It wasn’t long ago that cabernet sauvignon and merlot were the big two California red wines — with cabernet most widely planted and most popular with consumers, but merlot right behind. Now merlot has dropped to the fourth most planted red variety, behind pinot noir and zinfandel.
That’s still a pretty good showing, but my recent tasting suggested to me that California merlot wines demand even more attention from consumers. This is especially true if you are looking for cabernet-like quality at more reasonable prices. I know I’m always looking for good wine values.
Like cabernet sauvignon, merlot originated in Bordeaux and is featured prominently in many of the region’s finest wines. Also, like cabernet sauvignon, its best wines are full and rich, featuring darker fruits and solid structure, often with savory or herbal elements. The major difference is that merlot wines tend to present a softer texture and rounder mouthfeel.
And I did find several good values. Listed in order of my preference, these wines make for fine everyday drinking.
• 2015 McIntyre “Kimberly Vineyard” ($28), from a well-known Monterey County viticulturist. This vineyard in Arroyo Seco has produced a velvety, well-structured wine, with fine depth of fruit, herbal notes, and cocoa.
• 2017 Pedroncelli “Bench Vineyards” ($18), from a family that has been farming vineyards in Dry Creek Valley for over 90 years. This is an amazing value for its pretty fruit, solid structure and spice.
• 2016 Bonterra Elysian Collection ($25), from California’s premier organic winery, is an easy-drinking wine made with organic grapes and provides earthy notes to its lush fruit.
• 2017 J. Lohr Loso Osos ($15), from one of Paso Robles best- known wineries. This is a particularly fine value and widely available. Its pure red fruit fleshes out over a lush texture with a tinge of tobacco.
• 2016 Educated Guess Napa County ($25), from Roots Run Deep winery, offers nice red fruits cocoa straightforward sweet-oak and herbs a bit more tannic,
At higher prices, I found the world-class quality one would expect from well-chosen vineyard sites and attentive winemaking. These are wines of power and elegance, balance and complexity. They are also listed in my order of preference.
• 2015 Chappellet Napa Valley ($45), from one of California’s most prestigious wineries, is a rich, complex and powerful wine, with its smoky, savory, spice and refined character.
• 2016 Duckhorn Napa Valley ($56), from the winery that helped put California merlot on the map and still is a leader, impresses with oaky richness joined with savory tobacco and light red pepper notes. It is more tannic than the other wines here, but that is balanced with full-bodied fruit and a sumptuous palate.
• 2015 Long Meadow Ranch Napa Valley ($35), from a family-owned agricultural enterprise that also farms olives and cattle while employing an integrated, organic farming system.
This one is softer and rounder, but nicely balanced with solid fruit, creamy fresh oak, a touch of earth and spice.