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Jan 18, 2008 07:03 AM

Best Merlot

What does everyone recommend for their best merlot? I've become a huge merlot fan lately and want to try out different brands. Not looking for anything too expensive though...

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  1. First off, I would have to say there is no such thing as "best," but rather -- everyone has his or her own favorites, and with that, your mileage may vary . . .

    Secondly, what do you mean by "not too expensive"? Obviously this, too, varies with every individual.

    (For the purposes of this post, I'll keep any suggestions at $30 or less.)

    So, having said that -- and presuming we are talking about wines other than St.-Émilions and Pomerols -- I generally prefer the Merlots of Washington State to California, but clearly there are a number of exceptions to that statement. One of my all-time favorite California Merlots is the Storrs Merlot, San Ysidro District AVA (not their Central Coast bottling). It's in the high-$20s/low-$30s. Frog's Leap and Robert Keenan are two others, both in the same price range.

    One of my favorite Washington Merlot producers is L'Ecole No. 41, which starts in the low-$20s. Waterbrook Merlot from Washington State is delightful and in the low $20s. So, too, are the Merlots from Chateau Ste. Michelle, and even their sister winery, Columbia Crest, is quite tasty for their sub-$10 price! Canoe Ridge is another Washington Merlot in the low $20s that is well worthwhile.

    That should be a start . . .


    1. I'm particularly fond of Washington State Merlots. Chateau Ste Michelle makes a couple of tasty ones that are pretty widely available.

      Also, the winemaker at St. Supery in Rutherford, Napa Valley says merlot is his favorite grape, and their Merlot definitely reflects his preference. Delicious!

      4 Replies
      1. re: ChefJune

        Agreed on St. Supery, especially the reserves (Dollarhide). Also, St. Francis reserve Merlots.

        1. re: ChefJune

          Do you recommend any particular series from Ste Michelle? Ethos? I think they have 7. :)

          1. re: BDD888

            I'm not June, but can I answer anyway?

            CSM is a very good winery, but not my favorite. In other words, there are other Merlots from Washington State that I prefer. And I generally find Washington State Merlot to be significantly better than most California Merlots.

            In the CSM line, clearly they feel the Ethos ($40 WSRP) is their finest. I have not tried it, however, and so cannot comment one way or another. I do like their Cold Creek ($30 WSRP) and Canoe Ridge ($25 WSRP) bottlings, too, but as I said -- I prefer others.


            1. re: zin1953

              Do you think CSM is a good choice to add to my grouping of wines to sample when I'm in LA to sample? I should be in LA for roughly 6-9 months.

        2. I wouldn't leave out St.-Émilions and Pomerols, after all, if you want to really know what Merlot is like, these offer some of the best, and often at excellent values. Château Pipeau is always a good value as is Clos de l'Oratoire. Of course, these wines are often best if cellared for a while, so maybe Chew on That doesn't want to wait.

          3 Replies
          1. re: dinwiddie

            "I wouldn't leave out St.-Émilions and Pomerols"

            Amen. For all of the well-deserved griping about the prices of 2005 Bordeaux, there are legitimate bargains to be had. The quality of this vintage is undeniable. I have had some low level '05s ( wines that would fail to impress in a lesser vintage ) that are magnificent NOW ( with significant decanting ) and are priced at $12-25. Almost all of the lower level Bordeaux have a significant amount of Merlot and you'd be hard pressed to find many CA bottles that would compare to these in this price range.

            1. re: brupnow

              Please share the names of some of your favorite bargains please!

              1. re: moh

                My new school night red...2005 Chateaux de Brondeau 'Bordeax Superieur'. As I said, in lesser vintages, the 'Superieur' often means 'yuck' but not in '05. It's a special vintage. $12 is ridiculously cheap for this wine.

                I'll look up some of the others I've tried but that one stood out. I'd encourage experimentation. The wines have been universally good thus far. I'm sure there will be a lot of 'finds'.

          2. I agree with all of zin1953's Washington recommendations~ but must add my own personal Washington favorite merlot... Fidelitas. It's the mid to upper $20 range and wonderful with a steak off the grill and some chocolate!

            1. Faure-Beausejour from Fronsac is really good for the price ($13). Actually, a lot of wine from Fronsac is an excellent value, even after it gets the trans-Atlantic markup. Might be a little harder to find though.

              Canoe Ridge is owned by Chateau St. Michelle. It's their fancy label. In general, I think CSM is perfectly fine but not what I would call "best" if we are simply talking the stuff you can find on the shelves at Fred Meyer. (Canoe Ridge is obviously a different story.)

              If I want a Washington bordeaux blend, I turn to Hedges Red Mountain. It's so good.

              19 Replies
              1. re: iwantmytwodollars

                Keep in mind that -- regardless of the question posed by the OP -- it's not a function of "best" (whatever that means). I'm the one who first mentioned CSM, and I did so with the admonishment that, lacking any sort of budgetary guidelines in the original post, I was setting the admittedly arbitrary limit of $30 or less.

                If price is no object, I'll take Pétrus.

                1. re: zin1953

                  Yes, I understand as you previously stated you hate the term best. And I agree that is a subjective issue.

                  What I wanted to clarify for the original poster is that Canoe Ridge is owned by CSM, not a seperate business entity. That's all.

                  1. re: iwantmytwodollars

                    Swanson Merlot & Rocca Merlot.....even Miles (from Sideways) would like these.

                    1. re: drumwine

                      Merlot is just about the last varietal I think of when choosing a wine. Nonetheless, a guest brought over a bottle of Swanson Merlot one evening and it was stunning: powerful, clean, concentrated without being jammy.

                      The other one that totally knocked my socks off was Pride's -- intense blackberry and blueberry fruit. Phenomenal, actually. But not cheap.

                      And by the way, the joke regarding Merlot in Sideways is lost on many -- the '61 Cheval Blanc that Miles is saving for a special occasion during the movie and that he drinks at the end is a Merlot-Cab Franc blend.

                      1. re: maria lorraine

                        and, of course, if Miles were the wine geek that he is portrayed to be, he would have known that.

                        1. re: ibstatguy

                          In the book though it makes more sense. He says he thinks Cab Franc and Merlot are both blending grapes and not fit to be bottled alone. This doesn't come across very well in the movie though.

                          Of course I disagree because the Cab Fran's from the Loire are some of my favorite reds.

                        2. re: maria lorraine

                          True, but the "reverse" joke is that while most St.-Émilionsare Merlot-dominant, Château Cheval Blanc is approx. 67% Cab Franc and 33% Merlot, so . . . .

                          1. re: zin1953

                            Jason, would you mind sharing some info from that vast storehouse that is your cranium?

                            I've just checked the blending ratios of Cheval Blanc going back to 1993, and it pretty consistently seems to be around 55 Cab Franc, 45 Merlot.

                            What I had heard over the years was that the blend was about 50-50, so my impression wasn't quite accurate.

                            When I checked 1961 (Miles's wine), it WAS at 66 CF/33 Merlot, but the only other year that resembled that blending ratio was 2002.

                            I'm a bit confused because Frank Prial wrote in The New York Times that "Cheval Blanc, one of the greatest of all the Bordeaux properties, is usually nearly 70 percent cabernet franc and 30 percent merlot." Yet when I've checked the blends for the last 15 years, they don't match what Prial says.

                            2000 was the only year I could find that was Merlot-dominant: 53%Merlot/47%Cabernet Franc.

                            So what's the scoop on the blend? Seems like it's evolved to be pretty much the 55CF/45M I mentioned. Do you have a different take?

                            1. re: maria lorraine

                              Frank Prial and I are both dinosaurs who often (OK, "probably" in Frank's case) write from memory without researching the facts first.

                              In his definitive work, "The Great Wine Châteaux of Bordeaux" (©1975), Hubrecht Duijker writes, "Highly characteristic of Cheval Blanc is the unorthodox way in which the vineyard is planted: there is not Cabernet Sauvignon at all. The vine species used two-thirds Cabernet Franc, almost one-third Merlot and just one hectare of Malbec." (page 168)

                              In "The Wines of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol" (© 1983), Jeffery Benson & Alastair Mackenzie write, of Cheval Blanc, "The estate comprises 42 hectares of which there are 35.11 of vines (33% Merlot, 66% Bouchet [a local name for Cabernet Franc], 1% Pressac [a local name for Malbec]." (page 54)

                              In "Bordeaux: A Legenday Wine" (© 1998), Michel Dovaz writes,"The miracle of a success story like this is due to a white horse, and to the wine itself -- a sublimated expression of cabernet franc (60 percent) in a harmonious blend with merlot and a bunch or two of malbec." (page 235) Additionally, in a chart at the bottom of the page, he lists the grape varieties as follows: "60% CF, 37% M, 2% malbec, 1% CS." This is the ONLY published reference I can recall seeing that indicates there is Cabernet Sauvignon planted at Ch. Cheval Blanc.

                              ALL THIS ASIDE . . . .

                              Keep in mind there is generally a distinct difference between what is planted in the vineyard, and what is in the wine. In each of the above cases, the figures given apply to what is PLANTED in the vineyard. This is typically the figure most people use when speaking of what grapes are found in "Château 'X'." It is only when one mentions a specific vintage that the percentages of grapes will typically refer to the wine, rather than to the vineyard.

                              Now, in fairness, I have to add that London merchant Berry Bros. & Rudd list the following information on their website: "Cheval Blanc's vineyards (Merlot 39%, Cabernet Franc 57%, Malbec 3%, Cabernet Sauvignon 1%) enjoy a variety of soils: gravel, clay and sand, all underpinned by an impermeable sedimentary rock (`crasse de fer')." I don't know when this information was written, but here, too, it's worth noting the mention of Cabernet Sauvignon.

                              And finally, on Château Cheval Blanc's own website -- -- they write, "[T]he single block of Cheval Blanc's 37 hectares combine a top-quality wine growing soil with an original mix of grape varieties, Cabernet Franc and Merlot." But no percentages are given.

                              So . . . .


                            2. re: zin1953

                              and Miles was similarly dismissive of Cab Franc...maybe I've seen it one too many times...

                              1. re: ibstatguy

                                Did he mention cab franc in the movie? I remember it in the book, but it's been a long time since I've seen the movie.

                                1. re: vanillagorilla

                                  yes, it was in the tasting room where he and his buddy meet Sandra Oh

                        3. re: iwantmytwodollars

                          Yes, but . . .

                          Stimson Lane -- the wine division of US Tobacco -- owns Chateau Ste. Michelle. They also own Columbia Crest and Domaine Ste. Michelle, as well as these other wineries in Washington State: Col Solare, Northstar (which, BTW, is dedicated to making Merlot), Red Diamond, Snoqualmie, Spring Valley Vineyard, Stimson Lane Cellars (a line of "fighting varietal" 1.5Ls) , and a label I've never heard of, 14 Hands. In Calfiornia, they also own Conn Creek and Villa Mt. Eden (both in Napa), and they have a Monterey project called Distant Bay.

                          Canoe Ridge is in partnership with the Chalone Group, not Stimson Lane.


                          1. re: zin1953

                            I got a bottle of 14 Hands Merlot, Patterson, WA at the Chronicle Wine Shop in Pasadena two years ago. It was a '02 and my notes say it didn't have any nose but the flavor was lively with dark berries on the finish. It cost $7.95, which might explain why nobody has heard of it, but it wasn't bad.

                            1. re: BN1

                              I bought the Indaba Merlot for around $8, and for an $8 bottle of wine, it was very pleasant. In general, I have enjoyed the QPR of all the Indaba wines I have tried. Can't drink Amarone every day!!!

                            2. re: zin1953

                              I believe they also own Erath in Oregon.

                              1. re: vanillagorilla

                                Yes, as of May 2006. (Thanks for catching my omission.)

                              2. re: zin1953

                                I just realized we are talking about two totally different things. I was referring to the merlot made by CSM from their Canoe Ridge vineyard, which says "Canoe Ridge" on the label and CSM at the bottom. But you were referring to Canoe Ridge Vineyards, (capital V), of the Chalone group? Sorry for the confusion!

                                1. re: iwantmytwodollars

                                  just to fully clear up the confusion, Canoe Ridge is a place. It's a ridge near one of the widest spots on the Columbia River which was named by Louis and Clark because they thought it looked like an upside down canoe. CSM and Chalone planted vineyards there around the same time and some very nice wines have come from this location. In fact Canoe Ridge Vineyard (Chalone, now Diageo) has quite a reputation for their Merlot.

                                  As far as the "best merlot" question, all these mentioned are good and seem to fall into three categories...California, Washington, and Bordeaux. For my money, Washington Merlot wins out. Lots of character and affordable, some great finds between $15 and $30. if you want to spend a little more, and can find it, Abeja makes a great merlot, I think it's $40 or $50.