WINE SCHOOL 2 - 8 March 2015

REGION: USA > Washington > Columbia Valley

The Columbia Valley runs from close to the Canadian border in Washington State, south into Oregon. There is considerable diversity in the varieties planted here and plenty of small estates producing wines of real finesse.

Key red grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah
Key white grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc


GRAPE: Merlot

Making wines that can be utterly bland or breathtakingly fabulous, dismayingly forgettable or unsurpassingly brilliant, this ubiquitous grape is also one of the most paradoxical.

A vigorous, high-yielding, early-ripening variety, Merlot will consistently reach maturity year-in year-out irrespective of the weather. Consequently Merlot is extensively planted in all but the coolest wine growing regions in the world. However with easy ripening comes the ever-present risk of over-ripening, which in the hands of growers more interested in quantity rather than quality leads to insipid one-dimensional wines: sweet, soft and smooth perhaps but lacking in any backbone, notable aromas or charm.

In the hands of skilled winemakers working sensitively with their terroir, Merlot-based wines can be sublime and utterly distinctive - ripe blueberries and plums balanced by satisfyingly savoury, vegetal or herbal notes.

Merlot is present in very many of the world's greatest and most sought-after blended red wines, particularly those from the right bank of Bordeaux. Precocious Cabernet Sauvignon grabs the attention for being age-worthy, muscular and 'stately'; Petit Verdot or Cabernet Franc are fauned over for adding finesse and 'haunting' fragrance; but without Merlot there would be no Chateau Lafite, no Petrus, no Margaux, no Ridge Monte Bello, no Sassicaia. Merlot is the reliable, unassuming, rock-solid foundation that allows other grapes to fulfill their true potential.

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Next week in WINE SCHOOL: Hunter Valley (Australia) & Verdelho

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