Merlot and more
It's Friday, it's spring, and it's almost time for the Kentucky Derby, a festive period if there ever was one in my home town. This is a better time to taste wine than to talk about wine, so let's just wrap up the work week with a trio of reports on recently tasted reds of value.
In keeping with the spirit of easy sipping, I turn to Merlot, a variety that's been abused enough by the mass market to gain the irreverent nickname "Red Chardonnay" in disrespect for some industrial styles that reward quaffing more than contemplation.
But each in its own way, today's tastings rise above this low threshold, as I taste through Merlots from Oregon and the Santa Ynez Valley in California's Central Coast - both regions better known for Pinot Noir than Merlot - plus a "rustic" bargain-basement Carmenere from Chile, the sibling-of-Merlot variety that you may recall is this month's feature in our wine-education series, Wine Tasting 101
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Cape Diamond 2002 Oregon Merlot ($12.99)
My local retailer tells me that this new label is made by Ken Wright, an Oregon wine maker whose name is one to conjure with when it comes to Pinot Noir. Performing well above its price point, this Merlot shows dark ruby in color, with reddish glints in the glass. Ripe cherries meet spicy oak in the aroma; juicy and fresh, mouth-watering fruit flavors seem soft at first, but build ample fresh-fruit acidity for structure as the wine crosses the palate. Well balanced and appealing, a fine table wine. (April 8, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: An excellent match against the simple accompaniment of roast free-range chicken.
VALUE: Good price for a quality Merlot.
WHEN TO DRINK: Not designed for long-term aging, but should keep well for a year or two on your wine rack or in the cellar.
WEB LINK: I can find no Website for this new label. The Ken Wright Website (which doesn't mention Cape Diamond) is at
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: With no winery Website and no "hits" at Wine-Searcher.com, this new wine is apparently still moving into the marketplace. Check local vendors.
Casa Silva 2000 Colchagua Valley Carmenere ($6)
Offered locally at what is clearly a close-out price, this Chilean Merlot is drinkable, even interesting, but appears to be a wine meant for short-term consumption and already showing its age. Dark reddish-purple in color, its earthy aromas cloak black-cherry fruit in "torrefied" scents of toast and roasted coffee. Black coffee is apparent on the palate, too, bleding with tart cherries and soft tannins. Quaffable, a bit "rustic," it's fine with food, a little awkward without. U.S. importer: Vin DiVino, Chicago. (April 8, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: Roast chicken softens its earthy and tannic flavors and brings up the fruit; a table wine that gains from a food accompaniment.
VALUE: Aging but still very much alive, a definite bargain if you can find it at this low-end price. (The 2001 and 2002 vintages are already in the market, usually well under $10.)
WHEN TO DRINK: I wouldn't wait any longer.
WEB LINK: The winery Website is available in Spanish and English, with the English-language pages here:
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: Find sources for Casa Silva at Wine-Searcher.com,
Buttonwood Farm 2000 Santa Ynez Valley Merlot ($18)
Made in the scenic Santa Ynez Valley just north of the quaint Danish-American town of Solvang, this clear, very dark reddish-purple Merlot breathes appealing scents of fresh, ripe cherries with aromatic vanilla as an accent. Its crisp red-fruit flavors add notes of dark chocolate and subtle vanilla in a judicious balance of fruit and oak, with a firm, lemony acidic core that provides more structure and food-friendliness than you'll find in many New World Merlots. (April 14, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: Palate-cleansing acidity and forward fruit make it a hit with pork, specifically the Burgundian "Travers de Porc aux Herbes" featured in this week's 30 Second Wine Advisor FoodLetter.
VALUE: Well-balanced and food-friendly, its character and structure justify a high-teens price.
WHEN TO DRINK: Although it's not a cellar treasure, you needn't be in a hurry to drink this one; it might even gain a little complexity with cellar time under good storage conditions.
WEB LINK: There's plenty of content on the Buttonwood Farm Winery website, including buy-on-line E-commerce where the law permits:
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: In addition to the winery Website, Buttonwood Farm 2000 Merlot is available as a recent offering from The California Wine Club, by phone at 1-800-777-4443 or on the Web at
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Friday, April 16, 2004