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Corks & Forks: Merlot’s flavor profile a matter of preference

By Viki Eierdam
Published: June 26, 2015, 12:00am

Attendees of last week’s Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine event were treated to a thought-provoking presentation on merlot-growing at the Gesa Power House Theatre, an historic power station that dates to 1890, in Walla Walla.

Keynote speakers Fred Dame, a master sommelier, and Stephen Tanzer, editor-in-chief of Vinous, a website for wine lovers, deftly presided over the exquisite 342-seat venue, drew laughs in all the right places and possibly even struck a bit of fear in a packed house that had come to hear why merlot in Walla Walla has a bright future … only to find out that not everyone is sold on that idea.

The world looks to the right bank of France (think Saint-Émilion and Pomerol of the Bordeaux region) as the gauge by which all other merlot is measured. And if you’re Tanzer, Walla Walla’s climate could be too warm for a traditional Bordeaux-style merlot.

That is not to say that noteworthy merlot cannot be grown this far east — as evidenced by the awards prominently displayed in tasting rooms all over this American viticulture area — but, rather, the flavor profile is quite different, and Tanzer clearly prefers the more austere, red-fruit notes of Bordeaux to the black fruit and stronger herbal qualities of the terroir of Eastern Washington.

Tanzer might not have made a lot of friends at the presentation, but Dame, founder of the American Branch of The Court of Master Sommeliers, certainly ingratiated attendees with comments such as, “Love the wine, and the people who make it” and “Quality is exceptional, and the future is more than bright. Maintain those standards!”

So how can two obviously qualified men in the world of wine leave an audience with such different feelings?

Simply, I think it’s a matter of preference.

Bordeaux’s climate is oceanic, or maritime. Its summer rainfall negates the need to irrigate, which is convenient since it’s not allowed, and its average summer temperature is 67 degrees, although guest French winemaker Vincent Lignac of Château Guadet said that the region’s seasons have been warming in recent years.

Walla Walla, on the other hand, is considered hot Mediterranean, which necessitates irrigation, and the area’s summer days tend to hover at nearly 85 degrees.

Warmer-climate merlots have less acid than those of cooler climate, and offer deep, jammy fruit notes. They’re approachable and smooth, which describes the vast majority of American palates. A true Bordeaux, however, can have a stand-offish edge that makes it better suited for cellaring and/or pairing with heavy, fatty meats. It seems to me that each style is being made perfectly for the consumer it’s targeting, so no harm, no foul.

In fact, Dame said that “95 percent of wine is consumed within eight hours of purchase.” Most people do not cellar like they used to, and Americans are less apt to cellar wines than Europeans as a course of cultural norms.

So there I was, trying to understand Tanzer’s palate to prefer a Bordeaux merlot over that of Walla Walla, but I couldn’t do it. I’m a Washington merlot-loving gal, and the delicate palate of the 2010 Château Guadet from Saint-Émilion, France, was reminiscent of a pinot noir, while the acid level sucked my mouth dry faster than a trip to the dentist’s office. And the Italian 2010 Avignonesi Desiderio from Tuscany, Italy, was even more extreme.

Only when I swirled, sipped and spit the L’Ecole No. 41 2012 Estate Merlot from just west of Walla Walla did the saliva in my mouth begin to return. I thank you for that, Marty Clubb, master winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41.

Viki Eierdam is a Clark County native who lives in Battle Ground. She is certified by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. Read the Corks & Forks blog at blogs.columbian.com/corks-and-forks