Yesterday, Saturday, June 16, I attended the Wine Panel Presentation and Tasting of Merlot wines as part of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine: The World of Merlot event which was held June 14 - 16. This annual event was going into its third cycle, with the Syrah grape as the featured varietal last year and with Cabernet Sauvignon to be highlighted in 2019. Each event presents a premier Walla Walla Valley varietal with counterparts from California and France.
This year's panel of winemakers and vineyard managers consisted of Jean-François Pellet, winemaker of Pepper Bridge and Amavi Cellars in Walla Walla, Jason Magnaghi, Leonetti Cellar vineyard manager, Sadie Drury, vineyard manager of Seven Hills Vineyard, Emmanuelle d'aligns-Fulchi of Chateau Bellevue and Chateau Angeleus in Saint Emilion, Sally Johnson, winemaker of Pride Mountain Vineyards in the Napa Valley, and Jeff Bundschu of Gundlach Bundschu in the Sonoma Valley. The panel moderator was Ashley Trout, owner-winemaker of Brook & Bull Cellars and Vital Wines of Walla Walla.
While the participants tasted the wines being presented - one from each of the panel wineries - the panelists discussed the wines and their approaches to winemaking and vineyard management. Ashey Trout did a great job as moderator, asking pertinent questions and leading all participants into a better understanding of Merlot.
One of the topics discussed was the "Sideways Effect" of the movie, Sideways, which caused Merlot wines to decline in popularity. This decline is not entirely the fault of the movie. There was a lot of mediocre Merlot being produced during the grape's boom period at the century's turn. But the effect is still there even though Merlot is making a comeback. The panelists were cautiously optimistic about the future for Merlot. As Ashley put it, Merlot is still the "underdog" variety, behind Cabernet Sauvignon.
As the discussion proceeded, the following wines were tasted, with my notes and scores, in order of tasting.
2015 Pepper Bridge Merlot, Walla Walla Valley ($60) - Sourced from the Seven Hills, Pepper Bridge and Octave vineyards and composed of 78% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc and 7% Malbec, this showed a purplish-crimson color and enticing aromas of blackberry, cherry, plum, tobacco, cedar and incense. The flavors were lavish, yer well structured, with notes of dark fruits, chocolate and loess minerals. The hight toned back picked up pressed berries, roasted nuts and graphite, followed by a long ripe tannin finish. 19+/20 points.
2014 L'Ecole No. 41 Merlot, Walla Walla Valley ($38) - From the Ferguson and Seven Hills vineyards, this 80% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc showed a ruby-crimson color and a perfumed nose of raspberry, cherry and plum, with scents of crushed roast, purple lilac and incense. The flavors were fleshy yet well focused, with notes of licorice, bittersweet chocolate, roasted coffee beans and basaltic minerals. The penetration continued on the back with pressed berries, roasted walnuts, kirsch, plum preserves and graphite, followed by a lingering sweet-dry tannin finish. 19/20 points.
2014 Leonetti Cellar Merlot, Walla Walla Valley ($75) - From the Loess and Mill Creek Upland vineyards, and composed of 94% Merlot and 6% Cabernet Franc, this displayed an inky purple color and intense aromas of blackberries, cherries, plums, black currants, rose petals, tobacco, vanillin, violets and incense. The flavors were simultaneously fleshy and taut, with dark fruits that were infused with licorice, dark cocoa, French roast and minerals. The penetration continued on the back with sensations of pressed fruits, roasted nuts, mocha and graphite followed by a long, long ripe tannin finish. Highly impressive. 19.5/20 points.
2014 Château Bellevue, Saint Emilion Premier Cru Classe ($50) - This 100% Merlot from the Bordeaux district of France showed a deep ruby color and a rich, earthy nose of wild berries, old tree cherries, plums, figs, dried rose petals, tobacco, cedar and incense. The flavors showed modern and old styles. with notes of licorice, dark chocolate, French roast and earth. The back picked up roasted berries and nuts, mocha and charcoal, and then marches on into a rich, yet classic dryish tannin finish. 19/20 points.
2014 Pride Mountain Vineyards Vintner Select Merlot, Sonoma County, Lower Mountain Top Vineyard ($80) - This is a highly impressive Merlot. It displayed a deep ruby color and a sexy perfumed nose of raspberries, cherries, plums, crushed roses, sweet tobacco, sandalwood, violets and oriental incense. The varietally pure flavors were intense and mouth caressing, yet impeccably structured, infused with licorice, Swiss chocolate, French roast and Sonoma Mountain minerals. The depth stretched out on the back with sensations of pressed fruits, roasted nuts, integrated oak and graphite on the endless finish. 19.5/20 points.
2014 Gundlach Bundschu Merlot, Sonoma Valley ($38) - This showed a deep ruby color and a rich nose of cherries, plums, currants, crushed roses, tobacco, cedar and incense. The flavors were varietally direct, yet fleshy and bold, with notes of licorice root, chocolate, roasted coffee beans and damp earth. The opulence continued on the back with sensations of roasted berries and nuts, mocha, toffee, toasty oak and charcoal, followed by a lingering, deftly spiced hedonistically ripe tannin finish. 19/20 points.
All of these were stellar expressions of the Merlot grape, each with its own style. They showed that the Walla Walla Valley is deservedly famous for its Merlots and the two Sonoma ones prove that, despite the Sideways Effect, California is capable of producing great Merlots. The Château Bellevue showed what Bordeaux Merlot is all about. All this goes to show that Merlot is a grape to be taken seriously.