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Chuck Hill, wine reviewer and columnist

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Wines of the Week Archive
Archived December 5, 2013
Published November 12, 2013

More Merlot and Malbec
New World Opulence vs. Old World Complexity
Part 3 of a 3-Part Series  (See Part 1)  (See Part 2)
By Chuck Hill 

Red wines often require more contemplation on the part of the taster after pouring as they evolve in the glass.  (Don’t forget to aerate younger wines by decanting.)  This contemplation usually reveals one of two styles – rich and opulent (ripe) or lean and complex (not so ripe).  Merlots of the ripe style show dark cherry and plum with no hard edges – the phrase “fruit bomb” can be inserted here.  The Merlot grape tends to be this kind of opulent grape, and aging it in new oak doesn’t really change the ripeness, just adds spice, vanilla and woody notes. 

Malbec is more of an Old-World-style grape that makes a leaner wine (even if the fruit is very ripe) and shows more like a Cabernet Sauvignon.  Aromas and flavors of dried herbs, complex fruits like black currant, and meaty notes.  Character from oak aging tends to integrate better into Malbec than Merlot. 

Some wine lovers don’t care for fruit bombs (Chef Ted and many others), while some enjoy the juicy ripeness for its straightforward, uncomplicated appeal.  Evaluating the leaner wines takes more effort and more experience; many beginning wine tasters are unable to identify the subtle notes that are hints to a wine’s ageability.  As a bit of advice, treat yourself to a Merlot AND a Malbec for two nights' of tasting with dinner.  Try each wine the first night, and then again on the second night, to see how they evolve over 24 hours. 

This week's four sausage selections include Aidells Chicken Sausages - Italian and Andouille, Trader Joe’s Turkey and Chicken Pesto Sausage, and Al Fresco Roasted Pepper and Asiago Chicken Sausages.  Enjoy these with juicy, flavorful wines from diverse, west-coast origins as well as some selections that span the globe. 


Chateau Ste. Michelle
2010 Ethos Merlot, Cold Creek Vineyard
Columbia Valley

This delicious, complex and age-worthy Merlot hails from Chateau Ste. Michelle’s venerable Cold Creek Vineyard in the center of the Columbia Valley.  It is a blend of 76% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Syrah and 2% Cabernet Franc.  It is the perfect combination of rich Merlot – but not too rich – with an ample amount of Cabernet for complexity and flavor.  Aging on 67% new French oak added just the right amount of spice and toastiness to its core of dark berries, earthy herbs and vanilla. 

Walla Walla Vintners
2007 Merlot
Walla Walla Valley

FROM THE CELLAR:  I decided to start pulling some corks on bottles of wine that have been resting in my cellar for a few years and to share the results with interested readers.   I reviewed the 2010 Walla Walla Vintners Merlot a few weeks ago; my tasters were quite impressed with this 2007 vintage.  The wine has knitted together, deliciously mitigating its original forward toasty-oakiness and joining hands with sweet cherry and spicy plum – none of the wine’s full-bodied character was lost.  Perhaps not the aging triumph of the century, but a very nice reward for a few year’s rest in the cellar. 

Leonetti Cellar
2011 Merlot
Walla Walla Valley

Gary and Chris Figgins continue to work together at their Figgins Family Wine Estates to craft Leonetti Cellar and Figgins wines from grapes grown in their Walla Walla Valley vineyards and some of Washington’s other premier sites.  Over the years I have described father Gary as “a painter with oak” and son Chris as “a restraining hand.”  This Merlot is a fine example of their Old World style with complex floral, plum and cherry aromas mingling with spicy notes of oak, anise and vanilla.  The palate is smooth and rich with ample tannins complementing flavors of dark berry and cherry with herbs and spice. 


Januik Winery
2010 Merlot
Columbia Valley

To craft this Merlot, Mike Januik selected grapes from Weinbau Vineyard on Wahluke Slope, and from Klipsun and Ciel du Cheval Vineyards (Red Mountain).  These are among the best vineyards in the Columbia Valley.  The wine falls on the New World side of the fence with plush flavors of blackberry and cherry mingling with complex notes of cocoa, caramel and vanilla.  It is a delight to smell and taste a wine that captures the essence of Columbia Valley Merlot crafted in a style that provides even a novice wine taster some easy organoleptic building blocks to learn the trade. 

L’Ecole No 41
2010 Merlot, Estate, Seven Hills Vineyard
Walla Walla Valley

Merlot was the first red wine crafted at L’Ecole No 41 winery by the founders Jean and Baker Ferguson in the late 1980s.  It became a hallmark of the winery along with their delicious Semillon.  Today, L’Ecole No 41 is a partner in the 230-acre Seven Hills Vineyard, first planted in 1981 and expanded several times throughout the years. These mature vines produce the excellent Merlot fruit for this 2010 vintage, showing ripe and complex fruit with balancing acidity, complex aromas and flavors of cherry, plum and notes of smoky cedar. 

Kiona Vineyard and Winery
2009 Merlot
Columbia Valley

Kiona Vineyards and Winery was among the first to plant vineyards at Red Mountain, and the winery founders, the Williams and Holmes families, are still major players in this now famous viticultural area.  Kiona’s Columbia Valley Merlot is sourced from the winery’s Red Mountain plantings as well as a number of other area vineyards.  Complex aromas of dark fruits, earthy herbs and smoked-meats notes lead to a medium-bodied palate featuring flavors of cherry and plum with tangy mineral and bacon. 

DiStefano Winery
2009 Domenica
Columbia Valley

This wine from the DiStefano Winery in Woodinville is dedicated to (and named for) Domenica Paganelli, the grandmother of the wife of winery founder Mark Newton.  Domenica immigrated to the U.S. in 1915 and she and her husband Francesco made wine at their home on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan.  This Merlot is in the Old World style with lean character showing aromas and flavors of cranberry and dark cherry with notes of spicy lamb stew and toasty herbs – nicely made to accompany hearty entrees.

2009 Merlot
Walla Walla Valley

Winemaker David Merfeld crafted his 2009 Merlot from select Walla Walla Valley vineyards, blending 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot in with the balance (78%) of Merlot.  The wine shows ripe berry and cherry with notes of fresh herbs, vanilla and hints of coconut. 

Hogue Cellars
2012 Merlot
Columbia Valley

From the late 1980s, the Hogue Cellars pioneered the concept of the New World wine style, defining their entry-level tier of wines as “fruit forward.”  These wines are very much the same today, showing ripe aromas and flavors of the varietals from which they are crafted.  The 2012 Merlot offers ripe plum and cherry aromas and flavors with hints of toasty oak, licorice and vanilla.  Good value. 

The Velvet Devil
2012 Merlot
Charles Smith Wines

Charles Smith - owner of K Vintners, Charles Smith Wines and other brands - embraced the New World style the moment he came to Walla Walla.  Like himself, his wines are bold and expressive, showing ripe fruit from great vineyards and ample evidence of barrel aging in the finest oak.  While the Velvet Devil Merlot resides in the affordable range of his wines, it still sings the Charles Smith song, showing ripe plum, juicy dark cherry, lip-smacking palate and hints of vanilla and mineral on the finish. 


Sagelands Vineyard
2011 Malbec
Columbia Valley

Sagelands Vineyard was founded in 1984 in the west Yakima Valley near the town of Wapato.  Today, the brand is produced by Precept Wines offering red and white wines of good value and high quality.  The 2011 Malbec offers Old World style with aromas and flavors of dark berry, herbs and vanilla with a finish of toasty oak. 

Ginkgo Forest Winery
2009 Malbec, Estate
Wahluke Slope

From his vineyards on the Wahluke Slope near Mattawa, Washington, Mike Thiede crafts a wide variety of quality wines including reds ranging from Cabernet and Merlot to Rhone reds, Sangiovese and Malbec.  This spicy, earthy Malbec offers ripe aromas and flavors of boysenberry, cherry and toasty cedar. 

Wines from other areas

Grgich Hills Estate
2009 Merlot, Estate Grown
Napa Valley

This Old-World-style Merlot from the Napa Valley is probably the most complex and intriguing wine in our tasting.  Aromas of red cherry, plum and floral perfume spark interest, and a sip reveals flavors of tangy red fruits, cassis and vanilla and toast.  Impeccable balance and good acidity make this a good choice for pairing with your holiday meals.  

Pedroncelli Winery
2011 Merlot, Bench Vineyards
Dry Creek Valley

The Pedroncelli family has operated their winery in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley since 1927, selling grapes to home winemakers before prohibition was repealed, and maintaining operations through three generations into the 21st century.  Their 2011 Merlot comes from vineyard blocks along Dry Creek Road on natural sloping terraces that bring out the best in Merlot.  Look for aromas and flavors of cherry and plum with hints of dried herbs and toasty oak – good value. 

William Hill Estate
2010 Merlot
Napa Valley

William Hill Estate is located in the southern Napa Valley just east of the Silverado Trail on Atlas Peak Road.  This location on the Silverado Bench is a superb growing area, and the fruit for this Merlot is 100% estate grown.  As an aside, their website at offers a wealth of information about the growing area, the estate and wines, and some interactive opportunities for visitors.  Meanwhile, in our glass, look for aromas and flavors of red cherry, plum and red berries with a succulent palate (New World style) that adds dark chocolate and vanilla to a lengthy finish. 

Red Rock
2011 Merlot

Red Rock winemaker Debbie Jeurgenson selects grapes from several California appellations to produce her fruit-forward Merlot that is a great value in the category.  The wine offers plush plum and cherry aromas and flavors with subtle oak character and a pleasant, food-friendly finish.  I also enjoyed the Red Rock Malbec – another great value selection. 

Black Box
2012 Malbec
Mendoza, Argentina

The value-minded winemakers at Black Box brought delicious Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina to help you stay within your budget this holiday season.  Whether you serve it at your Thanksgiving meal with deep-fried Cajun turkey, or grill up some Churrasco steaks with Chimichurri sauce, you will find (as I and my tasters did) a high quality Malbec with cherry, herbs and spice that accompanies a wide range of savory fare.

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All rights reserved.  Last revised: 12/05/2013