A decade ago, merlot was a favorite son in Washington. In fact, the red grape of Bordeaux was nearly synonymous with Washington wine.
Along the way, interest in merlot has not necessarily waned, but it hasn't exactly skyrocketed either. For example, in 2001, Washington harvested 23,400 tons of merlot. Last fall, that number was 24,800. In 2001, it was Washington's No. 2 grape, behind chardonnay. By last fall, it was No. 4, behind chardonnay, riesling and cabernet sauvignon.
The reasons for this lack of growth are many. A decade ago, interest in syrah quickly rose, garnering a lot of attention from winemakers and consumers alike. Since 2001, the amount of riesling harvested in Washington has tripled (led by Chateau Ste. Michelle). And cabernet sauvignon -- referred to by many winemakers as "King Cab" -- has steadily marched forward, thanks to international success by Quilceda Creek Vintners and Columbia Crest.
And, of course, the 2004 Oscar-nominated film Sideways disparaged merlot in the eyes of America in one five-second scene.
That doesn't mean America still doesn't love merlot, especially from Washington, where it remains one of the stalwart wines. Here are a few Northwest examples worth seeking:
Whitman Cellars 2005 merlot, Walla Walla Valley, $32: Winemaker Steve Lessard learned his craft in California before migrating to Washington in the mid-1990s. He has led this Walla Walla winery's superb efforts since 2002, and this is among the finest wines he has crafted to date. This is a classic Washington merlot with aromas of cranberries, pomegranates and raspberries, followed by bright red flavors backed with fruit-lifting acidity.
Januik Winery 2007 merlot, Columbia Valley, $25: As head winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle, Mike Januik became well-versed in where Washington's best merlot was grown. In the 11 years since leaving Washington's flagship winery, he has continued to evolve his winemaking style. This merlot provides aromas of red currants, Bing cherries and a whisper of smokiness, followed by bright, rich flavors of Rainier cherries that lead to a luscious jamminess on the midpalate and a lengthy finish.
14 Hands 2007 merlot, Washington, $12: This bargain is a label that most often is found in restaurants. Keith Kenison, who oversees the white wine program for Columbia Crest, heads the 14 Hands effort. This one opens with aromas of red cherries, cranberries, sweet herbs and a whisper of smoke, followed by layered flavors of olives, black plums, strawberry jam and luscious chocolate. Buy this by the case and make it your house wine.
Sineann 2008 Champoux Vineyard merlot, Columbia Valley, $36: Owner-winemaker Peter Rosback crafted a merlot from what is arguably Washington's finest vineyard: Champoux in the Horse Heaven Hills. The result is a wine with aromas that remind us of cranberry ice cream as well as notes of sweet herbs and black currants. On the palate are rich flavors of Van cherries and blackberries.
Dusted Valley Vintners 2007 Boomtown merlot, Columbia Valley, $15: We've come to expect this Walla Walla Valley winery's products to bubble up in our blind judgings. This includes a bit of malbec, syrah and cabernet sauvignon blended in for complexity. It offers aromas of cherries, leather, red plums and chocolate, followed by flavors of black cherries, dark chocolate and blackberries. Supple tannins provide just the right amount of structure.
Covey Run Winery 2006 merlot, Columbia Valley, $9: In the past two decades, this winery has developed into one of the most consistent value brands in the Pacific Northwest. This merlot opens with beautiful aromas of pomegranates, cherries and hints of oak, followed by racy flavors of cranberries, raspberry jam, tea and black olive. It is a classic Washington merlot that should pair well with everything from flank steak to rich pasta dishes.
*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a website that provides news and information about the wines of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.