Something special to drink: A good Merlot

By Celia Strong
With one holiday behind us, hopefully we can move towards a wonderful Christmas and New Year — with the help of food and wine, of course.
This last month of the year is always a “make it or break it” time in most businesses. For us, looking at wines, it can be a great chance to get some wines at deal prices. This means we can look at wines that we’d never consider during ordinary times of the year — maybe it’s not your favorite grape, too expensive, don’t know the winery, whatever. So, let’s open our hearts to the possibility of something special to drink: A good Merlot! And let’s look at it carefully so we really appreciate the wine when we get to it.
Merlot is red grape variety (too careful?). On its vine, it is actually a dark black-blue color. The name “Merlot” is believed to derive from the Old French word for a young blackbird, “merle.”  We can suppose that the color of the bird and the color of the grape were similar. Or, and this is a much more fun theory, blackbirds liked to eat so many of the grapes, that a derivative of the name “merle” was used as the grape’s name.
Merlot-based wines are usually medium bodied with flavors like berries, plums and currants. Its wines’ textures are soft and fleshy.  Because of its texture and because Merlot is an earlier ripening variety, the grape is well suited for blending with the sterner, later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon. The wide use of Merlot for blending may have caused it to be an under-appreciated grape by some of us. But, this week, we fix that.
Genetic research at the University of California at Davis, one of our country’s biggest and best for ampelography, says that Merlot is the offspring of Cabernet Franc and the sibling of Carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon. The earliest recorded history of Merlot is from 1784, when notes in Bordeaux mentioned wines made from Merlot that were thought to be some of the best from the region. By the nineteenth century, Merlot was being regularly planted in the Left Bank part of Bordeaux, the north side of the Gironde River.  Since then, as Merlot growing has spread around the world,  this variety has risen and fallen and risen again in popularity
When growing, Merlot hangs in its dark, blackish-blue color, in loose bunches of large berries. Compared to its bigger-wine brother, Cabernet Sauvignon, its berries are larger, have thinner skins and hence fewer tannins (that’s where the soft texture comes from), have more sugar (slightly more alcohol) and less malic acid (less tartness). Merlot grows really well in cold soil, particularly with iron content in it. In the United States, Merlot first found a home in California. In California, Merlot wines can range from very fruity, simple wines (what we maybe generalize as “grocery store” wines even though we all like and drink some of them) to more serious, barrel-aged fine wines. All these Merlot wines come in a huge range of prices, of course. In Sonoma, which I mention because that’s the area that matters to us today, Merlot wines tend to show plum, tea and black cherry notes.  And, yes, now, we move on to our special wine for this week.
Not too long ago, we talked about a Sonoma winery named B R Cohn. Bruce Cohn founded his winery in 1984, on land he had bought a decade earlier. For a long time he sold his grapes to other wineries to augment the quality of their wines, in particular Caymus. (I know Caymus is a Napa wine, but back then the appellation regulations were not as strict and, if we keep saying Caymus bought Cohn grapes for their wines, we can remember how good these grapes were, and are.) The Olive Hill Estate, the 90-acre home vineyard for the B R Cohn Winery, is the base for their wines and the inspiration of their label — an tree branch full of olives. In 1990, Bruce founded the B R Cohn Olive Oil Company and started producing gourmet olive oils and hand crafted vinegars. Also, Bruce and his son, Dan, because of Bruce’s background in music and radio, still manage The Doobie Brothers and hold annual concerts at the winery to benefit Sonoma charities.  The visitors’ center at the winery is a huge attraction for daily visits, weddings and other events.
Our wine for this week is the B R Cohn Merlot. Unfortunately, we don’t usually do this wine, only because we are so in tune with the B R Cohn Silver Label level where they make a Cabernet and a Chardonnay. Price-wise these two wines are closer to what many of us want to pay for our daily glass or two.
Having started out discussing how this time of year we can get deals on some wines we’re not familiar with, it’s pretty safe to assume the B R Cohn Merlot is one of them. This Merlot is not part of the Silver Label tier, so it costs more, but for more money you get a great Merlot!  It’s full of ripe blackberry and bright cherry with hints of anise and mocha. This wine is aged in French oak barrels for 18 months, and this adds a toasty vanilla flavor and softens the tannins also. Unlike so many Merlot wines, this one is 100 percent Merlot — a testament to the quality of B R Cohn’s grapes! Our price on this wine is $18.97.  Yes, that’s more than their Silver Label tier, but it is also about half the regular price: and that is a deal!
The deal price is the good news. The not-quite-so good news is we only a limited amount of this wine available.  I’m sure we could get more, but not at the deal price. So, you decide. My advise is not to wait too long. Besides, we may have another deal next week. Enjoy!

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