Merlot is one of the great wine grapes of France. The most widely planted variety in Bordeaux, possibly named for the blackbird (merle in French), which is said to have a penchant for the fruit, it’s equally suited to cellar-worthy single-varietal wines and to the classic Bordeaux blend. Now, though, La République is getting some serious competition, in the form of exciting bottles from the Pacific Northwest.
Indeed, a tight-knit community of vignerons in the Walla Walla Valley, which straddles the eastern part of the border between Washington and Oregon, is working to restore the reputation of American merlot, which slid into decline in the 1990s thanks to indiscriminate planting and mass production.
Great wines begin in the vineyard, and great vineyards depend on great soil, which the Walla Walla Valley has in spades. According to Marty Clubb, owner and managing winemaker of L’Ecole No. 41, lava flows and ancient floods blessed the region with a diverse geology that ranges from volcanic rock to flood sediment and windblown loess. “Each of those soil types creates a different flavor in the fruit,” he says, “so merlot from the Pepper Bridge Vineyard is different from merlot from Seven Hills, which is different from merlot from Ferguson.”
The valley’s climate has its advantages, too. “At 46 degrees latitude, we get so much sunlight—17 hours of sunshine,” says Mary Derby, founder and winemaker of DAMA Wines. “We can be 90 to 100 degrees during the day, but in the evening things cool down 30 or 40 degrees. That temperature drop, and the fact that we’re in a windy area, makes for a hardy merlot with a thicker skin, which creates a more vibrant quality, and natural tannins and acidity.”
When it comes time to harvest, the crucial consideration, according to Jean- François Pellet, winemaker at Pepper Bridge Winery, is “finding the balance between acidity and ripeness. The picking decision, especially for merlot, is extremely critical to the style.” The Walla Walla Valley style, says Dave Stephenson, winemaker at Otis Kenyon Wine, “is a larger, bolder wine that gives me freedom to leave it on the skins.” That extended skin contact gives the region’s wines a delectably satisfying structure that ages beautifully over time.
“At the end of the day, merlot is a noble grape,” Stephenson says. “If you treat it as such, you get a noble wine.”