The wine scene, like the food scene, is greatly affected by current trends. The media usually sets the momentum, the speed and the duration of these trends. A prime example is the effect of the movie "Sideways" on California merlot. Since the movie, I have seen merlot sales dwindle in our restaurants.
I have been hearing more and more how vineyards in California are either digging out and replanting their merlot or grafting it over to another grape variety.
What a shame. When grown right and aptly crafted, merlot can produce world-class wine. French versions such as Chateau Petrus and many of the other "Right Bank" bordeaux chateaux are prime examples. There is a reason these merlot-based reds command top dollar and still maintain so much demand.
I once heard a wine insider say it takes hard work to make sure Californian merlot has interest and character. This is a different style of wine from the tutti-frutti, supple merlot that grew in popularity in the 1970s.
All interesting wine starts in the vineyard. Finding the right soil, the right climate and even the right farmer is critical in making wine full of character.
To taste what I mean, consider the Selene merlot out of Napa Valley. It has been one of the best merlots out of California for many years. The grapes for the 2008 come from a small parcel of the Frediani vineyard with vines planted in 1972. This older vineyard and its highly revered neighbor, Eisele (Araujo), are tucked away in an unassuming niche at the base of the valley’s eastern hills.
Because this small pocket has unique, mountainous "Aken" soil, the resulting grapes from these vineyards have gained superstar status.
Selene winemaker-owner Mia Klein is a legend in her own right, having previously consulted for such cult Napa cabernet producers as Araujo, Spottswoode and Dalla Valle.
Her long string of elegant, classy, well-textured, superb merlots (no fruit bombs here) show the top-notch potential this grape variety has in California.
Furthermore, at roughly $35 a bottle, the Selene merlot offers a much better quality-to-dollar ratio than most Napa Valley cabernets.
Another standout Californian merlot is from Neyers (about $34). Neyers’ organically farmed estate vineyard is actually in Conn Valley, to the east of Napa Valley proper.
The merlot there is grown in basalt (compacted volcanic ash) soil. Winemaker Tadeo Borchardt is one of those young winemaking phenoms who is crafting high-quality vineyard-driven wines with much more Old World sensibility.
The best-value merlot we have run across in some time is the 2006 Vita Nova (about $17). This 100 percent merlot is grown in the cool confines of the Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Barbara.
The cool growing conditions result in a different profile of merlot, one leaner, firmer and much lighter in body (and, in this case, lower in alcohol) than its Napa Valley counterparts.
To round out the edges, the 2006 spent three years in French oak barrels, of which only 10 percent were new. This is the handiwork of pinot noir master Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, which should partially explain the elegance, texture and Old World qualities of this terrific wine.
Chuck Furuya is a master sommelier and a partner in the D.K. Restaurant group.