Merlot wines: some price-value information

Mar 28, 2001

The Bottom Line Merlots are less expensive than Cabernet Sauvignons and can be consumed earlier. For those looking for more moderate alcohol content and less oak flavor, this is a fine choice.

During the past 10 years, Merlot wines have noticeably gained in popularity among red wine drinkers -- especially amongst females who find Cabernet Sauvignon wines to be too heavy in alcohol or oak. Merlot wine is softer and warmer on the palate than Cabernet Sauvignon, and is generally a percent lower in alcohol content. Additionally, many Merlot wines can be consumed earlier because they contain more moderate amounts of tannins than Cabernets. This creates an interesting advantage to this type of wine: price. Merlot wines, as a class, are usually more affordable than Cabernet Sauvignons.

Merlot wines are made from the Merlot grape, which is larger and thinner skinned than the Cabernet grape. About 25-30 years ago, wineries in California were experimenting with Merlot grapes to add texture and additional complexity to their Cabernet wines, but it soon became evident that -- as a varietal -- Merlot wines were beginning to gain in popularity. It is a type of wine that needs less "attention" and care during the aging process, which makes it a great choice for consumers who don't have the time or facilities to cellar wine until proper maturation is achieved.

Some consider the Merlot wines from the Pomerol region of Bordeaux, France, to be the best because of their intensity and their aging ability. For me, personally, I am particular to homegrown California Merlots. It is a pragmatic choice for me for a variety of reasons: (1) I live in California, and I have easy access to a variety of wines, (2) California Merlots are less expensive, and (3) some of the best Merlot grapes are grown in California's Central valley.

Merlot wines make a great beverage accompaniment with meat and red-sauce pasta dishes. I particularly like Merlot with big, juicy steaks and prime rib. It also is a fine wine to serve with tender meat dishes such as beef stew, pork tenderloin, and most lamb dishes.

Merlots wines range in price, but not to the extent that Cabernets do. Some Merlot wines I like in different price classes include:

Under $10
1998 Gallo of Sonoma Merlot; Sonoma, California
1998 Geyser Peak Merlot; North Coast, California

$10 - $20
1997 Sebastiani Vineyards Merlot; Sonoma County, California
1998 Rodney Strong Merlot; Sonoma County, California
1997 St. Supery Merlot; Napa Valley, California

$20 to $30
1997 Clos du Bois Merlot Reserve; Alexander Valley, California
1997 Robert Mondavi Merlot; Carneros, California

There are a few other Merlots that I have not tried in the higher price ranges, and -- in most instances -- these wines are more expensive because they were produced in limited batches. WIth Merlot, it is NOT NECESSARILY true that the more you pay, the better the wine is. In fact, I would argue that some of the best Merlots are in the under $30 price class.

$40 to $50
1997 Pine Ridge Winery Merlot, Carneros, California

$50 to $60
1998 Andrew Will Merlot Klipsun Vineyard, Yakima Valley, Washington

$60 to $70
1998 Sanctus St. Emilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux, France (only 1000 cases produced)


For people new to Merlot, I like to suggest that they try some of the up-and-coming wines from the Mendoza region of Argentina. Mendoza wines are available at excellent price-quality ratios and the popularity of some of these wines are increasing as we see more and more of premium California Merlots inch past the $20/bottle price.

Last night, I tried a bottle of Casaterra Merlot, vintage 1999, from Mendoza, Argentina. The bottle cost $3 at Trader Joe's Market. The wine was good: soft and warming, with medium intensity and dry. Medium bodied with a fair amount of acidity and moderate levels of tannins. Light oak tones with fairly complex blend of flavors. Flowery-berry nose and a warm finish; 12.5% alcohol by volume. The best part: the $3 price tag. This wine probably would improve with a few years of cellar conditioning, but it tasted fine with my dinner of Lasagna.

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