Merlot mania will fade Humbug: The price has jumped, not quality.

February 02, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

People in the wine industry tend to develop very sensitive noses. They can smell a sucker a mile away.

That, in brief, is the reason for the merlot mania afflicting the

globe today. Consumers are being fed this line that merlot is a more refined wine than those harsh, nasty cabernet sauvignons.

Humbug. Merlot, a classic varietal under the proper conditions, has become the biggest rip-off in the wine market today.

The results are beginning to show: ridiculous prices for lackluster quality; vegetal flavors; meager fruit; dominating tannins.

The bubble is bound to burst. This prediction is based on a series of tastings of the current releases of cabernet and merlot. With a few exceptions, the cabernets were clearly the superior wines. But the merlots were usually $2-$4 more expensive.

Clos du Bois (Sonoma County): This mediocre but widely distributed winery produced an over-processed but pleasant 1994 cabernet for $8 a half-bottle and a charmless industrial-grade 1994 merlot for $11 a half-bottle.

Sterling Vineyards (Napa Valley): The 1994 merlot is a soft, workmanlike wine. It would be admirable at $9 but costs $19. The 1994 cabernet sauvignon is a little overpriced at $18 but is clearly superior to the merlot.

Boeger Winery (El Dorado, Calif.): Boeger wins the price disparity award with a $21 1994 merlot and a $14 1992 cabernet. The cabernet justifies its price. The merlot would be a decent value at $6.

Preece Winery (Southeastern Australia): This impressive winery falls a bit short of its usual standards with a pleasant 1994 merlot at $17. For $15, you can savor an excellent 1993 cabernet.

Ravenswood (Sonoma County): Score one for merlot, by a whisker. This world-class producer has produced a textbook 1994 Sonoma County merlot, a bargain at $18. The 1994 Sonoma County cabernet, a slightly better buy at $16, was a tad less well-integrated. With time it should catch up.

Robert Mondavi Winery (Napa Valley): The unfiltered Napa Valley merlot ($18), from the great 1994 vintage, is a full-bodied, intensely flavorful wine with a soft texture over firm structure -- what merlot should be. The 1993 unfiltered Napa Valley cabernet ($17), from a good but not great vintage, could catch up in time.

Meridian Vineyards (Santa Barbara County): The 1993 merlot ($16) starts off strong, but the fruit is too weak to hide the tannins. The 1993 cabernet also seems a bit tight and undeveloped. At $14, it's a bit expensive, but it beats the merlot.

Chateau Ste. Michelle (Washington state): This normally reliable winery's 1994 Columbia Valley merlot ($12.39) is as harshly tannic as the toughest cabernet. The 1994 cabernet ($11) shows some hard tannin, too, but the black-currant flavors hang in there. Fine cellaring potential.

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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