Friday, April 28, 2006


While "A Master Class in Pinot Noir" graces the cover of the latest Wine Spectator, winemaker Chris Phelps and GM Stuart Harrison of Swanson Vineyards are on the road teaching a class of their own. They are touring the country holding seminars on what may be the most misunderstood red grape in America: Merlot.

This past Wednesday, I drove to the Ryland Inn in New Jersey to get my education, to taste some intriguing Merlot, and to see first hand what all the fuss was about.

Long before Miles in the hit movie Sideways bashed Merlot and made Pinot Noir a hip, cult phenomenon, Swanson had embarked on a mission to set the record straight. They set out to illustrate that Merlot can be a distinguished, complex, flavorful wine when made well by specialized growers, in the right terroir and with the proper practices. If you are already a Merlot fan, this won't come as a revelation to you, but if you've drifted away from this beloved varietal, maybe it is time to taste it again.

Although Merlot has surpassed Cabernet Sauvignon in sales in the U.S. making it the most popular red wine varietal, it has suffered from a bit of an image problem. The oversaturation of mediocre or mass-market produced Merlot has created a lot of public misconception. The tremendous consumer appeal of Merlot encouraged a lot of vineyards to get into the Merlot business, but many are growing the grape in less than optimal conditions creating ordinary, if not subpar wine. Swanson and many other specialized Merlot artisans have suffered a bit from being lumped into this category since there is no labeling system in America to help set them apart as "quality" Merlot producers.

Good Merlot, just like good Pinot Noir, is hard to grow. It is a thin skinned grape that ripens early, is prone to over-cropping and tends to need well-drained clay soil and relatively cool climates in order to produce extraordinary wine. The Swanson message is clear: seek out producers who make wine from their own grapes in appropriate appellations and specialize in Merlot. Do this and you will rediscover the depth and refinement Merlot has to offer.


The seminar was accented by three sets of tastings. The first titled "A World of Difference" was arranged to illustrate the distinct New World and Old World differences from Merlot made in Italy, Chile, Washington, Bordeaux and California.

All from the 2002 Vintage, Livio Felluga, Casa Lapostolle, Pepper Bridge, Lafleur-Gazin and Swanson went head-to-head. Each wine was impressive and Swanson had to be commended for pouring wine from its competitors proving beyond a doubt their dedication and commitment to the varietal above all else. The Livio Felluga was quite interesting with a bit of white pepper at the front of it and the Swanson was so lush and layered with creamy cherry, chocolate and caramel that it stood out head and shoulders above the rest.

The second tasting was "The Importance of Place" and featured 2002 wines Cuvaision (Carneros), Sawyer (Rutherford), Twomey (Atlas Peak), Matanzas Creek (Bennet Valley) and of course, Swanson (Oakville). Again, all were exceptional Merlots, mid-priced $20 - $40, with tremendous, crisp, acidity and traditional flavors of plum, cherry, chocolate and vanilla.

The third tasting, "The Winery Difference," featured Swanson Merlot made in American Oak Barrels (commercial source), American Oak Barrels (air-dried in Oakville and custom-coopered from special ordered Pennsylvania oak), a 7 Day Maceration and a 21 Day Maceration. This was the most impressive part of the presentation. Chris Phelps spoke highly of his commitment to Custom-Oak, a commitment that requires him to order wood for the barrels years ahead of time in order to stay on track for upcoming vintages. Although not as expensive as new French Oak, it is a costly endeavor, but one taste and you realize it is worthwhile. The difference is monumental. The ordinary American Oak was flat with little character while the Custom-Oak blanketed the palate with a creamy richness that was so velvety and superior that there are no words in the English language to capture its essence.

The comparison between the 7 Day and 21 Day maceration was also fascinating. The 7 Day still had quite a bit of herbal, almost green, vegetable tastes, but by 21 Days all of that was gone and the fruit started to come into being. I kept my glass of Swanson 2002 aside and tasted it again at the end. It was clearly the best Merlot. Swanson outclassed some of its top competitors with a phenomenal effort that showcased artistry, elegance and relevance. Swanson Vineyards is firmly planted, not only within the world of Merlot, but in the world of exceptional wine.


90 PTS
It would be easy to criticize this seminar and Swanson for being self-serving or for choosing the sumptuous 2002 vintage for its California Merlot tastings, but the presentation was sound, passionate, and impressive. Although I've always enjoyed Merlot, I have to admit that lately I've been drinking a lot less of it and have been quick to generalize. But who is really to blame? Inspired by the seminar, I stopped off at my local wine stores on the drive home to pick up some bottles of my favorite Merlots from the tastings. I couldn't find a single one on the shelves and I left the stores empty-handed. Perhaps it is time to retreat to my cellar where there is a bottle of 1999 Swanson there begging to be opened.

For more information on the seminar, visit Merlot Fights Back.


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