Californian Merlot was once a very hot commodity in restaurants. Seems like every restaurant we went to offered at least 1 by the glass & there were many on their list.
Still, the category of Californian Merlot then usually offered a very different profile/style of wine than the Merlot based wines we typically encountered from Bordeaux, France. In short, they were often very fruit driven, ripe, forward, quite supple & easy drinking & thankfully attracted a new crowd to enjoying wine while dining or as a cocktail.
Over the past few years, however, stand alone Californian Merlots has greatly dipped in popularity in our restaurants. Some will say the highly popular “Sideways” movie help nudge Merlot out of the lime light & bring Pinot Noir to the forefront. I am not sure if that is true, but the reality is that today Pinot Noir is IN & Merlot is in the background, at least for Californian renditions.
In reaction to this changing trend, we have seen, are seeing & have heard that more & more Merlot plantings in California are being changed over to other grape varieties. In the Napa Valley specifically, it makes sense that the growth in plantings would be Cabernet Sauvignon.
Merlot based wines from Bordeaux, France, on the other hand, still seems to be growing in demand. Not only are the iconic Chateau Petrus & Le Pin, for example, still regarded as the most expensive & prized Bordelaise bottlings eventhough they are mainly Merlot based, but we also see a growing list of petite Chateaux Merlot driven wines, from lesser known appellations, becoming more & more available in the U.S.. (In the latter cases, I don’t know if the general public is really aware these wines are predominantly Merlot based, but are buying them because they are Bordeaux….AND at a very reasonable price).
There are 2 Merlots from the Napa Valley which deserve more recognition. They are both interesting, more vineyard driven, superbly crafted & surprisingly reasonably priced, given today’s price of quality Napa Valley grown Cabernets.
Typically the Selene Merlot is one of our favorites out of California. Owner/winemaker Mia Klein is a long time, highly revered Napa Valley winemaker/consultant. Her past consulting projects included Araujo, Dalla Valle, Etude, Palmaz & Spottswoode, a venerable who’s who list for the Valley.
When she first started her own label, Selene, she chose to feature only Sauvignon Blanc & Merlot so there would be no conflict.
Mia Klein is surprisingly low keyed & humble for someone of her superstar status as a winemaker. I would say her Selene wines are along that line too, despite the fact that they exude class, with superb flow, texture & balance. Her winemaking under this label never gets in the way or overshadows what the vines, sites & grapes want to say. As terrific as they are, I am continually amazed at how “under the radar” they are to the general wine public & even the media, especially given their reasonable prices.
Her first vintage of Selene Merlot was the 1991 & up to & including the 2000, she worked with Madrona Ranch grown fruit, eventhough the label only noted Napa Valley. The 2001 & 2002 (15% Cabernet Franc) were a blend of Frediani & Blackbird vineyards. She did NOT bottle a 2003 & 2004.
In addition she also produced some single vineyard designated Merlot as well along the way–1994 & 1995–“Toth Vineyard” (Coombsville); 1995, 1996 & 1997 “Hyde Vineyard” (Carneros) & a 1999 “Blackbird Vineyard” in addition to the “Napa Valley” bottlings.
Mia really settled in with the “Frediani Vineyard” for her Merlot with the 2005 vintage & it has been since. Owned by Jeanne & Eugene Frediani & currently run by their children & grandchildren, this clay-loamy soiled vineyard is located on opposite side of Pickett Road & Silverado Trail from the much heralded Eisele Vineyard of Araujo & Joseph Phelps fame. One block she uses was planted in 1971 & the other in 1997.
The 2011 spent 18 months in oak, 80% new & because of the growing season ended up below 14 degrees alcohol. It is long in character, still with an earth driven, solid core & wonderful, seamless texture. The 2012 has more heft to the frame & deeper, riper fruit without compromising texture & balance, also seeing 18 months in barrel, but only 60% new. Like with many top producers, rather than choosing a favorite, I prefer instead to appreciate how both wines provide distinctly different snapshots of the same vineyard, different because of the varying weather & growing conditions. (Kind of like appreciating my son for who he is & my daughter for who she is, rather than choosing a favorite.) The bottom line is both are well worth searching out & for different reasons. As a side note, there is much anticipation for the 2013! (Many are saying this is a near perfect vintage for most of Napa Valley).
Bruce & Barbara Neyers purchased their 35 acre lot in Conn Valley (an off-shoot of the Napa Valley) in 1984. They started planting Merlot using UC Davis clone 4 & a massale selection from Beaulieu in 1989 & 1990.
I distinctly remember when & where I tasted the first commercial vintage, 1992, of the Merlot as the wine REALLY stood out. It was 100% estate Merlot, which Bruce himself made & of the 12 barrels, 4 were new. Imagine standing in a room of 15 or so top winemakers pouring their big time wines from around the world. Bruce was in fact there pouring a collection of standout Kermit Lynch offerings. 2/3’s through the tasting, Bruce walked up to me & asked me to taste a red wine. His. I was completely entralled!!! And, with a Californian Merlot at that. It’s nothing about being Californian, but please understand, up to that point, I can’t recall perviously having a Californian Merlot so interesting & captivating before. I was all IN.
Over the years since, lots have changed. Ehren Jordan was brought as winemaking partner from 1995 to 2005. Helen Turley was brought on as a winemaking consultant for a short while. The estate vineyard grew to 45 acres. Cabernet Sauvignon was planted in 1994 with the help of superstar vineyard-ist David Abreu. They planted the Ame parcel on the steep, VERY rocky hillside in the back of their vineyard away from Conn Creek. Tadeo Borchardt became the winemaker–2004 to present. They built a winery. Just name a few.
The common thread through all of this, however, is that Neyers looks to work with heirloom/heritage grape vines, farm sustainably & produce the wines with as little interference as possible especially in terms of additives.
While Neyers is producing some of the very best Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Mourvedre, Carignane & Grenache out of California, the Merlot is still the one that has my heart. Theirs shows the potential Merlot can have in California; it was the first of the New Era of Neyers wines AND I have to say, at least partially because it is the underdog.
Yes, the Neyers rendition is one of Californian real Merlot standouts
I was sad to hear that they will be T-budding over their 5 acres of Merlot over to Cabernet Sauvignon in the Spring of 2016. I suggest you buy up while there is some still around.