Lenn from Lenndevours proposed a wine focused event recently, a Worldwide Wine-Blogging Wednesday to be exact. For its first installment the theme was to be New World Merlot. The idea was to purchase a bottle of non-US Merlot, $15 or under, post the official vintage notes, drink some, share with friends and write a review.
I must admit that initially I thought about staying out of this one for a few reasons. Mainly, I've never been a real fan of Merlot. In fact, for the most part and for many years, I avoided them like I avoid bad cheese. Merlots got so big and so bad during the mid 80’s to mid 90’s that what was once a blending grape, mostly for Bordeaux producers, became as ubiquitous as that horse water that some called White Zinfandel.
Merlot was flat, average, bland and frankly, most Merlots under $20 were just a waste of good glasses, time and money. Fortunately, there were a few exceptions. Talus, Hess and Kunde made nice ones. All of these sold for around $20. Then there was Sonoma’s Gundlach-Bundschu and even Washington’s Chateau Ste. Michelle. But as the years went by and with so many other exciting wines and new wineries coming out, I just pretty much gave up on Merlot.
That was before moving to Seattle and becoming better acquainted with some of the worlds best Merlots being produced right now. How lucky that they are coming out, of all places, from our very own Washington State (Leonetti's Columbia Valley Merlot and Northstar Columbia Valley Merlot ). Sadly, not only were these wines American but out of the $15 range specified for the event.
There was also the problem of which country to pick. Ok, perhaps it is better for me to explain by first stating the obvious: Old World wines come from the traditional wine making countries like France, Spain, Italy and Germany while New World wines come from countries such as Canada, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, and the United States.
A few of the New World countries eligible for Lenn’s event were just not known for their Merlot and more for their whites--Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay—as is the case of New Zealand. Or, were not producing much Merlot or just making inferior wines with this grape or their Merlot plantings have not been, until very recently, established enough for wide exporting (South Africa).
I also debated on the country as I could already imagine how many of the entries would have Chilean’s wines as their subject. Most New World Merlot under $15 comes from Chile. I had a problem with that. I wanted something different. Something a little more fresh, perhaps even a bit obscure or less mass market. I was even willing to break with the group and go for something as forbidden and interesting as the Brampton Cabernet-Merlot 2002 I found calling my name at Larry's Market.
It was hard finding that different something. Visit any high end supermarket or wine store and you’ll see Chile (I’ve always preferred their Carmenère and Malbec to anything else) taking over the under $15 Merlot shelf space. The rest are mostly wines from Argentina (I always order Argentinian Malbec with my parrillada, steak or empanadas at Buenos Aires Grill), Australia (some of my favorite big bold reds come from Australia as does my favorite Aussie red, Marquis Phillips S2) and South Africa (better for Pinotage and even Cabernet than Merlot) and not extraordinary at that.
After much debate, I researched many and purchased three: One Chilean, one South African (Fleur Du Cap) and one Aussie (Buckeley's). However, after various conversations with very friendly--generous of their time and knowledge--local wine sellers, wine guys and wine reps, I was finally convinced to give this particular one a go and to pick a Chilean wine for this exercise.
My wine comes from Colchagua Valley, one of the hottest, newest, (soon to become the premier) wine growing regions (think what Napa use to be 30+ years ago) in Chile. Green and barely populated, less than an hour from the Pacific ("125 miles southwest of Santiago it has the ideal soil and climate for growing classic red grape varieties"). Here Cabernet Sauvignon is king but other varieties are being planted as well, in over a dozen wineries spread throughout the valley.
The vines and the wines are young compared to surrounding wine regions but its winery association, Viñas de Colchagua, is making sure that they are found (by tourists and new winemakers) and known all over the world. It is from this valley’s 2001 harvest that my selection for Worldwide Wine-Blogging Wednesday I: New World Merlot comes from.
Arboleda Colchagua Valley Merlot is produced by a partnership between Robert Mondavi and Chile’s Caliterra, Arboleda being the appellation-specific reserve label of Caliterra.
The following are the official winemaker’s notes and additional information, graciously provided for this blogging effort by permission of Robert Mondavi, A Family Of Wines and its offices here in the Seattle area (further thanks to Mr. Michael Ginder and Mariea Johnson for their time, knowledge and assistance)
Arboleda Colchagua Valley Merlot
Our Arboleda 2001 Merlot comes from our estate vineyards in Colchagua Valley, where hot summer days and cool coastal breezes develop Merlot grapes of great intensity and balance. This is a complex wine, with deep red color, aromas of blackberry and plum, and hints of clove, vanilla and toast. On the palate, the wine is full and lush with soft, ripe tannins and a velvety structure. Dark plum and dark chocolate linger on the finish.
85% Merlot; 8% Cabernet Sauvignon; 5% Carmenère; 2% Syrah
The 2001 vintage, one of the longest in recent Chilean history, began on February 19, with Chardonnay from Curicó, and ended on May 11, with Carmenère from La Arboleda Estate. Throughout the twelve-week-long harvest, we waited for just the right moment to pick each variety. All the varieties matured unevenly, so we picked individual blocks separately and then carefully selected each lot. The white varieties produced the expected yields of 20% lower than last year. The reds, including the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and Syrah for this wine, yielded 20% less than expected, or nearly 40% less than last year. Overall, 2001 was an excellent vintage, with many challenges and great achievements. The quality looks very good.
WE SOURCED GRAPES FOR OUR ARBOLEDA 2001 MERLOT FROM OUR ESTATE IN COLCHAGUA VALLEY IN THE RAPEL REGION, WHERE HOT SUMMER DAYS ARE MODERATED BY REFRESHING COASTAL BREEZES AND COOL NIGHTS. THE VALLEY ALSO FEATURES SUMMER DROUGHT AND EXCELLENT LUMINOSITY. TOGETHER WITH CAREFUL VINEYARD MANAGEMENT, THESE NATURAL CONDITIONS CREATE AN IDEAL ENVIRONMENT FOR GROWING MERLOT. THIS YEAR WE WERE ABLE TO WORK WITH CLONAL VINEYARDS, WHICH CONTRIBUTED COMPLEXITY AND CONCENTRATION TO THE WINE.
Appellation: Colchagua Valley
•FERMENTATION AND AGING•
Merlot is the earliest red grape variety to be harvested in our vineyards. The hand-picked fruit was brought to the winery at La Arboleda in 400 kilo bins in order to minimize bruising and crushing. After gentle crush in our gravity-flow facility, we gave the juice two to three days cold pre-fermentation maceration to enhance color and flavor extraction. We fermented the wine in temperature-controlled, stainless steel tanks at 28°C for seven to ten days, with four pump-overs per day. Every lot was fermented and aged separately for more blending options. Post-fermentation maceration for full extraction and good structure lasted an average of 27 days. Afterwards we racked the wine into 225-liter barrels to complete malolactic fermentation and fully integrate with the oak. The wine matured during 14 months of aging in French (56%) and American (44%) oak barrels. We used 15% new barrels to add toast flavor while maintaining the fruit of the wine. We filtered the wine only lightly before bottling.
Wine analysis: total acid: 5.42g/l (0.54%); residual sugar: 2.5g/l (0.25%); 3.48 pH, 14.8% alcohol, by volume
Hand-picked fruit brought to La Arboleda Winery in 400 kilo bins
Gentle crush and 2-3 days cold pre-fermentation maceration
Fermentation in temperature-controlled, stainless steel tanks at 28°C for 7-10 days, 4 pump-overs per day
Every lot fermented and aged separately for more blending options
Post-fermentation maceration for an average of 27 days
Malolactic fermentation in 225-liter barrels
Aging for 14 months in French (56%) and American (44%) oak barrels (15% new)
Light filtering before bottling
SUGGESTED RETAIL PRICE AT RELEASE: $15.00
My notes: 'The wine is good. Not as jammy or as intense and rounded as my Leonetti or Northstar but at this price point it shouldn't be expected to compete in that league either. This is an everyday Merlot that is quite drinkable. Hints of chocolate, plum, bing cherries and blackberries, a little coffee and a bit of heat (alcohol). A little thin on the palate, with a pretty color. Best to leave to open and settle down a bit. Perhaps even decant to see if it can soften those tannic sharp edges. Suggested Pairing: with grilled New York Strips, Churrasco or Lamb Chops."
(I picked it up for $12.99, on sale, at Larry's Markets in Queen Anne on my way home from work and had paired it, for this tasting, with broiled garlic and butter lamb chops (the one's I got from Trader Joe's on Monday), accompanied with steamed Heirloom German Pink Potatoes from Portland's Farmers Market. I was hungry and did not share the food nor the wine with any friends, not even cat. And since Mr. Vivant has been in Alaska for the past two weeks, every morsel ended up in the happy stomach of yours truly. Besides, this needed to be written so this was an off the cuff, quick, no-frills pairing. The wine will go well with most grilled meats really.