Several weeks ago (Merlot, Reimagined), I sketched out the turbulent fortunes of Merlot in California, from the gold rush that followed the 60 Minutes French Paradox segment to the grape’s collapse in the wake of Sideways. The Merlot still being produced tends to be spectacular: wine with low yields from older vines, carefully crafted by wineries that made it in both good times and bad.
Foremost among those wineries is Duckhorn. Founded by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn in 1976, the property reflected Dan’s love of Merlot, a love affair kindled during travels to St. Emilion and Pomerol. Their portfolio has now expanded to a group of sister wineries: Goldeneye (Anderson Valley), Migration (Russian River), Decoy (Sonoma), Canvasback (Washington State) and Paraduxx (Napa proprietary blends). Neal Bernardi, Duckhorn’s Vice President in charge of Winemaking, recently visited Palm Beach to share his expertise and uncork some prized bottles.
The tasting began with a pair of whites. Duckhorn Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($26) is bright and crisp, with the texture augmented and enriched by the addition of 21% Semillon. Napa Valley Chardonnay 2014 ($33), first introduced in 2012, displays a creamy, citrus-infused mouth feel with good acidity and depth. This was followed by Goldeneye Pinot Noir 2013 ($50) from Anderson Valley in Mendocino, exhibiting exuberant bursts of red fruits and notable balance, and Canvasback Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($37) from Washington State. This last wine is very much a work in progress, with stiff tannins competing with ripe black fruit on the palate.
Predictably, though, it was Merlot that stole the show. The 2013 Three Palms Merlot ($88), from a vineyard owned exclusively by Duckhorn, is voluptuous and edgy, with an excellent palate imprint and a long finish. Duckhorn makes Merlot for Cabernet drinkers, and the size and scope of the Three Palms bottling even dwarfed the 2012 The Discussion Napa Valley proprietary red ($125), an elegant and complex Bordeaux-style blend that seemed light by comparison.
To end with some fireworks, Bernardi produced magnums of the 2002 Duckhorn Merlot. It was perfectly preserved, exuding aromas of chocolate, baking spices and fennel followed by luscious black fruits and a soft finish. A pleasure to drink, it dispelled any notions about the ability of California wine to age gradually and gracefully.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to amazon.com.