Merlot Renaissance: Making It Happen

by Chuck Hayward

Eventually, the tide will turn. The bashing will stop. And everyone will see this poor, maligned grape in a refreshing new light. I mean at some point, merlot will have to be back in fashion, right?

Well, perhaps this revision will start from the most unlikely of wineries because lately, the cabernet specialists at Silver Oak have been cranking out some impressive merlot. Exhibiting elegance, balance and persistence, the Twomey merlot (the winery name comes from a family matriarch) showcases a more sophisticated facet of the grape's personality. Highlighting savory spices and freshness, Twomey’s merlot is Exhibit A for the newer styles that are now coming to market. No longer are we encountering the simple, fruity examples of past years or the ones that masqueraded as cabernet.

So what does it take to make a merlot that could revive interest in this maligned varietal. In the case of Twomey, the quest to make a better merlot requires a broad scaled effort on many fronts. Attention has been paid to vineyards and cellars all scaled to a more conceptual discussion of what a merlot wine should be.

Probably the most important contributing factor to producing quality merlot comes from the vineyard's location. Silver Oak purchased a vineyard in Soda Canyon to secure long-term fruit sourcing for their Napa Valley cabernet bottling and found that there were some unique plots of merlot on the site. Noticeably cooler than the plantings near their home vineyard in Oakville, the new vineyard proved to be well suited to the winery's more restrained and elegant style. The cooler climate also allows for the longer hangtime necessary to create more complex flavors.

The ability to access new clones of merlot has also become a focal point for the varietal's progress. Long recognized as a major contributor to determining the quality level of Burgundian varietals, it has only been recently that California's winemakers have turned their focus to the clones that were initially planted in California. Increasingly, wineries have gained access to new clones that were previously unavailable and the results have been positive and noticeable.

As winemaker Daniel Baron observed, “I think it is correct to say that the clones that were widely planted in California during the first merlot boom 30 years ago contributed to the light character of the wines, but the primary reason was the planting of this sensitive variety in regions that were too warm for it. The clones UCD 1 and 3 produce less concentrated wines than the … clones 314 and 181 that we have at our Soda Canyon Ranch.”

Merlot's revival might also require a wider perspective gleaned from areas where the grape has prospered, most notably in the appellations of the Right Bank in Bordeaux. When it comes to Burgundian and Rhone varietals, the newsletters and blogs of wineries are filled with pictures and stories of winemakers crossing the pond as young French wine students work the harvests in Napa and Sonoma. Yet when it comes to the grapes of Bordeaux, one gets the impression that the winemakers from both countries barely communicate with each other.

Not so with Baron who spent part of his formative years working at Petrus under Christian Moueix and Jean-Claude Berrouet leading to a job as the founding winemaker at Dominus. With the merlot program reaching a certain level of maturity, just like the vineyards at Soda Canyon, Daniel has brought his mentor over from France to act as a consultant.

One would think that there would not much more Baron could learn but he noted that “Jean-Claude’s influence has been surprisingly important in that he has communicated… his holistic approach to making a luxury product: attention to detail at every step, keeping one’s eyes and ears (and nose) open to best practices, always asking oneself the hard questions and keeping a sense of humor and humanity at all times. To be around someone who has made some of the greatest wines in recent history is uplifting.” 

Looking at what Twomey has accomplished over the years, it is clear that the little things in the cellar and vineyard have helped to pave the way and make big things happen in the way merlot will be viewed going forward.

JJ Buckley is proud to offer the latest vintage of the Twomey merlot

2009 Twomey Merlot (Napa Valley)