Best Merlot 2/2011

Quality and value


Today, Merlot is seeing something of a restoration of its reputation. With less bad Merlot on the market, consumers can finally begin to understand not only the grape but the styles that California is capable of -- not to mention Washington, Chile, South Africa... you name it. This sampling of Merlot was quite narrow, with just a few from outside California, but offers up a little something for just about everybody. Merlot remains an easy-drinking, crowd-pleasing wine, though there are wines that test the limits: from rich and powerfully extracted to elegant and exceptionally refined. The only trick here is finding the one you like!

The top Merlot

2007 Ehlers Estate Napa Valley Merlot St. Helena 14.6%, $45

Low and deep on the nose with a noticeable if well integrated underlay of oak, over which are layered notes of soil, crushed black fruits, hints of bramble, chocolate shavings and a floral top note. On entry, this is a touch hollow and it really takes some time to fill in. Still very young, this is in a bit of a difficult stage but once it gets some air, the wine reveals wonderfully ripe yet transparent berry, plum, and black currant fruit with an nice hint of thistle on the palate. The tannins are wonderfully ripe and round here, but offer plenty of support, and the acidity is bright enough to keep this fresh, yet it remains in the background. The finish is moderately long, with that pure black fruit continuing on, married to subtle oak shadings that add to the spicy finale. This is powerful, balanced and complex. Love it. 93pts

Affordable elegance

2007 Gainey Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley Merlot 13.9%, $30

Herbal and earthy at first, with candied black cherry and blackberry fruit that features a touch of tarragon and sage, along with some medicinal and coffee bean background notes and a touch of caramely oak. Round and almost soft upfront with lots of sweet, almost candied fruit that is offset by some citrusy acidity. There is a nice bed of tannin that emerges in the mouth, keeping this firm and poised and allowing the intense but pure fruit to dominate the mid-palate. Lots of red plummy fruit here, with a touch of peach pit and then lightly aromatic herbal tones coming in to add some complexity on the moderately long finish that ends with a fine black fruit tone. Refreshing, bright, juicy and delicious. 91pts

An old-world styled winner

2006 Toad Hollow Russian River Valley Merlot Reserve  Richard McDowell Vineyard 14.5%, $19

Pungent, weedy and smoky, this smells lean, old-world, and cool-climate at first, though with air, the nose gains focus and fruit. In the mouth, it’s again quite cool-climate styled with lots of bright red cherry fruit, some stiff little tannins and juicy acids all making this an outlier in the world of California Merlot. Definitely not a particularly big wine, it is ripe and complex and well styled for the dinner table. There’s a bit of cocoa on the backend and the finish is fairly long with a bit of an earthy character and some slight vanilla and spice tones from oak. This is a little rustic, and tough at times without the flamboyance or opulence of most California Merlot but therein lies its beauty. A lovely, expressive, distinctive wine that one can drink all night long and never tire from it. 90pts

A best buy

2008 Wente Livermore Valley Merlot Sandstone 13.5% $15.00

Sweet cherry fruit on the nose with some nice floral and citrus accents and just a shading of wood spice with a hint of red licorice candy. Very soft up front but not lacking in acidity. The tannins creep up on the mid-palate a bit stiff and dry but rather small-scaled. The fruit recalls the nose with cherry tones and hints of candied pink grapefruit and orange peels. There’s not much length here, but the overall impression of the wine is of an aromatic, well balanced, easy to drink yet not texturally neutral, wine. This just needs a bit of time to gain some length and while it’s not your typical California Merlot it’s pretty tasty and fun to drink. 89pts

A little Italian style

2007 Mezzacorona Vigneti delle Dolomiti Merlot 13%, $10

Very lightly aromatic with hints of citrus peel, and crushed green leaves framing gently woody red fruits. This is fairly light in the mouth with a spar of crisp tannin from which some nice, fresh fruit is suspended. It’s a high-toned wine in the mouth with impressive flavor intensity considering the wine’s weight. There’s a bit of vanilla and a milk chocolate backdrop to the wild cherry and slightly plummy fruit. The finish has a touch of the burnished orange peel that one gets on the nose and ends with a bit of wood spice and tannin. Easy drinking and nicely put together. 87pts

A perfect party bottle

2008 Kenwood Sonoma County Merlot 13.5%, $13

Plummy and sweet on the nose with a nice blackberry background note and a gentle toasty oak underlay with a hint of black pepper. Juicy and fruity in the mouth with soft tannins, sweet berry and plummy fruit and gentle streaks of oak and a lightly licorice spice. The finish shows good acidity and a roundness to the tannins. It’s simple but pretty long with juicy plummy fruit. A crowd-pleaser. 87pts

An excellent value

2008 Pepperwood Grove Valle Central Merlot Chile 13.5%, $7

Smoky and stemmy on the nose with a raw wood quality and some faint coconut tones. In the mouth this is bright if a little tinny, with crisp little tannins and a fairly lightweight frame. The fruit is rather anonymous red berry/raspberry-toned with some cocoa/vanilla accents. The tannins are dry and stiff and a bit too obvious and dominate the finish a bit. This is a bit light and stiff but it’s balanced and refreshing. There’s a little sweetness to the fruit and, while rustic and a bit anonymous, this is a decent glass of wine. 84pts

A true value wine

NV Barefoot California Merlot 13%, $6

A bit stemmy and chalky on the nose with some cherry, plum and soapy floral/raw wood character. A touch sweet on entry and somewhat rustic, with chalky tannins that come close to dominating the cherry, almost strawberry-toned fruit. On the palate this is just a bit screechy but it’s not really off-putting. The finish adds some cocoa and vanilla with a bit of an unusual artificial floral inner-mouth perfume that lingers with the candied red fruit character. An interesting little wine, not particularly good in some ways, but there is some pleasure to be had here and the price can’t be beat. This is a non-vintage wine and it's not possible to distinguish between lots, so there is no way to make sure you're buying this blend. 83pts

12 Secrets of Merlot

Check out all 17 Merlots tasted in Merlot Makes a Comeback.

Want to know more about Merlot? Discover why it was banned in France, where the name comes from, why Marilyn is a Merlot icon and more in 12 Secrets of Merlot.

Merlot got you thinking about Sideways? We've got more memorable movie moments in Wine in Movies.

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Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: shelley m
    359085 1

    I am confused on the years, your labels have one year on them and the description on the right have a different year.

    Feb 10, 2011 at 3:40 AM

  • Snooth User: sowen246
    760024 24

    The 2007 Waterbrook Reserve Merlot belongs on this list and is an excellent value, as it con be found as low as $12. WS rated it 92

    Feb 10, 2011 at 9:27 AM

  • OMG - the Apocalypse is here. I never thought I would see Barefoot wines on this site. I applaud the resurgence of Merlot for two reasons: (1) we might see more good Merlots, and (2) the Sideways 'sheep' might lay off on demand for Pinot Noir. Please don't bring Yellow Tail or Charles Shaw into our world....

    Feb 10, 2011 at 7:46 PM

  • Snooth User: wolfarthe
    1145575 50

    Dittoo on the 2007 Waterbrook REserve Merlot..outstanding example of what's happening in Washington. Smooth, silky, refined yet packs a punch......

    Oct 08, 2012 at 7:13 PM

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