How well do we really know merlot? Most Napa Valley wine enthusiasts can tell you that it is the second most important (planted) red grape in Napa Valley (4,749 acres in 2015). While you may imagine it playing second fiddle in its other famous home of Bordeaux, it is the No.1 planted red grape there.

Merlot is key in Languedoc wines made in southern France; it stars in Chile, as well as in the southern Swiss area of Ticino, and is a part of Super Tuscan blends in Italy along with more substantial plantings in Friuli, Alto Adige, Veneto and southern areas such as Umbria, Campania and Sicily.

Here at home, it appeared as an early golden child in the evolving portfolio of Washington state wines, and is a key grape in the delicious offerings from the Long Island AVA in New York where the ocean influence produces wines with the elegance of Europe and the richness of California.

In Napa Valley, merlot brings in an average of $3,135 per ton for a total value just shy of $44 million. It is one tough grape. It tolerates and even thrives in soils too poor or too moist or too cold for cabernet sauvignon. It can achieve sugar levels that give its wines up to a full 1 percent more alcohol than with cabernet sauvignon. It has a fuller mid-palate and fleshiness, which makes it a great companion in cab blends.

Some innovative winemakers staked their top-of-the-line wines on merlot even after cabernet sauvignon was declared king of the hill: Duckhorn in 1978; Rutherford Hill in 1980; and Swanson bought his vineyards in 1985, hiring Andre Tchelistcheff as a consultant in planting merlot in “king cab” country. By the 1980s, merlot plantings were on the rise in Napa Valley. When a large crop in 1986 brought down prices for most varieties, profits for merlot, along with cabernet sauvignon, soared instead. Merlot had a stint as the valley’s most profitable variety per acre at that time.

Merlot is an offspring of cabernet franc and an obscure, unnamed variety, and is a half-sibling (having one parent in common) of cabernet sauvignon, carmenere and malbec. Like its relatives, merlot can exhibit herbaceousness if under-ripe, though to a lesser extent.

Its heritage is traced back to the first century in France, in Libourne (the right bank of Bordeaux), but it was not considered a noble Bordeaux variety until the 1800s. The name comes from the French word for blackbird (merle) – supposedly due to the fact that blackbirds were particularly fond of eating these grapes.

Merlot was brought to Northern California in the 1850s by Santa Clara Valley Frenchmen Antoine Delmas and Charles Lefranc. Lefranc is heralded as making the first commercially successful California ‘Medoc’ wine in the 1860s; named such because of merlot’s prominence in the Medoc on the left bank of Bordeaux.

While zinfandel was the most popular red variety in California in the late 1870s (a badge it would wear well into the mid 1900s), by the 1880s several Napa growers such as Gustave Niebaum and Louis Martini began planting merlot along with other Bordeaux varieties.

Merlot would later emerge as a varietal rock star around the country in the 1970s. It was easy to pronounce and easy to sip, being softer and less tannic than cabernet sauvignon.

Today, merlot continues to be highly valued in Napa Valley blends, although 100 percent merlot wines are also produced. In the recent St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel session on merlot, four out of the 25 wines tasted were pure varietal merlot.

Prices for the merlot wines ranged from $19.99 to $150, and interestingly, the $19.99 wine won first place in its flight.

Merlot stars of the Napa Valley, winning first place in their flights are:

Ca’Momi 2014 Merlot, Napa Valley ($19.99) is full of juicy red fruits with an underlying hint of intriguing grapefruit citrus rind. This wine is not shy on tannin and alcohol, giving you a big sip for a little price.

Coho Wines 2012 Michael Black Vineyard Merlot, Coombsville ($55) has pronounced red plum and dark cherry aromas with toast and a dark earthiness. Sweeter red cherries dominate the palate, finishing with a kick of black pepper spice.

Cornerstone Cellars 2013 Merlot, Oakville ($75) is packed with black cherries, vanilla and caramel – a delicious nose that leads to juicy black fruit flavors on a palate that balances rich fruit concentration, higher tannins, and generous alcohol well.

Rombauer Vineyards 2013 Merlot Los Carneros ($35). Eighty-eight percent Merlot, this wine has super ripe red cherry fruit with dominant oak spice, a rich expression of the grape.

Other favorites include:

Ballentine Vineyards 2014 Estate Grown Merlot Napa Valley ($32). This wine comes with a rush of red cherry and plum fruit on a palate that has an almost arctic ‘fresh air’ or minty quality to it.

Jericho Canyon Vineyard 2011 Block 16: Restoration Merlot, Calistoga ($75) which has pronounced red cherry fruit, fresh oak and bay leaf complexity.

Judd’s Hill 2012 Swig Vineyard, Napa Valley ($42), a 100% Merlot with red and black fruits and beautifully integrated earthy brush and spice.

Keenan Winery 2013 Mailbox Vineyard Merlot, Napa Valley ($40). Dark cherries and fresh wood dominate this merlot from one of Napa’s historic wineries.

PEJU 2013 Merlot Napa Valley ($35). A sip of this merlot brings on a wave of warm red cherry fruit, herb, and sweet spice which rides across the palate into a long, red-fruited and spice-filled finish.

Catherine Bugue, the Star’s tasting panel columnist, loves writing about — and drinking — wine. You can contact Catherine at catbugue@gmail.com. Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program, visit napavintners.com/programs and click on Napa Neighbor to learn more.

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