For a while there, my heart went out to Okanagan vintners forced to duke it out with nature in 2010 and 2011. Cool temperatures and skimpy sunshine did not bode well. Growing seasons are short in the valley at the best of times. It takes substantial daytime radiation between spring and autumn to energize vines on their sprint to harvest. Usually, the Okanagan's clear skies and long days provide much of that, particularly in the south. Not so much in 2010 and 2011.
Then the bottled whites began arriving on shelves and there were surprises aplenty. The relative chill of those seasons seemed to put a welcome, crisp spring in the step of many rieslings and chardonnays. (Some were underripe, it must be said, but some hit their mark beautifully thanks to sound vineyard management and deft winemaking.)
I waited skeptically for the reds, whose grapes generally demand longer hang time in autumn to achieve adequate ripeness. And now, following a long rest in barrel and bottle, the field looks so much better than anticipated, especially in the case of merlot, the Okanagan's flagship red variety.
I'm leading with British Columbia selections in this roundup of recently released merlots and merlot-heavy blends. It's a sort of onomatopoeic grape, with a pronunciation that foreshadows its flavour: smooth, soft and mellow. Medium-to full-bodied, mehr-LOW can rise to tremendous heights, as in famed Château Petrus, although it can also descend into monotony or stalky greenness when overcropped to yield quantity over quality.
Quails' Gate Merlot 2011 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.99
The succulent, ripe mid-palate belies 2011's cool conditions. Eigthteen months in American and French oak helped impart smooth-toasty notes of vanilla and coffee to a core of dark berries and dark chocolate. Chalky tannins and spice lend impressive structure. It would be great with lamb chops. Available from the winery (www.quailsgate.com).
Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Series Merlot 2010 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $29.99
Tinhorn Creek boasts of being the first estate in Canada to bottle premium wines under a screw cap, and the highend Oldfield Merlot led the way. Kudos to winemaker Sandra Oldfield for taking the lead in battling the scourge of cork taint and dispensing with pretense. This is artfully crafted merlot, smooth and luscious (hello, south Okanagan), with flavours suggesting cherry and raspberry coated in dark chocolate and espresso. Blended with 6-per-cent cabernet franc and 1-per-cent syrah for a whisper of herbs and spice, it's crowdpleasingly smooth and disciplined by dry, chewy tannins. Pass the red-meat stew. Available from the winery (www.tinhorn.com).
Laughing Stock Portfolio 2011 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $42
Laughing Stock's flagship red is a Bordeaux-inspired blend of five varieties and the 2011 vintage included a substantial 42-per-cent contribution from merlot and 32 per cent from cabernet sauvignon. The wine's classic forward characters of cassis, dark chocolate, vanilla and coffee are on offer, though with a lighter, juicier profile than in some prior vintages. Available from the winery (www.laughingstock.ca).
Stag's Hollow Renaissance Merlot 2010 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $29.99
This could please a fan of Aussie reds because of its suggestively sweet, come-hither fruit. Expect strong hits of chocolate and vanilla to go along with the chewy raspberry, with slightly grainy tannins to lend rigidity to the texture. Pork roast would make a suitable match. Available from the winery (www.stagshollowwinery.com).
Hester Creek Reserve Merlot 2011 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $28.95
Rich, smooth and crowd-pleasing, this was produced from some of the oldest merlot vines in the Okanagan. It shows pronounced cherry, plum and mocha flavours backed by supple tannins. Available from the winery (www.hestercreek.com).
Luce della Vite Luce 2010 (Italy)
SCORE: 95 PRICE: $99.95
Luce della Vite started in the 1990s as a joint Tuscan venture between the venerable Frescobaldi family of Italy and California's Robert Mondavi Winery. It's now under the control of the Italian family's holding company, Marchesi de Frescobaldi. This flagship from the southern Tuscan district of Montalcino combines 55-per-cent merlot (a relative newcomer to the zone) with 45-per-cent sangiovese (the classic constituent of the famous local red wine Brunello di Montalcino as well as of Chianti). This is unquestionably one of the best vintages of Luce since the luxury wine's inception, which dates back to the 1993 harvest. Concentrated and luscious, it unfolds with layers of currant, cherry, coffee, chocolate, espresso and spice flavours enveloped in a thick coat of chalky tannins. One for the cellar, it could use at least six years to soften up and will continue to improve over the next two decades. Available in Ontario.
Stags' Leap Winery Merlot 2010 (California)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $39.95
Not your typically supple Napa merlot, this one is very dry, with chalky tannins supplying a firm frame to the rich berry fruit, chocolate and vanilla and a backdrop of earth, smoke and herbs. $22.56 in Man., $39.98 in N.S.
Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot 2010 (Washington State)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $15.95
There is very good value here. Full and smooth, with ripe dark berry, plum, vanilla and toasty oak flavours, this wine firms up with fine tannins and a tight acid spine. $19.99 in B.C., $15.83 in Man., $18.04 in Nfld.
Featherstone Red Tail Merlot 2011 (Ontario)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95
Soft and smooth, yet with a pleasant little tug of astringent tannins, this medium-full-bodied merlot offers plum and blackberry nuances and a touch of earth. Well done. Available in Ontario.
Château Reynon 2009 (France)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $23.85
Mainly merlot, with cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot, this is savoury cigar-and-cedar Bordeaux, with dark berries and mint in the mix and satisfying tension coming from the sticky, fine-grained tannins. Available in Ontario.
Villa Pozzi Merlot 2011 (Italy)
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $12.95
Here's a smooth, simple Sicilian quaffer exhibiting ripe plum and prune fruit well-balanced by juicy acidity. Available in Ontario.