Tag Archives: merlot

Expensive wine 79: Northstar Merlot 2010


northstar merlotSte. Michelle Wine Estates does something no other Big Wine company does as well — produce top-notch expensive wine that speaks to terroir. Not even E&J Gallo has been able to figure that out. How else to explain that the Wine Spectator picked the 2005 Columbia Crest Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon as its wine of the year in 2009?

That’s why I was so eager to try the Northstar Merlot ($42, sample, 14.7%) during the Pacific Northwest tasting at my El Centro class a couple of weeks ago. The Northstar, owned by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and made with grapes from Washington state’s Columbia Valley, has a fine reputation and it has been several years since I tasted it. It didn’t disappoint.

Look for dark, rich fruit (very intense but not overly sweet black cherry?), with an undercurrent of baking spices, zesty tannins, and just enough oak to round out the flavors. It is a powerful wine, but in that specific Washington state sort of way. In this, it’s not bloated or flabby, and will age for much longer than you’d think — at least 10 more years.

This is merlot as merlot, not as a cabernet sauvignon knockoff or as something sweet and fleshy to sell in the grocery store. Pair it with roast lamb and keep it in mind for a holiday dinner.

Wine of the week: Kon Tiki Merlot 2014


kon tiki merlotMichael Franz, who judged the flight of $15 and under merlots at the Critics Challenge with me last month, was even less optimistic abut finding quality wine among the nine entries than I was. And regular visitors here know how the Wine Curmudgeon feels about $10 grocery store merlot.

So if Michael was happy, then you know the wine was worth drinking. We gave six medals, including a platinum to the Chilean Kon Toki merlot ($12, sample, 13.2%) — easily one of the best grocery store merlots I’ve had in years. It tasted like merlot and not a chocolate cherry cocktail, with almost unheard of depth and subtlety. Look for a black currant aroma followed by black fruit and very correct tannins that weren’t harsh or off, but complemented the fruit.

This is the kind of wine to buy by the case and keep around the house when you want a glass of red wine that does what red wine is supposed to do, and that doesn’t offend you with too much fruit, bitterness, or oak. Drink it on its own, or with any weeknight red wine dinner, from meat loaf to takeout pizza. Dad probably wouldn’t mind a bottle, either, if he needs something for Father’s Day.

Highly recommended, and a candidate for the $10 Wine Hall of Fame if I can find it for that price. The only catch? The importer lists distributors in 33 states and the District of Columbia, but many of them are small and may not have enough clout to get the wine on store shelves.

Sweet red wine to merlot: Drop dead


sweet red wineGrocery store merlot’s reason for being is that consumers like its fruity taste and that it seems sweet even though it’s dry. That combination, plus the fact that these wines have little in the way of tannins, translates to “smooth,” the ordinary wine drinker’s favorite descriptor.

So what are we to make of the news that grocery store merlot sales tanked in 2014, while those for sweet red wine went in the opposite direction?

Call it a sign that we may be seeing the beginning of a seminal change in the U.S. wine business.

One year’s sales figures do not necessarily make it panic time for merlot. But it is worth noting that sales of sweet red, which is grocery store merlot without the hypocrisy — truly sweet, very fruity, and no pretense of tannins — rose seven percent last year, according to Nielsen, while merlot (from a much larger base) fell six percent. Zinfandel, meanwhile, which mimics merlot’s sweet fruitiness, also suffered last year, with sales falling two percent.

This should give the wine wise guys something to ponder, no?

A couple of caveats: Sweet red is included in the red blend category, so some dry wines are part of that seven percent growth. But most of the analysts I’ve talked to say it’s safe to say that sweet red is behind the increase. Second, though supermarkets account for 42 percent of all the wine sold in the U.S., it doesn’t include two key states, New York and Pennsylvania, where grocery stores aren’t allowed to sell wine.

Third, people have been predicting the end of merlot since “Sideways” in 2004, and merlot has always proved them wrong. The difference this time is that sweet red offers much that pinot noir, the “Sideways” merlot-killer, didn’t. It’s less expensive and it’s much easier to make, since it’s a blend and the grapes in it don’t matter to most wine drinkers. Plus, it’s easier to market and sell; witness the success of E&J Gallo’s Apothic Red and The Wine Group’s Cupcake Red Velvet, which didn’t exist until a couple of years ago and today are brands that everyone else seems to be copying.

My guess? This may well be the beginning of the end of merlot, at least as it’s sold as a varietal in supermarkets. Merlot certainly isn’t going away, and will certainly be used to make sweet red. And, as the wine business continues to evolve into two parts — a huge, Big Wine-dominated mass market, and a smaller, independent retailer-driven market — merlot will remain important to the latter. But at some point in grocery stores, there may be little difference between a wine like Apothic and Charles Smith’s Velvet Devil merlot, which is sweet red in everything but name.


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