Once upon a time, California winemakers were wary of merlot, despite its undeniable success on the Bordeaux Right Bank. Forty years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find a bottle of 100 percent merlot made anywhere in the United States.
Louis Martini made a merlot but typically blended it with other grapes. There may have been a handful of others. Mostly, merlot grapes were added to cabernet sauvignon blends to soften the muscular cabernet-based wines that were becoming popular in California.
Merlot, it was thought (erroneously, I might add), didn't have the structure or complexity to stand alone.
Then along came Duckhorn and Matanzas Creek, two California wineries that took a strong position on merlot. Merlot has been Duckhorn's money grape for more than three decades now. The Napa Valley winery went against conventional wisdom at the epicenter of the cabernet sauvignon boom.
Duckhorn succeeded because it took merlot seriously, treating it with all the respect and tender, loving care others showered on cabernet. The flagship merlot in the Duckhorn stable then, as now, was its Three Palms single-vineyard merlot.
The Three Palms Vineyard, near Calistoga, also defied the conventional wisdom. Merlot is thought to do its best in a cool climate, at least a climate cooler than the warm end of the Napa Valley, where Three Palms is planted.
This truly amazing vineyard should be declared a national treasure. It rarely disappoints, if ever, and the 2015 vintage (suggested retail $98) is a stunning wine. I tasted it twice, the first time giving it a score of 96 points based upon its impressive structure, complexity and long-term potential.
I took another pass at it in November and had to reassess. The wine had evolved magnificently in the intervening months, blossoming into one with profound depth, structure and complexity. I then upgraded my score to a perfect 100.
This remarkable wine from this historic Napa Valley vineyard is my 2018 "Wine Talk" wine of the year. It is a true collectible and a wine for the ages. You could drink it now, or you could drink it 20 years from now. Either way, you will have tasted one of the finest red wines ever produced in the United States.
Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.
Peachy Canyon 2016 Incredible Red, California ($15) — This reliable "now" wine from Peachy Canyon is smooth and supple and shows layers of ripe red fruits and spice. It's a blend of 98 percent zinfandel and 2 percent petite sirah, and it has been a personal Peachy Canyon favorite of mine for at least 20 years. Rating: 90.
The Vineyard House 2015 Chardonnay, Oakville, Napa Valley ($75) — In the event you were wondering whether the rather expensive Vineyard House chardonnays would age, the 2015 offers a clue. At a time when other California chardonnays might be losing color and turning color, on the cusp of yielding to oxidation, this 2015 Vineyard House is bright, fresh and inviting, exhibiting rich notes of lemon oil, a touch of wood spice, excellent balance and a long finish. Rating: 94.
Groth 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, Napa Valley ($65) — This was an excellent vintage throughout the Napa Valley, especially in the Oakville district. It is richly layered with dark fruits, spice and notes of graphite and cedar. Beautifully balanced, the 2015 Groth exhibits impressive weight on the palate with a long, spicy finish. Rating: 93.
Gary Farrell 2016 Pinot Noir, Russian River Selection ($45) — While a bit on the lighter side, the Gary Farrell Russian River Selection is an expressive, floral pinot noir that delivers superb fruit purity and seductive notes of wood spice. Rating: 89.
Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com. Email Robert at [email protected]