You can not do a series on the wines of Washington without mentioning the grape that put them on the map. While merlot might be struggling from a misintended (and misinformed) popularity slump for the last 10 years, it is the grape of the Bordeaux Right Bank, and the grape that made many people first take notice of what was happening in Washington.
Merlot is often a very approachable and appealing red wine. It is described as fleshy and fruity, identifying both its appeal and often its flaw. When grown or vinified lazily merlot can be too soft, too unstructured, or too much like a big chocolate covered cherry offering nothing of interest beyond its initial taste attack.
The terroir and weather of Eastern Washington however offer growers and winemakers a perfect opportunity to put some minerality, some acidity, and real tertiary beauty into their merlot, and many step right up to the challenge. While I must say that the merlots being poured on my tour of Washington were not always among my favorite reds, here are several examples of some stellar wines:
Sparkman Cellars 2007 Ruby Leigh - 65 % Merlot from Hedges North Block and Klipsun on Red Mountain this wine offers an abundance of complex flavors coupled with the soft mouthfeel that makes well structure merlot so appealing. Chocolate, vanilla, and flowers on the nose, with dark fruits and pipe tobacco across the palette made me take notice of this wine in a crowded tasting event. This is not a large production wine, with only 265 cases. However it is still available from the winery for $42.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2006 Canoe Ridge Estate Merlot - Made with fruit from the Horse Heaven Hills it is no surprise that the royal family of Washington wine produces one of my favorite merlots. This wine gave off a lot of cherry but also some leather and coffee. It was quite approachable, generally delicious, and an overall pleasure. We were served this wine paired with a duck breast and I was reminded how a food friendly wine that enhances the bite, while providing an interest of its own, is one of the finest things in the world. Available widely for around $22 this is a fine buy.
Baer 2007 Ursa - Just under half merlot, this wine was a great example of how fruit grown with care can offer great structure and lush fruit. The Ursa gives bright red fruit, with darker notes of chocolate and spice, but it is the mouthfeel that made this wine stand out. If you want to understand what wine reviewers mean when they say velvety tannins, this is a wine that will make you understand. At $35 this wine is a great value for the quality that it offers.
I think that the examples of merlot I found in Washington furthered my experience. I find it to be a pleasant and drinkable wine, with an opportunity to be terrific when made well, and also a tendency to be a bit boring or flacid. While I tried dozens of merlots these wines stood out to me as examples of terrific winemaking. They all can give you a good idea of what merlot is capable of, and remind you why Washington first got attention for the merlot it was producing.