wine Spectator‘s scale), all but three are from the valley.

Napa bottlings from Hall and Rombauer accentuate Merlot’s suppleness while illustrating two styles common in California today.

Both hail from the solid 2014 vintage and are a mixture of estate and purchased fruit from cooler sites to ensure fresh fruit flavors from early-ripening Merlot. The Hall (92, $40) is plush, with richly spiced dark fruit flavors, while the Rombauer (91, $45) features a similar fruit profile but in a crisper package, with dried green herbal shadings. Solid buys include the Oberon Napa Valley 2015 (90, $23), from the Michael Mondavi family, with a mix of dark currant and savory flavors; the high-production Kendall-Jackson Sonoma County Vintner’s Reserve 2014 (89 $24), with notable minerality; and the Edna Valley Central Coast 2015 (87, $14), open-textured and spicy.

Merlot is originally from France, where it reaches its quality zenith in Bordeaux at such iconic estates as Pétrus in Pomerol (which makes a 100 percent Merlot) and at St.-Emilion’s Château Cheval-Blanc (in a blend with Cabernet Franc). It is usually less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon and is a traditional component in many Bordeaux-style blends; its acidity is used to counterbalance the fatter fruit flavors of other varieties.

From those roots it has spread to most major winegrowing regions of the world, and rivals Cabernet Sauvignon in global acreage and production. But mass adoption has not meant mass quality. It is a finicky variety, thin-skinned and susceptible to rot, and can quickly turn overripe at harvesttime. At the beginning of the growing season it is also prone to poor fruit set in wet or windy conditions.

Merlot faced a decline in popularity in the United States following a biting callout in the 2004 wine-themed film Sideways; that blow finally appears to be fading from memory. Though its acreage is down about 20 percent in California since then, that reduction came mostly in lower-quality districts. It remains the third-most planted variety in Napa after Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, with about 5,100 acres in cultivation, or about 11 percent of the valley’s vineyard acreage.

David Ramey is one vintner who views Merlot as better suited to blending than as a standalone variety. His Napa Valley red from 2014, Template (92, $85), blends Merlot from Mt. Veeder (70 percent) with Cabernet Franc from Oakville (24 percent) and Cabernet Sauvignon from Rutherford (6 percent).

“I’ve often been asked, ‘When are you going to make a Merlot?’ We all must acknowledge the outsized impact that Sideways had, but finally I think enough time has passed that independent thinkers can come to the conclusion that Merlot may make an outstanding wine—witness Pomerol and St.-Emilion—on its own. That said, I didn’t want to make a ‘Merlot,’ but rather tip my hat to Right Bank [Bordeaux] blends,” Ramey says.

An impressive new Merlot-based entry from Shafer Vineyards in Napa is called TD-9 (92, $60). Shafer had long made a Merlot, which was phased out in 2014 and replaced with this blend from 2015. Composed of 56 percent Merlot, 28 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 16 percent Malbec, it is an homage to John Shafer, who used a TD-9 tractor to work his vineyards in Napa’s Stags Leap District in the 1970s. Shafer’s son Doug and winemaker, Elias Fernandez, believed the blend would make a more complex wine.

“A couple of people said, ‘Are you giving up on Merlot?’ but I said, ‘No, we’re just trying to make the best wine we can,'” Doug Shafer explains. “Merlot is a great grape, and we’re not running away from it. But it seems like consumers are more open to blends now and it’s not a foreign thing any longer. It’s a change for us. Ten years ago it might have been a tougher challenge because people were still figuring out varietals.”

According to Fernandez, the blend accents the plummy flavors of Merlot with the structure of Cabernet and the deep color provided by Malbec. The wine was aged 100 percent in 60-gallon French oak barrels.

Shafer doesn’t discount a return to making a standalone Merlot one day, and winemakers such as Duckhorn’s Ary are confident in the future of the variety. “There’s a whole new generation out there, and they have no predispositions toward any variety,” Ary says. “But there’s not a huge middle ground. You’re either on one side or the other on Merlot [in terms of quality].”

For consumers looking for flavorful wines, that means careful shopping is in order when buying Merlot from California.

Senior editor Kim Marcus is Wine Spectator’s lead taster on California Merlot. Senior editor Tim Fish contributed reviews to this report.