Merlot has had a rough time over the past few years. Once everyone’s favorite easy-drinking red, Merlot was stigmatized by Miles’ famous line in Sideways: “We are not drinking any %^@#ing Merlot!” So, what were we drinking before we had this group infatuation with Pinot Noir then? Well, it was Merlot!

So, where is Merlot today? It’s a good question and one the savvy consumer should be asking. All the attention that had once been focused on Merlot, but quickly switched allegiances, left Merlot producers oversupplied for the marketplace. You know what that generally means: falling prices as production exceeds demand and increased quality as lands that may have been over-cropped or irrationally planted to Merlot get budded over to more valuable varieties or farmed for quality over quantity.

Click to see a slideshow of the Best Merlot, February 2011

Today, Merlot is seeing something of a restoration of its reputation. With less bad Merlot on the market, consumers can finally begin to understand not only the grape but the styles that California is capable of -- not to mention Washington, Chile, South Africa… you name it. This sampling of Merlot was quite narrow, with just a few from outside California but offers up a little something for just about everybody. Merlot remains an easy-drinking, crowd-pleasing wine, though there are wines that test the limits from rich and powerfully extracted to elegant and exceptionally refined. The only trick here is finding the one you like!

See pages 2-3 for tasting notes on 17 Merlots

2007 Ehlers Estate Napa Valley Merlot St. Helena 14.6%, $45
Low and deep on the nose with a noticeable if well integrated underlay of oak, over which are layered notes of soil, crushed black fruits, hints of bramble, chocolate shavings and a floral top note. On entry, this is a touch hollow and it really takes some time to fill in. Still very young, this is in a bit of a difficult stage but once it gets some air the wine reveals wonderfully ripe yet transparent berry, plum, and black currant fruit with an nice hint of thistle on the palate. The tannins are wonderfully ripe and round here, but offer plenty of support, and the acidity is bright enough to keep this fresh, yet it remains in the background. The finish is moderately long with that pure black fruit continuing on married to subtle oak shadings that add to the spicy finale. This is powerful, balanced and complex. Love it. 93pts

2007 Gainey Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley Merlot 13.9%, $30
Herbal and earthy at first, with candied black cherry and blackberry fruit that features a touch of tarragon and sage, along with some medicinal and coffee bean background notes and a touch of caramely oak. Round and almost soft upfront with lots of sweet, almost candied fruit that is offset by some citrusy acidity. There is a nice bed of tannin that emerges in the mouth, keeping this firm and poised and allowing the intense but pure fruit to dominate the mid-palate. Lots of red plummy fruit here, with a touch of peach pit and then lightly aromatic herbal tones coming in to add some complexity on the moderately long finish that ends with a fine black fruit tone. Refreshing, bright, juicy and delicious. 91pts

2007 Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot 14.5%, $45
Tight and focused on the nose, with subtle, sweet, toasty French oak tones supporting light plum and berry fruit with a gravelly, mineral edge and topped with some gentle, ripe herb tones and a hint of creamy mocha. This is really soft and rich right out of the gate, with finely polished tannins and well-integrated acids. The fruit is creamy and rich in the mouth, with slightly exotic berry tones, red plum notes and more of that creamy mocha quality that was found on the nose. This is really well balanced and comes off as a smaller wine than it really is, but this is a full, rich wine with great fruit that powers through on the finish. The finish is really quite interesting with a long, slow crawl of tannin on the tongue yet a veritable explosion of perfumed fruit in the mouth that seems detached from the structure. Elegant and refined and almost understated. A really nice showing. 91pts

2006 Toad Hollow Russian River Valley Merlot Reserve Richard McDowell Vineyard 14.5%, $19
Pungent, weedy and smoky, this smells lean, old-world, and cool-climate at first, though with air, the nose gains focus and fruit. In the mouth, it’s again quite cool-climate styled with lots of bright red cherry fruit, some stiff little tannins and juicy acids all making this an outlier in the world of California Merlot. Definitely not a particularly big wine, it is ripe and complex and well styled for the dinner table. There’s a bit of cocoa on the backend and the finish is fairly long with a bit of an earthy character and some slight vanilla and spice tones from oak. This is a little rustic, and tough at times without the flamboyance or opulence of most California Merlot but therein lies its beauty. A lovely, expressive, distinctive wine that one can drink all night long and never tire from it. 90pts

2008 Seven Hills Columbia Valley Merlot 13.7%, $28
A bit spicy on the nose with a peppery top note and some cocoa nib accents to the black berry/cherry fruit. The oak becomes more assertive with air. Nice richness on entry with a soft, caressing texture. The tannins are really well covered by the rich fruit, which is fresh and a touch jammy, but not particularly sweet or sticky. In fact, the integrated acidity helps lighten up the mid-palate and gives this a fine, balanced feel. The tannins pop a bit in the mouth, breaking up the silken texture and adding a touch of spice on the backend and onto the finish, which ends with a bit of woody spice and licorice. This needs a year, maybe two, to let the tannins mellow a bit but it’s already attractive and can only improve. 90pts

2008 Wente Livermore Valley Merlot Sandstone 13.5%, $15
Sweet cherry fruit on the nose with some nice floral and citrus accents and just a shading of wood spice with a hint of red licorice candy.  Very soft up front but not lacking in acidity. The tannins creep up on the mid-palate a bit stiff and dry but rather small-scaled. The fruit recalls the nose with cherry tones and hints of candied pink grapefruit and orange peels. There’s not much length here, but the overall impression of the wine is of an aromatic, well balanced, easy to drink yet not texturally neutral, wine. This just needs a bit of time to gain some length and while it’s not your typical California Merlot it’s pretty tasty and fun to drink. 89pts

2007 Kramer Walla Walla Merlot 15.3%, $28
Candied, herbal and scorched earthy with a spicy, almost beefy top note. There’s some lightly toasty oak here, as well as gentle almost red curranty fruit. Rich and broad in the mouth with bright acidity and a nice burnished note to the wild berry fruit. This is showing some nice maturity with softening edges and some earthy, almost boulliony but not quite extracty notes. Well fruity but not a fruity style with good balance and a nice brightness. The finish is a little lean and minty with a nice stony mineral note on the finale. A nice tense wine with good intensity and complexity. 89pts

2007 Waterstone Napa Valley Merlot 14.5%, $20
Cool and almost a bit musky on the nose with a light vegetal, decomp aroma that serves as the base for the lightly spiced, mineral and cocoa nib-framed red fruit aromas that are topped with a touch of eucalyptus. This is rather medium-bodied and a bit lean within the Merlot paradigm. The texture of the wine is quite fine, with good structure and fine transparent flavors of cherry with a hint of citrus zest. The wine has a really nice mid-palate presence, with flavors that are nice and pure if not particularly complex. The finish is a bit brief with some light lingering cocoa and wood toast notes but all together this is very pleasant and almost elegant. 88pts

2007 Kenwood Sonoma Valley Merlot Jack London Vineyard 13.5%, $20
Deep on the nose with notes of dried fruits, smoky, cedary wood, a touch of licorice and some mocha background notes. Nice and polished at first and then some fine-grained tannins move in to add some texture and a touch of burliness in the mouth. The fruit is plummy and bright with nice depth and a drying wood tannin edge that actually works well here to help keep this fruity yet slightly austere. The finish is long and those tannins really pop. There’s a vanilla lead-in on the backend then the cedary wood tones crawl through the finish. Well oaked but not oaky, this is a juicy, dry, well-balanced red wine. 88pts

2007 Mezzacorona Vigneti delle Dolomiti Merlot 13%, $10
Very lightly aromatic with hints of citrus peel, and crushed green leaves framing gently woody red fruits. This is fairly light in the mouth with a spar of crisp tannin from which some nice, fresh fruit is suspended. It’s a high-toned wine in the mouth with impressive flavor intensity considering the wine’s weight. There’s a bit of vanilla and a milk chocolate backdrop to the wild cherry and slightly plummy fruit. The finish has a touch of the burnished orange peel that one gets on the nose and ends with a bit of wood spice and tannin. Easy drinking and nicely put together. 87pts

2008 Kenwood Sonoma County Merlot 13.5%, $13
Plummy and sweet on the nose with a nice blackberry background note and a gentle toasty oak underlay with a hint of black pepper. Juicy and fruity in the mouth with soft tannins, sweet berry and plummy fruit and gentle streaks of oak and a lightly licorice spice. The finish shows good acidity and a roundness to the tannins. It’s simple but pretty long with juicy plummy fruit. A crowd-pleaser. 87pts

2006 Franciscan Napa Valley Merlot 13.5%, $19
A bit unusual on the nose with notes of cola, sweet herbs, lightly candied fruit, a meaty background note and some chalky soil top notes. This is really smooth and supple up front mouth, there’s a nice base of acid and some fine-grained tannins that are a bit drying and lend a certain chalkiness to the mouthfeel, but the fruit here is plummy and pure. The finish reveals a very gentle herbaceous top note and is moderately long. An attractive wine that appeals with its nicely structured feel and pure fruit.  87pts

2008 Pepperwood Grove Valle Central Merlot Chile 13.5%, $7
Smoky and stemmy on the nose with a raw wood quality and some faint coconut tones. In the mouth this is bright if a little tinny, with crisp little tannins and a fairly lightweight frame. The fruit is rather anonymous red berry/raspberry-toned with some cocoa/vanilla accents. The tannins are dry and stiff and a bit too obvious and dominate the finish a bit. This is a bit light and stiff but it’s balanced and refreshing.  There’s a little sweetness to the fruit and, while rustic and a bit anonymous, this is a decent glass of wine. 84pts

2009 Black Swan South Eastern Australia Merlot 13.5%, $7
A tight, lightly spice black plum fruited nose emerges with a bit of air but remains in a pretty narrow register, adding gentle suggestions of cedar and cocoa. A bit fruity in the mouth with a touch of heaviness that weighs this down a bit. The tannins are nicely ripe but the acidity is a bit low, making this quite lazy in the mouth. There’s plenty of fruit here, plummy and faintly bitter from the youthful tannins. The finish has good length, driven by the wine’s sweetness and is a bit sticky in the mouth. Easy drinking and fairly fruity. 84pts

2008 Mirassou California Merlot 13%, $10
Buttery on the nose and notably herbal with a fine tomato leaf top note over the rather creamy black cherry and spice fruit. Rich and round in the mouth with a buttery, creamy entry and nice black cherry fruit on the palate that is framed by gentle cinnamon and milk chocolate tones. Well-balanced and easy drinking, if revealing a touch of sweetness on the short finish. 84pts

NV Barefoot California Merlot 13%, $6
A bit stemmy and chalky on the nose with some cherry, plum and soapy floral/raw wood character. A touch sweet on entry and somewhat rustic, with chalky tannins that come close to dominating the cherry, almost strawberry-toned fruit. On the palate this is just a bit screechy but it’s not really off-putting. The finish adds some cocoa and vanilla with a bit of an unusual artificial floral inner-mouth perfume that lingers with the candied red fruit character. An interesting little wine, not particularly good in some ways, but there is some pleasure to be had here and the price can’t be beat. 83pts

2007 Lange Twins Clarksburg Merlot 14.3%, $12
This smells a bit smoldery with some vegetal campfire tones and smoky soil notes over forest floor elements. A bit soft and quite broad in the mouth, this is a mini-fruit bomb, with tons of sweet fruit and yet there is a disconcerting slightly bitter background note that makes this catch in the mouth. There’s a surprising amount of tannin here and this just feels over-extracted. It’s a tough little wine with a finish that tries to reveal some sweet red berry fruit but gets dominated by some vanilla oak and then cut short by the muddy tannins. 80pts