Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Washington State Merlot

On Friday June 28th from 5 to 7pm, Tommy Basham of Continental Beverage will present the wines of Peirano Estates of Lodi, California.  One of the six wines for the tasting will be the 2011 Peirano Six Clones Merlot which is well described by the producers at www.peirano.com.  Actually it's too well described (rich, ripe, cherries...).  It makes the reader salivate.  Please join us for the event.

So I mention this wine first in order to draw a contrast wiith Washington State Merlot.  Ever since the movie Sideways came out in 2004, California Merlot has been taking it on the chin for perceived inferiority and that's a little unfair.  Is there plonk Merlot from California?  Most definitely.  Is most of California Merlot inferior?  Yes, but most wine made anywhere is often no better than jug wine quality which, as a category by the way, is much better than it used to be.  If one starts at the other end of the spectrum, the elite end, and works back, one can draw the line personally where plonk quality starts.  Peirano is from Lodi, not exactly Napa/Sonoma, and probably a good test case for the Merlot quality question.

So what does Washington State offer that California apparently lacks?  Quite a bit actually.  At forty-six degrees latitude, Washington Merlot vineyards receive seventeen hours of sunlight daily during the peak months of the long growing season.  Merlot needs that and the diurnal effect of cool nights to retain its natural acidity and balance.  For Washington that diurnal swing is a forty degree shift.  Washington also has strong winds which stress and toughen the grape skins, amplifying the tannins in the wine.  Relatedly Washington is a dry growing environment whereas California often has to contend with rains at harvest time.  The thin skinned California Merlot grapes then tend to plump up with water at the worst possible time.  Lastly, Washington's basalt-rich soils work just fine for Merlot roots, thank you very much.

So what have we learned here?  The finished product from Washington State is a complex, well-balanced, highly extracted, aromatic and spicy wine that combines new world ripe, forward fruit with old world structure and acidity, making the wine world class at a level most Californians cannot reach.  Moreover Washington Merlot achieves at every price point, a startling contrast to the California plonk. 

Recently Januik Columbia Valley Washington Merlot ($25/btl) became available to us for the first time and rarely has a wine evoked an instant public reaction like this one has.  Mike Januik is a thirty year Washington winemaking veteran with ten years at Chateau Ste Michelle where he made the first ever single vineyard designated red wine with his 1991 Indian Hills Merlot.  He is another example of the advantage personal history in winemaking is affording industry veterans, i.e., he knows where to source his fruit.  Stop in and try Januik and taste Peirano Estate wines with us here on Friday.

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