When I got into the wine business, merlot wasn’t having the best time. Merlot has long been a noble grape variety, but often for its role in the Bordeaux blend, rarely as a standalone grape. When it was a standalone grape, it was either in the most pricey iterations (i.e. Petrus) or as these flabby little numbers that was “prized” for its lighter tannins and plummy fruits.
So, long story short, in the 1990s, merlot was an also-ran compared to such grapes as malbec, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, or syrah (which at the time was in the grip of Australia’s shiraz-mania).
But boy, were we wrong. Merlot in the right hands is anything but flabby or innocuous.
In recent years, great, and reasonably priced (around $15-30) examples of this grape have started creeping up on liquor store shelves and wine lists. Notably, several great bottles come from British Columbia. I’ve been pretty clear in my opinion over the years that British Columbia doesn’t make cheap wine very well, but makes wine in that sub-$30-40 range very well. These are generally small-run, premium-styled wines that are both good to drink when young, but also with a few years in the cellar.
British Columbia has about 1,600 acres of merlot across the province, making it not only the number one planted red grape, but the number one planted grape overall. In the Okanagan Valley, which sees most of B.C. wine production, the north-south orientation of the lake and valley means that in addition to finding a good vineyard with the sun, soil and such, finding the right latitude vineyard is key to getting the best grapes. Generally, good merlot is coming from the South Okanagan, but often not as far south as Osoyoos. Still common is finding merlot in a blend, but I’m very grateful that it is solo on the label in abundance. Okanagan merlot to my thinking reaches an early peak around 4-6 years after the vintage making it a perfect short-term cellar dweller, but also a tasty wine to keep on hand.
Here are eight Okanagan merlots to try.
Tinhorn Creek 2013 Merlot, Okanagan Valley
Lighter in colour than most of the wines in this lineup, the nose exhibits a peculiar “dried fruit” character that I wasn’t expecting, but still good fruits. You’ll notice liquorice, coffee bean, leather, and herb as well. Flavours aren’t very generous in the fruit department, but its earthier and spicier flavour profile should lend themselves to pairing with pulled pork, some spicy sausages, or a slow cooked meat dish.
$18-26 B.C., AB, MB
Township 7 2013 Merlot, Okanagan Valley
Slightly green fruits with bell pepper, cassis, and cherries, along with assorted spice profiles and a hint of blueberry on the nose. Tannins are noticeably “chunky” and flavours have a bit of consistency with the nose. I’m not sure it will lose the greenness with additional aging. It might be best for palates with a preference for the French style of merlot.
$23-25 B.C., AB
CedarCreek 2012 Platinum “Desert Ridge” Merlot, Okanagan Valley
Oh, this is nice. Cherry and cassis fruits with plenty--and I mean plenty--of earthy, savoury aromas, including sagebrush, dill, and ginger. Deep, complex, and layered for sure. Still a “baby”, it’s really going to shine even more in a few (three to seven) more years. Serve with red meat, but have a glass before the meal too.
$35-50 B.C., AB, MB
Bartier Bros. 2011 “Cerquiera Vineyard” Merlot, Okanagan Valley
Coming from 2011, it’s the “old man” in this lineup, Loads of savoury, earthy aromas with a mild, jam-like tone to the assorted black fruits. It has the sort of nose you just keep going back to sniff, since it’s got some real beauty. In a wonderful space right now: the tannins have softened somewhat, allowing blackberry and chocolate to come through, and still provide some backbone. A treat.
$23-27 B.C., AB
Hester Creek 2013 Merlot, Okanagan Valley
Nicely perfumed with cassis and cherry, along with a slightly dried plum aroma, while cocoa and a little herb and spice bring extra depth. Tannins are pretty well integrated, lending enough body to balance the fruits. Very well priced, perfect to have on hand for a nice dinner of roast beast or a stew. In a nice spot today and drinking very well too.
$16-25 B.C., AB, YK
Hillside 2013 Merlot, Okanagan Valley
I swear, someone crushed some blackberries and put them in my glass. Clean, bright, pure fruit expression with cherries, chocolate, and a little spice burst out on the nose. Fairly tight tannins and a little alcohol heat show through, overall providing a full-flavoured and complex merlot. Fine, fine stuff that’s perfect for meatier sauces, something with sausage, or a nice plate of cheese.
$20-24 B.C., AB
Monster Vineyards 2013 Merlot, Okanagan Valley
A bit of a strange duck in the glass, with cherry-flavoured rock candy, plum and some leather aromas leading the way. Bright, generous fruits with a slightly gamey mid-palate. Might have been opened at a funny time, but overall, it’s balanced and enjoyable.
$20-24 B.C., AB
Quails’ Gate 2013 Merlot, Okanagan Valley
Quite dark in the glass. The aromas are plummy, with plenty of spice notes, and savoury, earthy, blackberry sort of character, followed by a slightly jammy, mint-leaf tone lurking underneath. Blackberry and plum lead fruits on the palate with slightly a hard tannin presence, which works very well here. This should be even better with food: braised meats, Irish-style stews, or duck. Yeah, duck!
$22-32 B.C., AB, YK, MB, ON, PEI, NS