American Merlots

August 29, 1993|By Michael Dresser

Here are notes on a sampling of American merlots, all bought recently in Maryland.

Expensive and excellent

* 1990 Newton Vineyards Merlot, unfiltered, Napa Valley ($22). The first thing you see when you pop the cork is purple gunk. What a beautiful sight! The sediment is a sign of an unfiltered, living wine, and is this wine ever alive! It's just rippling with muscle under a silky exterior. There are layers upon layers of blackberry and black cherry fruit, intermixed with flavors of smoked meat and herbs. You can keep it 10-20 years, but it's so good now.

* 1990 Matanzas Creek, Sonoma Valley ($30). This typically excellent Matanzas Creek has layer upon layer of fruit and herb flavors and a finish that just won't stop. It's massive but elegant, and will likely last 10-15 years.

* 1990 Arrowood Merlot, Sonoma County ($38). This is a sleek, seductive wine that gives you sensual thrills while picking your pocket. It offers wonderful flavors of blackberry, chocolate and coffee. While it isn't as massive as the preceding two, it's equally complex and even more elegant. But better? Not quite, making its price look excessive.

A Virginia surprise

* 1991 Oasis Vineyard Virginia Merlot ($12). This wine doesn't have the sheer concentration of a top California merlot, but it has an astonishing flavor intensity for a wine that's only medium-full in body. The black cherry fruit flavors are astonishingly pure and penetrating, and the herbal notes add complexity. Not just a fine wine but an exceptional value from a previously inconsistent producer. Drink young.

Good quality, good price

* 1991 Canterbury Merlot, California ($9.45). This wine has surprising richness and roundness for an under-$10 merlot. Black cherry, herb and chocolate flavors give it more complexity than you might expect.

* 1991 Firestone Vineyard Merlot, Santa Ynez Valley ($13). Not complex, but thoroughly enjoyable. A medium-weight wine with good varietal character at fair, not exceptional, price.

Good but pricey

* 1991 Latah Creek Limited Bottling Merlot, Washington State ($17). This wine's a bit on the herbal side, but there's good fruit concentration and definite potential to improve with age. Still, the finish is a little shorter than you'd think.

Drinkable disappointments

* 1990 Alexander Valley Vineyards Merlot, Wetzel Family Estate, Alexander Valley ($13). This huge, grapy, plummy wine has a certain burly appeal, but it resembles Australian shiraz more than classic merlot.

* 1991 Markham Merlot, Napa Valley ($16). Pleasant, medium-bodied, pleasantly fruity, with a supple, one-dimensional, Beaujolais-ish appeal. Would be nice at $7. But $16?

* 1990 Trentadue Merlot, Alexander Valley, Estate Bottled Lot 1 ($11.59). Trentadue is an excellent red wine estate, but its strength lies in old-style California wines such as carignane and zinfandel. This wine shows no sensibility for merlot. The flavors resemble zinfandel, but more blunt and compact than the best.

Mistakes

* 1990 Columbia Crest Merlot, Columbia Valley, Washington ($11). This usually reliable producer misfired with this vintage. It's an enormous, bulky wine with not a smidgen of merlot character. The finish is short, flavors dull. Serve with chili, if at all.

* 1990 Clos du Bois Merlot, Sonoma County ($16). Supposedly a top California merlot producer, Clos du Bois has produced a disgraceful 1990 that epitomizes all that is wrong about California winemaking today: lack of concentration, filter pad flavor, aromas of stewed vegetables and charcoal, excessive acidity and oakiness. It cleans up a little in the glass but not enough.

* 1991 Dunnewood Barrel Select Merlot, North Coast ($7.49). A sad little attempt at a bargain merlot that is no bargain at all. Flavor stripped out, if was ever there.

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