We start the New Year with a selection of merlots, many from California but others from Washington State, France, Chile, Australia, New Zealand and Italy. Generally speaking, merlot’s rich fruit and soft texture is driving it toward becoming one of the red wines of choice for American consumers. As always, these wines were chosen by our National Retailer Wine Panel. For readers unfamiliar with the process, the panel is comprised of well-informed beverage alcohol store owners, wine buyers and managers who are asked to recommend wines of a particular type that they have recently tasted which deliver top quality and real value. The purpose is to provide a service to our readership by alerting them to a cross-section (and by no means an exhaustive list) of current quality wines. As always, these selections include brief tasting notes, a rating and the wine’s suggested retail price (which varies from market to market).
***** Five Stars (92-100) A top-flight wine. Superior in taste and character and providing an outstanding price/value relationship.
**** Four Stars (86-91) A very good wine and an excellent value. A wine for which customers will keep coming back.
*** Three Stars (80-85) An above-average wine, at a reasonable price point, which many customers will enjoy.
** Two Stars (70-79) An average wine.
* One Star (50-69) A below-average wine.
***** (95) Rutherford Hill 1997 Reserve Merlot (California). Tons of flavors including black cherry, plums, violets, rich oak and cola nuts; soft and round with sweet fruit on the finish; structured enough to have enough weight on the palate to make it work well with grilled meats and pasts dishes. ($69)
***** (94) Dry Creek 1997 Reserve Merlot (California).
An outstanding wine, deep in color, with lots of ripe, red fruits and spice; a smooth finish; can be cellared for 2 to 3 years. ($32)
***** (94) Beringer 1997 Howell Mountain, Bancroft Ranch Vineyard, Merlot (California). Limited in supply and just released, this wine is worth the extra effort required in hunting down this well-crafted merlot; very concentrated blackberry and blueberry flavors; full-bodied and highly extracted with a good dose of fruit and wood tannins on the long finish. ($75)
***** (94) Temple Breur 1997 Reserve Merlot (Australia). Deep, rich fruit; pretty aromas of mulberry. black cherry, plum and pomegranate; rich medium-to-full-bodied fruit and toasty oak flavors; long, balanced finish with just enough soft tannin to provide structure; a really fine wine. ($19)
***** (94) Nelson Estate 1997 Sonoma Valley Merlot (California). Very dark, almost opaque; massive weight of plum and currant fruit in the mouth, with anise and pepper overtones; solid acids and firm tannins; a long, dark-fruit finish with gravel-tar notes; a serious California merlot. ($30)
***** (92) Ravenswood 1998 Sangiacomo Vineyard Merlot (California). This is a wine of incredible saturation and power; a magnificent wine with tremendous cellaring potential; one of California’s top wines. ($26)
***** (92) St. Francis 1997 Reserve Merlot (California). Powerful with ripe fruit and toasty oak character; black cherry and currant flavors are complemented by spice and cedar; a beautiful, balanced finish. ($40)
***** (92) L’Ecole No. 41 1998 Merlot (Washington State). Rich and intense with beautiful black cherry and blackberry fruit flavors combining with hints of spice and vanilla; a lengthy, complex finish to this
excellent wine. ($28)
***** (92) Groth 1997 Merlot (California). A very dense, thick and impressive effort, the ’97 Groth Merlot is a blockbuster wine that may be too ripe for some, but not for many; consume with a big juicy steak. ($40)
***** (92) Pride Mountain Vineyards 1998 Merlot (California). Full-bodied and lush, showing several layers of ripe blackberry, black cherry and cassis flavors with ample tannins giving it a core of solid structure. Vibrant right now, with time this merlot will develop more complexity and a richer finish. ($33)
***** (92) J. Lohr 1998 Paso Robles Merlot (California). Deep and intense with aromas of blueberries and violet; good balance; a long finish with a touch of spice and licorice. ($18)
***** (92) Falesco 1999 Merlot (Umbria, Italy). Tasted blind, this Italian gem could easily pass for a great Napa merlot that would cost almost twice as much; luscious with an explosion of black fruit; velvety elegance and a harmonious balance; a long, lingering finish. ($17)
**** (91) Monthaven 1998 Coastal Merlot (California). A good example of rich, layered merlot from California; impressive plum and elegant berry flavors on a supple frame; finishes with soft, luscious tannins. ($12)
**** (91) La Forge Estate 1998 Merlot (France). Rich and opulent with depth of flavor and complexity while showing good backbone and a wonderful finish; a real find. ($12)
**** (91) Diamond Grove 1998 Merlot (California). A California merlot with all the bells and whistles of a far more expensive wine; full-bodied and smooth, with expansive, richly textured fruit flavors. ($11)
**** (90) Rodney Strong 1997 Merlot (California). Sweet, toasty vanilla and spice aromas complemented by fresh berry flavors that lay softly on the palate. ($15)
**** (90) Rutherford Hill 1997 Twenty-Third Anniversary Merlot (California). Cassis and cherry flavors; more tannic than most merlots; a long finish; a merlot for the cabernet drinker. ($21)
**** (90) Canoe Ridge 1998 Merlot (Washington State). A wonderful unpretentious merlot from the Columbia Valley; a soft, silky feel; plum and berries with subtle hints of chocolate; a world-class finish. ($20)
**** (90) Bridgeman 1998 Merlot (Washington State). A blockbuster merlot from Washington’s great 1998 vintage; combines admirable ripeness and tiers of currant, spice, coffee and cherry flavors; a lively finish featuring toasty oak. ($16)
**** (90) Cousino-Macul 1998 Merlot (Chile). Aged 12 months in oak, with blackberry character and strong smoky and mineral flavors. ($15)
**** (90) Forest Glen 1998 Merlot (California). Ripe and filled with plum; a simple, well-made wine that is easy to drink; a good choice for a buffet. ($10)
**** (90) Avalon Estate 1999 Reserve Merlot (France). Succulent, with a flavor profile that is astoundingly good for a wine of this price; a core of concentrated crushed berry essence with a long finish. ($8)
**** (90) Francis Coppola 1998 Diamond Series Blue Label Merlot (California). Deep garnet color with berries and cherries in the nose; the wine has a supple roundness supported by a firm backbone; good depth and complexity and a pleasing finish. ($16)