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Wines of the Week Archive
Archived November 13, 2016
Published October 31, 2016

Merlot and Sausage – A Fall Tasting Challenge
Part 1 of a 3-Part Series  (Part 2)  (Part 3)
By Chuck Hill

This is the eighth year of my Merlot – Sausage Challenge, and we continue the October tradition of tasting juicy and flavorful Merlot wines and blends with sausages and the darling dumpling of Germany: Spaetzle.  If you haven’t enjoyed this pasta-noodle-like creation – finished with flavorful cheese, mushrooms and spice, then cook some yourself, or head over to a nearby German restaurant.  Sausages for this week included Aidells Italian and Chicken and Apple, Al Fresco Roasted Red Pepper and Asiago, and Johnsonville Three Cheese Italian. 

Merlot is a red wine variety whose name is a diminutive of the French word for blackbird.  This association is thought to have been made due to the dark skin color of the ripe Merlot fruit.  Merlot is the most widely planted grape in Bordeaux and is the third most grown variety on the globe. 

Two styles of Merlot have evolved in the last three decades.  The New World style features very ripe fruit, higher alcohol and often extensive aging in new(er) oak.  The Old World – or Bordeaux – style is harvested earlier resulting in wines with higher acidity, lower alcohol and are usually more food friendly.  Finesse or power…you choose. 

Finn Hill Winery
2012 Merlot, Merveille
Stillwater Creek Vineyard
Columbia Valley AVA

Biomedical engineer Rob Entrekin founded his winery north of Kirkland, Washington, to help answer the question, “why can two wines made from exactly the same grapes taste completely differently?”  He sources grapes from some of Washington’s best vineyards and uses the finest French oak for aging.  His Merveille (marvel) Merlot impressed my tasters with superb structure and layers of flavors including cherry, dark plum and candied fruit, wrapped in spicy oak, caramel and dried fruits. 

Leonetti Cellar
2014 Merlot
Walla Walla Valley AVA

The Figgins family of Walla Walla was one of the early pioneers of that now famous wine region, with son Chris Figgins taking the helm from his father Gary to carry forward new enterprises and winemaking directions.  From the beginning in the late 1970s Leonetti Cellar Merlot has been lauded for rich cherry, plum and currant, cozy in a cocoon of graham cracker, spice and toasty oak – another great vintage. 

Pepper Bridge Vineyard
2013 Merlot
Walla Walla Valley AVA

Winemaker Jean-François Pellet crafted this Merlot from fruit grown at Seven Hills, Pepper Bridge and Octave estate vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley AVA.   Aged for 17 months in French oak (38% new), the wine offers enticing aromas of cherry and black currant with notes of violets and cocoa.  The palate is rich but impeccably structured with flavors echoing the olfactory impression – superb with meats and rich sauces. 

L’Ecole No 41
2013 Merlot
Columbia Valley AVA

In the beginning, founders Baker and Jean Ferguson crafted only one red wine to accompany their favorite Semillon – a delicious Merlot.  Moving forward from those heady days of the 1980s wine boom, daughter Megan and her husband Marty Clubb have honored that legacy by crafting excellent Merlot wines from each vintage.  Crafted from a handful of superb Columbia Valley vineyards, this wine offers the quintessential cherry and red currant aromas and flavors complemented by dried herbs, mineral and hints of toasty oak and caramel. 

Charles Smith Wines
2014 The Velvet Devil Merlot

So what is a $12 Merlot doing among the heavy hitters and famous wine families?  The answer is purity of fruit on the nose and a classic palate of juicy cherry and plum with excellent, fruit-forward structure.  Winemaker Charles Smith uses his magic touch to make enough of this elegant elixir so that we all can find it, buy it and share it with our favorite meals year round.  The brand was recently sold, but the tradition will carry on right here in Washington State! 

DeLille Cellars
2013 D2
Columbia Valley AVA

This right bank blend pairs up 57% Merlot with 33% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot. Experienced wine tasters are of the opinion that Merlot shows best when augmented with these other varieties and my tasters agreed. Winemakers Chris Upchurch and Jason Gorski crafted this wine from a superb vintage, aging it in French oak, 55% new. Look for complex raspberry, black cherry and currant fruits with tobacco, dark chocolate and toasty oak on the finish – excellent with sausage and more elegant meats as well. 

Abacela Winery
2013 Merlot
Umpqua Valley AVA

Red wines from the Umpqua Valley of Oregon gained a new measure of international respect when Earl and Hilda Jones planted their Fault Line Vineyard in 1995 and crafted their first wines a few years later.  This Merlot from the estate vineyard shows the warm climate influence with ripe blackberry and cherry fruit, and completes the performance with complex flavors of olives, herbs, cocoa and toasty oak.

Robert Karl Cellars
2013 Merlot
Horse Heaven Hills AVA

Physician Joe Gunselman crafts his wines in his downtown Spokane winery, but grows and selects his grapes in the famous Horse Heaven Hills of Washington State.  This wine came from Andrews Horse Heaven Ranch in the excellent 2013 vintage.  Look for aromas of red cherry and violets with rich fruit flavors and hints of earthy mineral and dried plum.  Be sure to include Robert Karl Cellars on your Spokane wine tour – open Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoons. 

Waterbrook Winery
2014 Merlot
Columbia Valley AVA

Some of Washington’s very first Merlot wines were made at Waterbrook in the Walla Walla Valley during the mid-1980s.  These wines were explosively fruity with plum and cherry – oak aging was still in the experimental stage.  Today winemaker John Freeman uses American oak to coax complex aromas and flavors from perfect Columbia Valley fruit.  You will still find juicy plum on the nose and palate with cherry, herbs and spicy oak, and vanilla lingering on the finish. 

Browne Family Vineyards
2012 Merlot
Columbia Valley AVA

Andrew Browne, principal of Browne Family Vineyards, considers himself a curator of winemaking talent and great Washington vineyards, creating winning wines at Precept Wine.  He honors his family with every wine, including this rich and complex Merlot offering black cherry, dark plum, leather, toasty cedar and caramel. 

14 Hands 2013 Merlot, The Reserve, Horse Heaven Hills - $30.00

What better way to honor Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills AVA than by naming a winery with an equine moniker like 14 Hands? Thundering hooves aside, this Merlot offers ripe and powerful aromas and flavors – blackberry and plum mingle with notes from oak aging in French and American oak, 56% new barrels. A finish of mineral, anise and tobacco includes firm tannins that complement your grilled sausages, steaks or other carnivore delights. 

Reininger Winery
2012 Merlot
Walla Walla Valley AVA

Chuck Reininger crafted this flavorful Merlot from grapes grown at Seven Hills and Pepper Bridge Vineyards in the southern Walla Walla Valley.  A judicious use of new oak allows the fruit to star – look for blackberry, plum and currant with notes of earthy loam, pencil shavings and spice. 

Maryhill Winery
2012 Merlot, Kiona Vineyard
Red Mountain AVA
$32.00 - Wine Club Selection

Kiona Vineyard was one of the first on Washington’s Red Mountain, and Maryhill winemaker Richard Batchelor honors this site with his limited production 2012 Merlot.  Aromas and flavors of earthy mineral mingle with black cherry, boysenberry, dried fruits, toasty oak and hints of vanilla. 

Novelty Hill Winery
2013 Merlot
Columbia Valley AVA

Veteran winemaker Mike Januik selected Merlot lots from Novelty Hill’s Stillwater Creek Vineyard on the Royal Slope, along with grapes from the Horse Heaven Hills and the Tri-Cities area.  Look for bright aromas of red currant and cherry, leading to a complex palate of red and black fruits with cocoa, spice and earthy herbs. 


Wines from other areas:

Kendall Jackson
2013 Merlot, Grand Reserve
Sonoma County

Grand Reserve is Kendall Jackson winemaker’s blend of their mountain, ridge, hillside and benchland grapes grown along California’s cool coastal appellations.  The wine was aged in mostly French oak, 28% new, but does a great job of integrating the oak for complexity and structure.  Look for red currant and cherry flavors with background notes of cedar, cocoa and spice. 

2013 Merlot
Toscana (Tuscany), Italy

Every now and then one has to applaud a label design for its combination of style and market appeal.  What can be more attractive to sensitive wine shoppers than a ballerina and a wine named for the Italian word for dancing?  Sip this friendly red for fun and affinity to lighter meals – as one taster said, it is the Pinot Noir of Merlots – blueberry, cherry, spice. 

Matanzas Creek
2013 Merlot
Sonoma County

Matanzas Creek Winery was founded in 1977 and revitalized the viticulture tradition of Sonoma County’s Bennett Valley.  Visit the winery just east of Santa Rosa for a stroll and a sip, and maybe a game of bocce.  The 2013 Merlot offers aromas and flavors of red fruits and dried herbs mingling with hints of cedar and spice. 

NV Merlot
$25.00 / 3-liter

There is no better red variety than Merlot to be sold in the party-friendly box pack – equivalent in volume to four 750ml bottles.  Due to vacuum air removal as it is poured, the Vault stays fresh for up to four weeks.  Look for plum and jammy blackberry with hints of baking spice and toasty oak on the finish.

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To find contact information for most of the wineries in the above text,
visit our alphabetical lists for Northwest States.


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©  December, 2016  Chuck Hill
All rights reserved.  Last revised: 12/08/2016