Merlot World Tour 

Merlot gets a bad rap, but given the right soil, it commands respect.

Still, it is not a rule that the more you spend on a bottle of wine the more you will like it.

Some wineries, without charging a fortune, can transform this popular yet often unachieving grape into an art form. These are the wineries that take home the medals and capture the conversation.

Below are some merlots that can be part of the conversation. The wines were not tasted blind and are not listed in preference. They have a wide variety of styles.

De Chiel Merlot, Monticello, 1999, $24

A gold medal winner in this years Governors Cup. This is a very fruity merlot without much oak or tannin. It is a soft, enjoyable well-made wine. There is not much here for aging and it's at its best now. The Virginia climate is tough on merlot because of its combination of early budding vine and our notorious spring frosts.

Shelton Vineyards Merlot, North Carolina, 2000, $21.50

Admittedly the Shelton is a year younger than the De Chiel, but they are both prime examples of what this grape can do in the East Coast. The Shelton is beefier, the DeChiel silkier. Both wines would be fascinating in a blind tasting.

In France, there are different merlots. The one in your glass at the restaurant is most likely from the south and says Vin de Pays. It is your light, juicy plum. The other one from Bordeaux is a totally different experience. When grown in the village of St. Emilion, it takes on the flavor and character of the local limestone as its personality.

Chateau Sansonnet, St. Emilion, 1996, $16

The nose is utterly different. Gone is the blast of ripe fruit. It's replaced with a merlot mingled with minerals. There has to be some limestone in that glass. This wine will come as a surprise to merlot drinkers. There is a lot to think about and talk about here. The best thing you can do is order a dozen escargot. St Emilion is chockfull of interesting chateau to explore in person or in your glass.

Robert Mondavi Winery Merlot, Stags Leap District, 1999, $42

If you ever think that merlot is nothing more than a light, fruity wine then you must try a bottle of this. Neither the color nor the nose announces what is to follow. This is merlot at its sturdiest. There are a few bigger than this, but you will have to really open your wallet. This is the merlot to lay aside for the holidays. If the East Coast wines were fruity and delicious, the St. Emilion minerally, then this wine is serious. It demands food.

The Ch. St. Jean Merlot, Sonoma County, 1999, $28

This was saved for last because it is a combination of the previous styles. Fruit, minerals, tannin, it's as if the other four were blended together and this wine emerged. The fruit flavor is explosive but just behind it is the tannin. While merlot usually emphasizes one distinct part, this wine contains all of the pieces.

Merlot can be a far more interesting grape than a wine just casually ordered by the glass. Region can make a huge difference. The merlots of southern France, Chile, Argentina and just with "California" on the label are thirst quenching yet seldom complex. Bordeaux (St. Emilion or Pomerol), Napa, Sonoma and quality regions of the East Coast can produce wines that will pair with food or produce conversations all their own. S



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