Portfolio Testings: Discount Merlot

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a much-maligned grape produces some of the best wine

by josh perilo

fall is here again, and for most people that means heading back to school, getting those merino wool sweaters out of mothballs and raking the leaves. for those of us in the wine world, however, it means tastings. and then more tastings. and then, after that, some more tastings.

this may sound thrilling, but slurping and spitting 60 to 70 wines with one hand, while trying to write coherent tasting notes with the other, all in under two hours, can be a chore. especially when everyone in the new york city wine industry has to do it at the same time. the pushing and shoving can verge on "first day of barney's warehouse sale" behavior. although, watching three 50-year-old men in three-piece suits fight over the last sliver of cashel blue cheese may have been worth the swollen feet.

sorting through the highlights and lowlights of these events can be fruitless unless one approaches it with an agenda. it's nearly impossible to go to a tasting, determined to find "the best wine" there and find it? although that has happened. it's far less maddening to look for something specific, try everything available that fits that profile, then move on to the next style, grape or region.

with this in mind, i focused on a couple of different specific categories this year. the first category, which i will hone in on this week, is inexpensive merlot.

for some reason, this poor grape is still experiencing a kind of pseudo-intellectual wine-snob backlash. are there crappy merlots out there? of course! does any real wine expert know that this is one of the most popular grapes in the world because it also makes some of the most remarkable wines in the world? absolutely. so, i give you my top picks in the discount merlot category from the fall 2010 portfolio tastings.

outstanding achievement for a light and fruity merlot: this was a tough one, because there were a lot of contenders. it really came down to a combination of quality plus price to break the tie. michael sullberg merlot 2008 ($9.95 @ morell and company, one rockefeller plaza at 49th street near 5th avenue, 212-688-9370) has everything you want from a lighter, new-world-style merlot. the wine starts with baked cherry and blackberry scents with hints of cocoa on the nose. there's more tart cherry fruit on the palate with hints of cinnamon and a bright, gripping finish. you won't get more for your money as far as quality goes with american merlot.

excellence in the field of napa valley merlot: location is very important to a lot of people in the wine world. personally, i don't really care where it's from, as long as it tastes good, but there are those who swear by certain areas, and napa valley is still one of them. for a great napa merlot that will keep you from taking out a second mortgage, try the ramsay merlot 2008 ($14.99 @ 67 wine and spirits, 179 columbus ave. at 68th street, 212-724-6767). scents of strawberry pie give way to concentrated plum and currant flavors up front, some black pepper in the middle, and a refreshing dollop of pomegranate on the finish. this is a classic napa wine without the classic napa wine price.

most likely to be confused with a french merlot: finally, for those who love right bank bordeaux (made predominantly with merlot), but can't find an inexpensive one that doesn't blow, there's the velvet devil merlot 2008 ($15 @ yorkshire wines and spirits, 1646 1st ave. at 85th street, 212-717-5100). the trick these days with french wines, especially those from bordeaux, is that they taste less and less "french" every year. more emphasis on less complexity and simple fruit flavors are making many french wines indistinguishable from their american counterparts. out of columbia valley, wash., the velvet devil starts on the nose with the distinctive whiff of new leather, boysenberry and a touch of oak. notes of underripe blackberry and earth on the front of the palate give way to more leather and wafts of pipe smoke on the finish. these are the flavors of old bordeaux transplanted to the pacific northwest.

more tasting notes to come!

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