Merlot (Murr-low) is a red grape originating from the Bordeaux region of France. It is the predominant grape in wines from the Right Bank portion of the area and a supporting grape in the blends from the Left Bank (Cabernet Sauvignon is the predominant grape in these wines. Right Bank vs Left Bank is explained on the January 6th post.). Merlot has a reputation for being a bit lighter in texture than Cab Sauv but can be surprising when it originates from warmer climates. It is also a sibling of Cab Sauv, sharing Cab Franc in common with Merlot as a parent grape. Merlot, sadly got a bad reputation after being the wine Miles famously stated ‘I am not drinking any f–cking Merlot’ in the film Sideways from 2004. There was even a phrase coined in the wine industry known as ‘The Sideways Effect’ that referred to the significant decrease in Merlot sales in conjunction with a rapid rise in Pinot Noir demand and sales. Many in the industry have claimed this actually benefited Merlot in the long run by helping eliminate many of the lower quality wines made from the grape. The price for Merlot was also on a downturn when the movie was released so it allowed some growers that were trying to dump their Merlot vines to replace them with other varieties that were better suited for the growing conditions. Almost 20 years later and the price is about where the market predictions indicated it would be and production hasn’t reached the pre-Sideways levels in the US (a good sign since plenty was of questionable quality).
Hightower Cellars has been producing wines from the Red Mountain AVA, a subregion of Yakima Valley, in Eastern Washington since 1997. They began with a tasting room in Woodinville (a popular area for Eastern Washington wineries to have tasting rooms accessible to those on the west side of the state, convenient while also avoiding the mountain pass over the Cascade Mountains during inclement weather). Owners Tim and Kelly purchased their first plot of land in Red Mountain in 2002 (the AVA status was achieved in 2001) and finished planting in 2005. Both Tim and Kelly had backgrounds in wine before they decided to open a winery. Kelly got an eneology degree then began working at Columbia Winery in the mid ‘90s. Tim, a lawyer, convinced the owners of Columbia Winery they needed an inhouse legal representative after doing consultant work for the Washington Wine Institute. During his tenure at Columbia, his colleagues took note of his excellent tasting ability so they allowed him to create his own blend. This blend became very successful and Tim decided he liked the winemaking process and idea of owning a winery more than being an attorney so they set out to open their own winery. Hightower has always produced wines made from the five main Bordeaux grape varieties (Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot) and have planted a select few Rhône varieties along the way.
This week, I’m pairing a 2018 Hightower Red Mountain Merlot with a blackberry pork tenderloin and scalloped potatoes. The label lists this wine as being 91% Merlot and 9% Cabernet Franc. The Cab Franc will add complexity in the form of floral notes and hints of blue fruit. This ruby wine is on the cusp of being completely opaque. It has lazy legs that gently slide down the goblet. Aromas of slightly under ripe blackberry, blueberry, vanilla, baking spices, and dark chocolate emanate from the glass. The wine is dry with significant levels of acid. It has beautiful, luxurious tannins that caress the palate. The flavors of blackberries in both the sauce for the tenderloin and wine are lovely together. The earthiness of the fresh rosemary in the sauce complements the fruit, floral and earth notes of the wine. The sharpness of the cheesy potatoes is addicting with the fruit and acid the Merlot exhibits. The flavors of vanilla and blackberry linger on the palate long after the wine is gone. The warming sensation felt as the Merlot makes it through my body is a good indicator of its high alcohol content (14.7% as listed on the label). Overall, this wine is a classic example of the level of quality that can be found in the wines that originate from Red Mountain.