Creating a stellar red wine is no simple thing. Some winemakers combine multiple grape varieties to achieve a specific balance or characteristics, an ancient and honorable technique widely practiced in France's Bordeaux and Rhone regions. Others choose to focus their expertise on single grape varieties, wringing the most out of grapes such as cabernet sauvignon or syrah. Merlot grapes have traditionally been used mostly for blending, but many New World winemakers also use it to make interesting wines all on its own. The best of those almost invariably come from Washington, where conditions are unusually perfect for merlot.
A Quick Explanation of Balance
A really good red wine needs to find a balance among a number of characteristics. It should retain enough fruitiness to please the palate – in general, American wines are a bit fruitier than their French equivalents – but it also needs plenty of acidity to balance the sweet fruit. It also needs mouth-drying, astringent tannins to give structure. In a classic Bordeaux blend, for instance, cabernet sauvignon provides the big, bold tannins while other grapes such as merlot and cabernet franc are added to soften its rough edges and round out its flavor. Growing merlot grapes that stand on their own requires a very specific climate, one that Washington provides.
Perfect Growing Conditions
Outsiders tend to think of Washington as a gray and rainy place, but that's not true of the uplands where most wine grapes are grown. Lying at the same latitude as the grape's Bordeaux homeland, Washington's longer days and cool nights improve on those ancestral French growing conditions. The wind, cold nights and arid climate all play a role in gently stressing the grapes, keeping their skins thick and their flavors concentrated. The end result is a grape with much greater winemaking potential than their cousins grown in less-challenging environments.
The End Result
Wines made from the merlot grape are often sadly undistinguished, providing little to taste beyond their initial fruitiness. That's not the case in Washington, where winemakers at the leading vineyards draw on those concentrated flavors, and the tannins in their thick skins, to produce quality merlots. You’ll find such great wines across all price points, from economical supermarket labels to the most memorable of high-end vintages. As wine writer Paul Greggutt noted in his book Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide: "Washington merlots start where most others leave off...The best of them play out broadly across the palate, with smooth, supple tannins and plenty of lively natural acid."
The State of Merlot
Winemakers across the state add and drop merlots from production, depending on growing conditions, sales and their own goals. The state now grows and produces more cabernet sauvignon than merlot, but you'll still find plenty of outstanding bottles to choose from. Ask the staff at your local store for recommendations, or – even better – make time to visit a number of wineries and taste the wines on their own turf. Vineyards a stone's throw from each other can produce surprisingly different wines, and tasting them where they're made can give you an insight into how each one reflects the soil where it was produced.