July 08, 2010
From Steve Pride - Our Merlot Program
The first vintage we produced a merlot was 1992. After having always thought that the St. Emillion and Pomerol reds were the most delicious from Bordeaux and having had some nice examples from Markham and Duckhorn in the Napa Valley in the late 1980s, it was easy to want to feature merlot as its own varietal and not just as a blending grape. In addition to loving merlot for its expansive pleasing mouthfeel and concentrated berry flavors, it seemed wise for a winery just starting up to have a wine that is accessible in its youth.
Of our estate’s present 84 acres of vines, 40 acres are planted to cabernet sauvignon, 25 acres to merlot and the rest to smaller amounts of 6 other varieties. While it is true that the old adage of "cab is king" still holds true for the consumer and critic alike and is why we make more cab than any other varietal, I think we are best identified as a merlot producer and personally consider it to be our flagship wine. In addition to the dark berry flavors and signature unctuous texture, the merlot from our estate features a complex range of other dark flavors that include licorice, resinous underbrush, tar, tobacco and cedar. These darker complex flavors are what make our merlot really jump out at a blind tasting and I believe are the signature of our mountain growing conditions.
We make 3 merlots: (1) our estate Merlot at roughly 5000 cases per year, that has roughly 8 to 10% cabernet sauvignon blended into it and has a wide range of merlot clones from all of our twelve distinct growing blocks of merlot ($56/bottle), (2) our Vintner Select Merlot at 450 cases per year that is 100% clone 3 merlot from a particular south facing vineyard block (Lower Mountaintop) that makes a wine having such intense cassis and licorice flavors that we thought it needed to be featured as a separate bottling and have done so since 1999 ($75/bottle), and (3) our Reserve Claret at 450 cases per year that is a blend of 2/3 Vintner Select Merlot and 1/3 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and thus has even more backbone and structural intensity ($125/bottle). It’s fun to taste our three merlots side by side.
There is a perception that sales of CA merlot are down since the film Sideways came out. Though the statistics do not bear this out, and I can testify that our merlot sales last year were the best they ever have been despite the recession, there is no question that merlot is not as trendy as it was in the 1990s. This is partly the inevitable evolution of any product that suddenly bursts onto the scene and partly a reflection of the inexpensive wines produced from huge vineyards with enormous yields in the Central Valley. Production of those wines soared during the 1990s. The Sideways film just reinforced what the consuming public already sensed from the mass production merlots; a bland wine with little personality. But nobody, even Miles, has ever questioned the greatness of right bank Bordeaux or the great merlot grown in smaller yields in the top CA vineyards.
Merlot is a grape prone to large yields and vigor problems. It must be grown in the right environment and even then requires significant early season thinning. In year’s with lots of late spring rain, our merlot blocks sometimes require three or four passes prior to veraison. Planting it in deep fertile soils will never make a great wine. It can do very well in clay rich soils if the right rootstock is used. On our mountaintop property straddling the Napa/Sonoma county line along the crest of the Mayacamas mountains, our five very best (and largest) merlot blocks all face south and get sun from dawn to dusk. The other blocks that either face north or receive less sunshine make balanced and elegant wines that work well in the estate blend but are not as dark and layered as the south-facing blocks.
Compared to cabernet sauvignon, merlot is thin skinned and therefore susceptible to rot from late season rain. Rain near harvest also dilutes merlot; much more so compared to cab. Perhaps because of these many challenges, merlot is near and dear to our heart here at Pride. I can honestly say that if I were forced to only drink one wine for the rest of my life, I would choose our estate Merlot over even our Reserve Cab. If you want to be cerebral, it has much of the layered complexity of cab; but if you just want to relax, its expansive mid-palate and pleasing velvety structure is pure comfort.