5 #MerlotMe Nights (#WinePW)

The time of year has arrived where we show a little love for that most underrated of grapes, Merlot. This is my 4th year participating in the #MerlotMe celebration, which shines the spotlight on this incredibly food-friendly grape all through the month of October, right on through to International Merlot Day on November 7th.

This year’s round-up includes three bottles from California and two from Washington State. The first year I participated in #MerlotMe month, we had a tasting comparing wines from Bordeaux, California, and Washington State. Broadly speaking, you expect the California versions to be lush and round on the palate, with smooth tannins. Fruit on the palate tends to be generous, even jammy, and it can show a mix of red, black, and even blue fruits. It’s also often adorned with sweet spice and vanilla notes from new oak. The best will balance the concentration of fruit with acidity for elegance. The Washington style tends to take a step towards the Old World with more red fruits in the mix, a little more acidity, and a few more earthy notes in the mix as well.

The examples during that dinner several years ago all played their roles as expected. However, there are many factors that can throw this off, such as if a particular vineyard site has a cooler or warmer microclimate, the winemaker’s influence and style, and if other grapes are included in the blend (in the US, wines only have to be made up of 75% of the specified grape to be varietally labeled.) Today’s examples show some of those variations. (You can also see of this in last year’s exploration of different regions of California through Merlot.)


All of today’s wine are samples, but as always, all opinions are my own.


Selby Merlot Sonoma County 2018 with Stuffed Onions

Blend: 94% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc |  $24 | 14.7% Alc.

Susie Selby was founded Selby Winery in 1994, along with her father, David K. Selby, M.D. Dr. Selby.
David traveled extensively around Europe and developed a palate for the European style, and passed it on to Susie. In the winery, she learned the craft of winemaking from the ground up starting as a tasting room manager, then a forklift driver and cellar master, eventually becoming the assistant winemaker at a larger winery, while still making the Selby Wines. Her father and his wife lived in Dallas, but they would travel to California to taste the blends with Susie. He sadly passed away suddenly in 1997, but Susie managed to continue on her own as winemaker and owner, with no outside partners or investors.  

Fun fact, Selby Wines have been served in the White House since 1995, over four administrations, both Democrat and Republican. The wine has been served to numerous foreign leaders, entertainers, actors, and Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama.


Greg and I visited their tasting room in downtown Healdsburg a couple of years ago with his sister Hillary. It’s an adorable little jewel box of a tasting room with a warm vibe.

Vineyard & Winemaking Deets: The Merlot comes from Orsi Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley, while the Cab Franc comes from Sweetwater Springs Vineyard in Russian River Valley. The wine underwent extended maceration for six weeks. It was aged in 30% new French and American oak for 14 months.  

Tasting Notes: Aromas of black cherry, red plum, thyme, and dried rose petals greeted me on the nose. The fruit notes which had been rich on the nose became more tart on the palate and were joined by milk chocolate and a hint of white pepper. The wine had a silky mouthfeel with smooth, fine tannins, and lots of acidity to balance the richness and add freshness, making this a lovely food wine.

Pairing: This wine arrived as I was prepping a dish of onions stuffed with ground beef and mushrooms, based on a recipe I found in Bistros and Brasseries. (The recipe is coming soon to Nibbling Gypsy.) It was perfect timing, as I thought they were likely to make a lovely match. I was right, as the fruitiness of the wine worked well with the slight hint of sweetness of the onion. The ground beef was an easy match, and the wine’s savory elements were further teased out by the herbs, mushrooms, and sauce.  


Longboard Vineyards Dakine Vineyard Merlot Russian River Valley 2018 with Surf & Turf



Blend: 87% Merlot, 13% Malbec | $39 | Alcohol: 14.3%

Longboard Vineyards was established in 1998 by Oded Shakked, who was formerly the head winemaker at J Vineyards and Winery. Oded was born in Israel, but fell in love with northern Sonoma County in the late 1980s, after having lived and surfed his way around four continents. He’s now spent more than thirty years making wine. Longboard uses fruit from their own estate, which is farmed sustainably, and they also source fruit from local growers with whom they have close relationships. Some of the growers they work with use organic (non-certified) practices. The winery also supports a long list of charitable causes including Russian River Keep, Save the Waves, and the Surfrider Foundation, among others.

Vineyard & Winemaking Deets: The grapes for this wine come from DaKine Vineyard, their estate vineyard, located in the Russian River Valley. The name comes from a Hawaiian expression that has multiple meanings, but here it’s meant as "The Best". The vines are about 30-years old and the Merlot and Malbec grapes for this cuvé are made as a field blend, meaning that the grapes are grown, harvested, and co-fermented. The wine is aged for 24 months in French oak barrels. (More details here.)

Fun, geeky fact – The budwood for the Merlot in this vineyard came from Duckhorn’s famous Three Palms Vineyard. We had the chance to explore that wine in this post.

Tasting Notes: I brought this wine to a dinner with friends (part of our personal quaranteam) and admittedly I forgot to take a full note. However, it had mixed black and red fruit notes, baking spices, and chocolate, that were balanced by earthier notes. It was rich and lush, but also had plenty of brightness that kept it lifted. Mostly, I remember just really enjoying it with my dinner.


Pairing: We’d planned a surf and turf dinner with our friends Brady and Jonathan. I made the lobster and Jonathan made the steak accompanied by a mushroom sauce. Rather than trying to find one wine to pair with both, on this occasion, I opted to just go with two wines. This wine went down like silk with the steak. The winery recommends it with rare Filet Mignon or beef carpaccio.

The rest of our surf and turf dinner was made up of sous vide lobster tails in herbed butter, a delicious bottle of Sunflower Sutra bubbly from Blue Ox Wine Co., Covenant Wines Zahav Late Harvest Chardonnay 2016 paired with Apple Butter Rugelach I made baked myself! (I was proud of myself since it was my first attempt at those tasty Jewish cookies.)

Soil Grape & Sun Coombsville Merlot 2018 with Flank Steak & Potatoes and Leeks


Blend: Merlot | $42 | 14% alc

I spoke with Jason Edward Charles, owner and winemaker of Vinca Minor, a boutique winery in Berkeley, while doing interviews for the Slow Wine Guide. The regular Vinca Minor line focuses on Carignan, but his newer Soil Grape & Sun line explores Bordeaux varieties. Jason spent time working at biodynamic winery in Pomerol, as well as with organic wineries in Napa, so in a sense, he saw this new line as a return to his roots. 2018 is the first vintage for this wine and I’m including it here because it shows a really fresh, bright side of Merlot that really appeals to me personally. All the vineyards he works with are farmed organically (although not necessarily certified.)

Vineyard & Winemaking Deets:
The grapes come from a vineyard in Coombsville that was planted in 1971. The vineyard is planted on volcanic soils, which help the vines maintain acidity even when the grapes are allowed extra hang time to push ripeness levels. The wine spent about a year in neutral French oak barrels, plus an additional six months in bottle. 

Tasting Notes: The wine had a really pretty purity of fruit with notes of sweet black cherry, bright raspberry, very lightly smoked plums, and herbs on the finish. The wine is round and but a poppy, juicy quality thanks to particularly vibrant acidity that really shines through.

Pairing: I used my Corovin during my virtual tasting and discussion with Jason, and I brought the rest of the bottle on a trip to visit my in-laws shortly afterward. We enjoyed the wine one night while we were there with a dinner of flank steak prepared sous vide along with the smashed potatoes with leeks we love. The wine worked beautifully with this simple dinner with its lightly herbal flavors. I think this wine could also work lighter meats and richer vegetarian dishes.


L’Ecole N° 41 Merlot Columbia Valley 2017 and Hominy and Beef Chili


Blend: 81% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 3% Malbec, 2% Petit Verdot  | $24 | 14.5% alc.

L’Ecole N° 41 is the third oldest winery in Walla Walla Valley. The winery’s name comes from the historic Frenchtown School in which the winery is located. It’s family-owned and now in its third generation. Marty Clubb is L’Ecole N° 41’s Managing Winemaker and co-owns the winery with his wife Megan. Megan’s parents, Jean and Baker Ferguson, founded the winery in 1983. Marty and Megan’s children, Riley and Rebecca, are now involved in the winery as well. They’re very involved in the winemaking community in Washington and are dedicated to sustainable practices, which they’ve laid out in good detail here. (We last looked at the 2014 vintage of this wine here.)

Vineyard & Winemaking Deets: Grapes for this wine come from several vineyards: Estate Seven Hills, Bacchus & Dionysus, Candy Mountain, Klipsun, Weinbau, Pepper Bridge, Stone Tree. Both the Estate Seven Hills Vineyard (in which they are a partner) and the Pepper Bridge Vineyard (with which the Clubbs have a longstanding relationship) are Certified Sustainable & Salmon Safe. Each lot was hand-harvested ripe and gently crushed in stainless steel fermenters, then the wine was aged in 30% new small oak barrels for 18 months. (More details here.)  I must say, I really appreciate all the information the winery shares about their wines and the vineyards they work with.

Tasting Notes: This wine nicely captures my mental picture of what Washington State Merlot tastes like. Plums, blackberries, raspberries accented with clove, and hints of sweet tobacco greeted me on the nose. There is a mixture of riper and more tart fruits on the palate, which are joined by hints of black tea, pepper, tobacco, light dried herbs, followed by earthiness and pencil lead. The wine’s structure was well balanced so that eventhough the body of the wine was medium+ to full, with fine tannins that gripped a little on the finish, it also had enough acidity so that it didn’t feel overly weighty.  

Pairing: We paired this with Hominy and Beef Chili (recipe coming soon to Nibbling Gypsy) topped with cheddar and sour cream. It was a solid match, however, a slightly fruitier Merlot would have been better for this dish. On the other hand, I think this would be great with meat dishes flavored with more herbs and mushrooms.


Northstar Winery Columbia Valley Merlot 2014 with BBQ Rib Sandwiches


Blend: 76% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon | $41 |Alcohol: 14.5%

Winery: Northstar is a Merlot specialist and while they make bottlings from other varieties, this grape is their main focus. The winery is owned by Stimson Lane Vineyards & Estates, the group that owns Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest wineries in Washington and Villa Mt. Eden in Napa Valley. The label’s first vintage was started in 1994 and the winery was built in 2002. They work with vineyards across the state to source grapes for their wines, which are blended under the leadership of their head winemaker, David "Merf" Merfeld.

Vineyard & Winemaking Deets: The grapes for this wine are sourced from 10 different vineyards from around Columbia Valley, with an average vine age of 15 years. Grapes were held separately, destemmed, and crushed with 60% whole berries remaining. Grapes fermented on the skins for five to seven days with daily punch downs to extract flavor, colors, and fine tannins. The wine was aged in 90% French oak (38% of which was new oak) for 18 months.

Bottle shot borrowed from the winery's website.

Tasting Notes: A big, structured Merlot showing notes black cherries, cassis, dark plums, pencil lead, mocha, spice and tobacco. The tannins gripped a bit on the finish, such that I think if I’d been trying this wine blind, I might’ve thought it was Cab, save for the lack of pyrazines (green notes). As it turns out, there’s a good bit of Cab in there.

Pairing: I received this wine for #MerlotMe Month last year, but did not have a chance to try it in time. We ended up  having it  with BBQ rib sandwiches earlier this year. I had the ribs leftover from a few days before, tore them up, then piled the shreds up on buns with coleslaw and a side of sweet potatoes. I knew that the sweet BBQ sauce was likely to challenge the wine a bit, so I didn’t want to serve it with the ribs on their own. I also didn’t add more sauce to the rib meat. The bun, slaw, and light mayonnaise on the bun also all helped to offset the sweetness. In the end, it all worked pretty well –– actually better than I’d expected. The winery recommends the wine with herbed leg pairings of lamb, beef, and grilled vegetables, and I can certainly see that working really well.



Two bottles from Duckhorn and Decoy arrived this week (thanks!) as I was starting to put this post together, so we’ll be seeing those again soon.

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Check out these previous  #MerlotMe posts that have come together over the last few years.

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As I'm sure already know,  Napa and Sonoma have once again been devastated by wildfires.
If you're inclined to help, this page has a list of resources for California's wildfire relief and the American Red Cross is collecting funds for fires affecting all of the Western states. Buying wines from affected wineries directly benefits them as well.

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The rest of the Wine Pairing Weekend (#WinePW) blogging group is also celebrating Merlot this month. Check out their posts below:

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Additional reading and sources used for this post:
 

 

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22 comments

  1. Wow what a marathon of pairings! I really look forward to trying that stuffed onion when you post the recipe.

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    1. Thanks Andrea. AS for the onions, it's quite tasty, but I'm still tweaking it a bit.

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  2. Those pairings look amazing! Now I'm craving lobster...LOL.

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    1. Thanks Camilla -- and that happens to me a lot to reading people's posts!

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  3. That sounds like 5 splendid nights with Merlot! I love the pairings with food but also the memories of enjoying them with others on your "quaranteam." I'm stealing your stuffed onion btw because it sounds SO good! :)

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    1. Thanks Deanna. And yes, I think those moments are so key right now.

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  4. Great introduction to merlot and pairing in general. Nice collection of Merlot wines and pairings!

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  5. Wow!! I love the summary of Merlot at the beginning, love the pairings and pics, and absolutely appreciate your tasting notes. I'm eager to know your notes for the Decoy and Duckhorn - I found them to be appropriately different per each price point. CA pricing for larger wineries is so dependent on brand and perception of the brand.

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    1. Thanks Payal. I haven't had this vintage yet, but have had many in the past and I agree with you. In general, the Duckhorn Merlots are my kind of mental picture of classic CA Merlot, and the Decoy is a nice option at a lower price point.

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  6. Love the photo of Selby's "little jewel box" tasting room - I need to go! Great pairings as always!

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  7. So many great pairings! I kept looking at the photo wondering if that was a really big scallop? LOL. The onion sounds delicious.
    I always love hearing about wine from DaKine vineyard. After growing up a bit in Hawaii, it takes me back to my childhood.
    I have only had 2 of these wines. I just recently enjoyed the Selby. The L'Ecole I have tasted a previous vintage and look forward to opening this particular vintage. The rest...I will need to search for!

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    1. Thanks Robin. I really enjoyed learning about Dakine, and I can see how it would bring back nice memories.

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  8. Delicious, from start to finish! I love the idea of stuffed onions; I've got a recipe for them somewhere and am going to resurrect it thanks to your inspiration. Thanks in advance. :-)

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    1. Let me know how it turns out! I'm tweaking the version I used a bit, but will also eventually share it. Thanks Lauren.

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  9. So many great pairings! I can understand how you'd miss taking notes when dining on surf and turf with friends. LOL! It just makes me so sad that fires threaten the amazing Merlot and other wines that California produces.

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    1. Thanks Linda, and ye, it's very scary what's been happening here during fire season.

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  10. love the label on Soil Grape & Sun! I received the Selby wine also and really enjoyed it. I didn't know about her wines being served in the white house though! What an honor !

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    1. Thanks Lori. I also thought that was a pretty cool detail.

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  11. A great post Nicole. I appreciate all the pairings and tasting notes. The Sun, Grape and Northstar are new to me.

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Thanks so much for leaving your comments and questions. I always love to hear from you!