When we discuss or pour Merlot in the Tasting Room, a lot of guests immediately respond (before tasting, I might add) that they hate Merlot. All Merlots are created differently and Merlot can be made in almost every winemaking region, so I ask myself how these guests hate a wine that can be made in so many different ways. My mind immediately went back to that beloved wine movie, Sideways. Miles Raymond, played by actor Paul Giamatti, proclaimed “If anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any … merlot.” And there we have it - everyone started to hate Merlot. But it does go deeper than that in my opinion.
When we think Merlot in the United State, we think Californian Merlot. Merlot in California wasn’t really a popular grape or wine until the late ’60s when it began to be experimented with as a blending variety to Cabernet Sauvignon, which was quickly becoming a very popular vine in the area. And it wasn’t until after the 1976 Judgment of Paris, and in 1980 when the first AVA was awarded to California in Napa Valley, that Merlot started really making a name for itself. Cabernet Sauvignon was so popular, and Merlot was such a great blending variety, Merlot was everywhere. People started making Merlot on its own as a variety itself. With the softness and fruity character, Merlot took off in the United States wine market.
So then come the ’80s and it kept gaining popularity, and by the 1990s, Merlot became one of the most popular wines on the market. It was one of the most popular glass pours in America during this time. By 1992, there were about 8,000 acres of Merlot under vine in California. By 1995, there were 26,000 acres of Merlot under vine in California. And then in 1999, a gentleman named Rex Pickett was writing a book (which eventually became a movie) about two guys rolling around in wine country in Santa Barbara. For research, Rex went out to a plethora of California wineries and noticed the people that were working the tasting rooms weren’t really a fan of Merlot. At this time, Merlot had saturated the market so much that wineries had started mass-producing Merlot. It went from being one of the most popular varieties to a variety that was so poorly made to keep up with the demand, that people looked for other reds to fill their glasses with. And then the Sideways movie came out to further the belief that Merlot is terrible. Merlot is not terrible - some winemakers of the 90’s treated it terribly in the vineyard and cellar. So let’s taste 6 amazing Merlots from the United States to clear up all of that negativity. This is just a “taste” of what you will learn in the Wine 101: Merlot from the States class on November 14th!
First, I would like to introduce you to the Peirano Estate Vineyards Six Clones Merlot. This California Merlot is really interesting because it is produced from 6 different clones of Merlot grown on the Peirano estate, including two rare French clones and a very rare Italian clone. They were the first winery to grow and produce wine from these rare Merlot clones. This wine offers pronounced perfumed aromatics of cherries, plum and licorice which join together in a single sensation of olfactory bliss. The juicy, fruit driven flavor profile is reminiscent of maraschino cherries, plum and fruit cake (believe it or not). Totally approachable!
Next, we are tasting the B.R. Cohn Merlot from Sonoma County. A fun fact about this winery is that it was founded by and is owned by Bruce Cohn, manager of the Doobie Brothers. This specific wine was sourced from various vineyards including their own estate, Patricka Vineyard, and a few additional sites in Sonoma and Napa. With it’s rusty appearance, this Merlot has one of my favorite aromatic profiles of this lineup - red currant and toasted spices. The flavor profile boasts layered vanilla and red raspberry flavors and possesses a well developed structure.
Bring it back home to our 2019 Merlot at Williams Gap! This incredible wine spent 10 months in oak - 33% New French Oak; 67% Neutral French Oak. This is a wine that shocks me every time I taste it - so complex and so silky. It is an age worthy wine that will continue to develop with time. Here in Virginia, our Merlot is a perennial favorite, approachable and yet complex. The Williams Gap 2019 Merlot offers aromas of vanilla, red berries and nutmeg with congruent flavors. Merlot from Williams Gap offers elegant flavors and medium acidity - perfect sipping wine, but also a conversation piece. We utilize our Merlot in our single varietal bottling, as well as in our blends. At this time, this wine is club exclusive and can be purchased by the bottle only. On November 14th, we are opening this up for all guests to enjoy in their flight, added to their seated tasting and by the glass and bottle for one day only!
Now, I want to present the Airfield Estates Merlot - this bottle is super affordable and a great bang for your buck! This Merlot is from a fourth generation family farm in the Yakima Valley cultivating a wide range of premium grapes and crafting estate grown wines of exceptional quality. This property operated as a training base for hundreds of Army Air Corps pilots during World War II. The pride, passion, and dedication of these heroes provide a great source of inspiration as winemaker, Marcus Miller strives to pay tribute to them with his wines. This Merlot delivers an inviting bouquet of black cherry and clove which leads to an abundance of bright cherry and soft toasted oak on the palate with a round mouthfeel and firm, lingering tannins.
Back to California as we taste the Flora Springs Merlot from Napa Valley. This vineyard draws on estate fruit from the sustainably-farmed vineyards in Oakville, St. Helena and Rutherford which Flora Springs has owned and farmed for decades. This single varietal spent 20 months in French oak barrels and delivers flavors of ripe blueberries and cherry liqueur layered with luscious notes of vanilla wafers and dark chocolate. There’s a hint of chaparral that adds freshness to the palate along with warm traces of cardamom and cinnamon. The elegance that this wine offers is unparalleled. It is one that I tasted the one ounce I was poured and had to revisit just to experience it again.
And finally, we finish with the Prisoner Wine Company’s Thorn from the acclaimed Hudson and Stagecoach Vineyards in Napa Valley, California. This family of small vineyards offers vines of varying ages and regionality which lends to layers of character and complexity. This wine is about preserving Napa Valley Merlot! The Prisoner Wine Company brand name is inspired by the classic sketch “Le Petit Prisonier” by 19th century Spanish artist Francisco Goya. The sketch is part of Goya's series entitled, “The Disasters of War”, created to be a visual protest against the injustice and brutality of the Spanish War of Independence in 1808. From the founding of this popular winery, The Prisoner Wine Company has stood in solidarity with the fight against racism, mass incarceration and the systematic oppression of Black communities. They are committed to educating themselves and guests, embracing diversity and creating an inclusive environment where all feel safe, respected and valued. This alone excited me to taste this wine and it did not disappoint. Deep purple in color, releasing aromas of black cherry with hints of cedar and pencil lead. Dense flavors of dark fruits and rich plum are framed by velvety tannins and a lush finish - the epitome of Napa merlot.
Now that I have gotten you excited about these six wines, I hope you will join me on Sunday, November 14th for our Wine 101: Merlot from the States class at Williams Gap Vineyard. We will be discussing Merlot at it’s core, tasting each of the six wines mentioned in the blog and learning much more about their origins in the cellar and vineyard, as well as a little 101 on tasting wines and making aromatic and flavor distinctions while doing so. Thanks for reading along with me and I will see you at Wine 101. Visit our website to purchase your tickets today. Cheers!
One of my favorite things to do is analyze wine - whether I am at home with my wife having a glass, chatting with guests at Williams Gap, or if I am having a shift glass with the team at the end of the day. One of the primary ways to analyze and talk about wine is by discussing a wine’s body. All liquids have a specific weight, determined by the presence of fats, alcohols, sugars and more. Wine is no different - this weight is what we call the body of a wine. The easiest way I can describe it is to think about the way milk feels heavier on the tongue than water, and you're on the right track to understanding how to determine a wine's body. But then there is a scale - light bodied, medium bodied and full bodied. So using milk as an example, fat free milk is light bodied, 2% milk is medium bodied and whole milk is full bodied. The reason I wanted to touch on this topic this month is that red wine season is upon us and we get asked a lot of questions about the body of our wines.
There are many factors that can contribute to a wine’s body and one of the main factors is alcohol. Alcohol is what gives a wine its viscosity and is responsible for either the heavy or light mouthfeel we experience when we sip a wine. There is a tasteless substance called glycerol derived naturally from fermenting grapes that increases the perception of wine body (just a fun geeky fact to pull out while you’re out wine tasting). Because of this substance, we call a heavily viscous wine full-bodied and a low viscosity wine light-bodied. This brings us to another interesting point - about 1/4 of our guests bring up “the legs” - let me debunk this point for you. Despite what you may have heard, wine legs or ‘tears’ are not an indication of quality of wine. It’s actually a scientific phenomenon that can tell you key information about the alcohol level in wine. Legs mean one of two things: either the wine has a high ABV or it has higher residual sugar. High alcohol wines collect a higher density of droplets on the sides of the glass than low alcohol wines and sweeter wines are more viscous, so the tears will flow slower down the sides of a glass.
Ok, let me jump off of my soapbox - back to the body of wines. There are a few general rules regarding the alcohol content to help you decide before drinking if the wine is light, medium or full:
Wines under 12.5% alcohol (the alcohol percentage should always be written on the wine’s label) are said to be light-bodied. These are generally the white wines we think of as crisp and refreshing. A good example that hits close to home is our Vidal Blanc - the 2019 vintage comes in at 12.3% ABV. A worldly example would be Vinho Verde or German white wines.
Wines between 12.5% and 13.5% are considered medium-bodied. Good examples of these wines around the world are French Burgundy (white or red). Most of Virginia’s wines are going to come in around 13%.
Finally, any wine over 13.5% alcohol is considered full-bodied. Some wines that are normally over this alcohol level and considered full-bodied are Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and bold red blends. Wines from Williams Gap that would fall into this category (just barely) are our 2019 Red Blend, the 2020 Round Hill Red and the 2019 Fieldstone. Interestingly enough, our 2019 Petit Manseng also falls into this category (it is a full bodied wine because of the ABV and the sugar content).
Alcohol and sugar are not the only two factors though! Grape varietals play a huge role too. Certain grape varieties produce more full-bodied wines and some are simply lighter-bodied varietals. Typically Cabernet Sauvignon’s are full and Pinot Noir’s are light. Cabernet Franc is known for being a medium bodied wine. Oak aging can change the body of a wine as well. Think of Bourbon - when you age Bourbon in brand new barrels, the final product often tastes more full-bodied. Same goes for wine; the newer the oak used, the more tannin is imparted to the wine and thus, the wine tends to be fuller bodied. The last big factor is the climate type. As a general rule, grapes grown in warmer climates tend to produce richer, more full-bodied wines and the opposite goes for grapes grown in cooler climates. Virginia is considered right down the middle when it comes to climate, meaning we traditionally create medium bodied wines that we can manipulate to be heavier with the vessel it is aged in or how much sugar we leave in the finished product.
What type of wines do you enjoy? If you like a lighter style, go for our Rosé, Vidal Blanc or Mountain Valley Red. Like it heavier and bolder? Our Round Hill Red, Fieldstone and Petit Manseng might be right up your alley. And finally - the medium bodied lovers, we have a couple options for you too. Our Cabernet Franc and White Blend are very popular wines in the Tasting Room because they both appease a group’s pallets (those that enjoy heavy and those that enjoy light). I hope you have learned a little bit today through our blog and thanks for checking it out! Now it’s time to pour a glass and analyze it a bit. Cheers!
Tasting Room Manager