For starters, Washington's well earned reputation as a great resource for Merlot appears to be firmly intact as both of my top wines came from Washington. They showed lovely varietal character, intelligent wine-making and the general traits I appreciate in wine, namely restraint, balance and freshness.
If one moves further down south to California, this is hardly the case. In fact, I was quite surprised when tasting these inexpensive Merlots from California because of their frank sweetness. It seems that there is a general consensus among these vintners that the market for $12 Merlot is looking for sweet fruit bombs. That may very well be what the market is telling them, but it's not what I would want to drink.
Finally, Chile seems to have a well defined style as well. Influenced by Carmenere with weedy, ashy tones, the Chilean Merlots tasted here pretty much shared an Old World sensibility with some New World accents. They combine savory and sweet in an attractive, rather unique style that should win a strong following.
Photo courtesy davitydave via Flickr/CC
2009 Waterbrook Columbia Valley Merlot WA 13.3% $12
This is really nice on the nose. It's gently cedary and smoky, with some orange oil notes accenting the dried cranberry and dried cherry fruit. That is all topped with a hint of cocoa powder. Soft yet broad and transparent in the mouth, this packs in plenty of rather fresh cherry fruit in a supple, easy to drink and easy to like package. The structure is supportive but unobtrusive, lending this an elegant feel. The wood tannins become a touch aggressive on the back end. This is very restrained at a very good value. 87pts
2009 Duck Pond Wahluke Slope Desert Wind Vineyard Merlot WA 14.5% $12
This is rather tight at first, though notes of milk chocolate, red licorice, graphite, wild red cherry and juniper all come together over time, as well as a bit of obvious alcohol. Rather big on entry, this quickly shows good focus and delivers rather intense black cherry, black currant and plum skin flavors, framed with some fine toasty oak spices and a top note of vanilla. The texture is broad and supple, though there are plenty of tannins lurking just under the fruit. Nicely spicy and rather clearly fruited on the back end, this finishes with good persistence and slightly aggressive tannin. A touch of alcohol shows on the finale. 86pts
2010 Pizzolato Piave Merlot Italy 12% $12
No Sulfites Added, Organic
This smells very minty, medicinal and earthy with a rather attractive pomegranate, salted plum and floral fruit character. Bright and soft on entry, but not because of a lack of acid, of which there is plenty. This is full of light red fruits, strawberry and raspberry, with a very gentle character. Bright and certainly easy to drink, this is not varietal, but I'm not sure I care. The finish shows a nice earthy streak, some minor but dry tannins and a touch of vanilla. This could certainly use some food, but is quite attractive in its own right. 86pts
2009 Emiliana Eco Balance Rapel Valley Chile 145 $10
This smells both fruity with notes of plum and black currant and sweetly herbal with hints of medicinal herbs and a touch of black olive all wrapped up in vanilla oak. Very smooth in the mouth, this delivers slightly meaty flavors of plum and black currant wrapped around some nice spice tones and soft suggestions of tomato and charred bell pepper. There's a fair amount of tannin on the back end that builds through the slightly earthy and cocoa toned finish. This is a big, slight chunky wine that offers decent complexity and admirable freshness. 85pts
2008 Purple Cowboy Paso Robles Night Rider Merlot CA 13% $12
Candied red fruit and toasty oak spice greet the nose in a balanced if simple package. A bit chewy and extracted on entry, with plenty of acidity and some nicely firm tannins supporting a modest core of nicely plummy, sweet yet fresh fruit. There's some really attractive red cherry and red plum tones on the back end and the oak plays a supporting role right through the clean, simple yet appealing finish. This is actually pretty appealing for its unforced, no nonsense style. 85pts