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By Chuck Hill

Chuck Hill, wine reviewer and columnist

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(In the order of their
publication dates)

Oyster and Mussel Wines
A 4-Part Series
Published Sept & Oct 2014

Red Rhone Varietals
and Blends

A 4-Part Series
Published July & Aug 2014

Pinot Noir & Salmon
A 4-Part Series

White Rhone Varietals
A 3-Part Series

Versatile Chardonnays
A 3-Part Series

Italian Varietals in America
A 3-Part Series

Cabernet Sauvignon
and Blends

A 3-Part Series


Wines of the Week
...Earlier Columns


Chuck's Wine Reviews
of other Northwest Wines

Organized by varietal













































Wines of the Week
Published October 31, 2014

Merlot and Malbec Part 2 –
A Little Blending, A Little Oak Aging
Part 2 of a 3-part Series  (See Part 1)
By Chuck Hill 

Moving through the myriad Merlots and Malbecs, I have reaffirmed my contention that these two varietals make excellent accompaniments to savory meats and side dishes and serve a valuable role as such.  It becomes apparent in short order that these wines blended with portions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot step forward in complexity and offer greater appeal as standalone sips.   

Another winemaker technique for adding complexity and interest is oak aging.  The best of this week’s wines saw lots of new oak aging and most of them handled the wood just fine, read: not overly oaky flavors and aromas, just more complex.  Oak aging can add spice, caramel and smoky aromas and flavors in addition to straightforward impressions of raw wood. 

On the table were three sausages – sautéed until browned: Trader Joe’s Chicken Sausage with Sun-Dried Tomato, Al Fresco brand Roasted Red Pepper and Asiago, and Aidells Spicy Mango with Jalapeno.  Chef Ted’s signature spaetzle this week included blue cheese, mushrooms and a grating of fresh nutmeg seasoning. 


2011 Merlot, Reserve, Chateau Ste. Michelle
Columbia Valley AVA

“My goal with Ethos wines is to showcase the best of Washington for the varietal and the vintage.”  Chateau Ste. Michelle winemaker Bob Bertheau selected wines from warmer vineyard sites in the cool 2011 vintage, finding balanced, harmonious wines offering ripe fruit to create this reserve-style bottling.  Look for aromas and flavors of blueberry and blackberry, nicely wrapped in complex notes of toasty oak, caramel, earthy mineral and vanilla. 

Leonetti Cellar
2012 Merlot
Walla Walla Valley AVA

The cult status of Leonetti Cellar continues as winemaker Chris Figgins works with his founding father Gary Figgins to carefully craft each vintage.  Chris added small quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot to the 85% base of Merlot to create this wine.  Grapes were sourced from four estate vineyards, and the wine was aged for 14 months in a combination of new and neutral French oak.  This Merlot offers sophisticated aromas and flavors of right bank Bordeaux including ripe dark cherry, cassis, spicy tobacco and hints of smoky bacon and vanilla – a flavorful pairing with sausages from the grill. 

Chateau Ste. Michelle
2011 Merlot, Cold Creek Vineyard
Columbia Valley AVA

Cold Creek Vineyard is the “go to” site for Chateau Ste. Michelle winemakers looking for complexity and concentrated fruit.  The cool 2011 vintage favored the vineyard’s location with the low-yielding old vines ripening the grapes to perfection.  Dark fruits and toasty oak greet the nose, expanding to include plum, caramel and cherry candy.  The palate is long and generous with flavors of black cherry, dried plum and smoky cedar. 

L’Ecole No 41
2011 Merlot
Estate Vineyards: Seven Hills, Ferguson
Walla Walla Valley AVA

This wine is crafted from grapes grown at one of the world’s great vineyards – Seven Hills, and from a next-door site - Ferguson - that may well become a rival in quality as the vines mature.  Marty Clubb of L’Ecole No 41 did extensive research before designing and planting the Ferguson Vineyard, which is named in honor of winery founders Baker and Jean Ferguson.  The 2011 Merlot shows impeccable structure on the palate with complex flavors of cassis and cherry dancing with notes of wood, mineral and vanilla caramel – a superb food wine for a rich Thanksgiving dinner. 


Browne Family Vineyards
2011 Merlot
Columbia Valley AVA

Inspired by the greatness of his grandfather, William Bitner Browne, Andrew Browne creates his wines with standards of integrity and excellence.  Browne is the CEO of Precept Brands, a wine industry innovator in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.  His 2011 Merlot offers aromas of ripe cherry and plum with hints of cocoa and spice.  The palate echoes the nose, adding notes of espresso, vanilla and caramel to the rich, fruity flavors.  

Jacob Williams Winery
2010 Merlot
Columbia Valley AVA

Jacob Williams Winery is a family-owned boutique winery in the beautiful Columbia Gorge where owner Brad Gearhart and 40-year NW winemaking veteran John Haw are dedicated to producing high-quality wines from the region’s finest vineyards.  The 2010 Merlot opens with aromas of ripe cherry, toasty cedar and earthy olive, leading to flavors of plum and dark cherry with notes of cranberry and dark chocolate. 

Reininger Winery
2011 Merlot
Walla Walla Valley AVA

Chuck Reininger makes wines that are powerful and rich, with very ripe fruit balanced with aging in the finest new French oak.  When you open his wines, be prepared to aerate by decanting to speed the process of the wine releasing its full aromas and flavors.  The structure of this blockbuster Merlot is excellent and it should age well for up to ten years.  If you enjoy it today, look for aromas and flavors of dark cherry, ripe plum, spicy tobacco, caramel and toasty oak. 

Merry Cellars
2011 Merlot, Stillwater Creek Vineyard
Columbia Valley AVA

Winemaker/owner Patrick Merry opened his winery in 2004 in the basement of the old post office in downtown Pullman, Washington.  A decade later we find him in a larger facility on the edge of town crafting a wide variety of flavorful varietal wines and some special bottlings aimed at the Washington State University faithful.  His 2011 Merlot offers aromas and flavors of cherry, berry and a hint of dill mingling with toasty oak and tobacco notes. 

Claar Cellars
2011 Merlot, White Bluffs
Columbia Valley AVA

Claar Cellars is a family-owned estate winery with vineyards near the Tri-Cities in the historic White Bluffs area above the Columbia River.  The winery tasting room is conveniently located just off Highway 82 in Zillah.  The 2011 Merlot offers aromas and flavors of light plum and cherry with notes of earthy mineral, vanilla and light toasty oak.  Also look for their value-priced Ridge Crest Merlot. 

Cougar Crest
2008 Merlot
Walla Walla Valley AVA

Here is another powerful Merlot from the Walla Walla Valley that needs aeration time to release the myriad aromas and flavors that are waiting inside.  The winery’s estate vineyards are in the southwest corner of the Walla Walla Valley AVA near the original Seven Hills Vineyard site.  The wine offers a core of black cherry and red currant with many nuances in aroma and flavor swirling in the mix.  Look for barrel spice, earthy olive, licorice, smoky meat, bell pepper, sweet tobacco and many others.  Once it breathes up, it is a grand experience just to enjoy the sensory experience…also very good with food. 

Bridgeview Vineyards
2011 Merlot, Black Beauty
Southern Oregon AVA

Bob and Lelo Kerivan opened Bridgeview Winery in 1986 in Oregon’s Illinois Valley, and they now craft more than 100,000 cases annually of popularly priced varietal wines.  Their Black Beauty Merlot offers aromas of strawberry and cherry with notes of floral perfume and citrus.  On the palate, look for sweet plum and cherry with a hint of cranberry on the finish.  Ample acidity makes this wine a great pairing for medium to light cuisine of all types. 

Desert Wind Winery
2013 Merlot
Wahluke Slope AVA

The Fries family owns Duck Pond Cellars in Oregon, and also farm their Desert Wind Vineyard on Washington’s Wahluke Slope.  In 2004, they built a winery in Prosser to process fruit and age wines in close proximity to their vineyard sites.  An expansive visitor center followed, including a larger winery, tasting room, restaurant and luxury overnight facilities.  Their 2013 Merlot is well balanced, showing ripe aromas of cherry and blackberry with notes of floral perfume and earthy mineral.  The palate offers juicy berry and plum flavors with hints of cocoa and medium tannins. 


Walla Walla Vintners
2012 Malbec
Columbia Valley AVA

This small production wine (98 cases) came from grapes grown at the venerable Sagemoor Vineyard north of Pasco.  The superb Malbec fruit was fermented, then aged in mostly neutral oak, thus preserving lovely complex aromas and flavors to treat the Malbec lover.  Ripe cherry and plum are the fruit component, while notes of anise, mineral and spice round out the complex aroma and flavor.  

Alexandria Nicole Cellars
2012 Malbec, Mr. Popular, Estate Vineyard
Horse Heaven Hills  AVA

This ripe and powerful Malbec comes from grapes grown at Alexandria Nicole’s estate Destiny Ridge Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA.  Aromas of blackberry, blueberry and cassis are framed by notes of toasty sandalwood, mineral and a surprising hit of citrus in the background.  The palate is rich and chewy with flavors of dark cherry and berry and a finish of spicy oak and caramel. 

2013 Malbec
Columbia Valley AVA

Waterbrook winery in Walla Walla will be celebrating the annual Fall Release Weekend on Saturday Nov. 8 with the Dakota Brown Band and food bites available for sale – a great opportunity to visit the wine country when so many wineries await you!  While at Waterbrook, be sure to taste this value-priced Malbec offering rich berry and cassis flavors with lots of spicy nuances and hints of toasty oak on the finish. 

Spoiled Dog Winery
2012 Malbec, Conner Lee Vineyard, Othello
Columbia Valley AVA

The spoiled dogs at Spoiled Dog Winery are Sami and Blue, the resident Australian shepherds who welcome visitors to this winery on Whidbey Island.  Owners Jack and Karen Krug grow mostly Pinot Noir grapes at the winery, but purchase other grapes from well-known vineyards such as Conner Lee, the source for this Malbec.  Look for aromas and flavors of sweet cherry, dark berries, earthy mineral and toasty cedar. 

14 Hands Winery
2011 Malbec, The Reserve
Horse Heaven Hills AVA

The reserve wines from 14 Hands are crafted from superb fruit grown in warm vineyard sites and are aged in mostly new American and French oak.  This results in juicy, ripe aromas and flavors with ample oak influence and firm tannins.  Decanting for aeration helps the wine release its voluptuous aromas and flavors.  Look for aromas and flavors of blueberry and blackberry with notes of smoky cedar, tobacco, vanilla and baking spices. 

Wines from other areas:

Sbragia Family Vineyards
2012 Merlot, Home Ranch
Dry Creek Valley, CA

Ed Sbragia grew up around his family’s vineyards and winemaking in California, and after pursuing chemistry and enology in college, he landed a job as assistant to famed winemaker Myron Nightingale at Beringer.  He spent 32 years as winemaster at that winery before opening Sbragia Family Vineyards with his wife Jane in 2006.  Ed’s son Adam crafted this Dry Creek Merlot which offers ripe aromas and flavors of dark cherry and spice mingling with vanilla, caramel, brown spices and toasty cedar. 

Postales del Fin del Mundo
2013 Malbec, Neuquen
Patagonia, Argentina

This “postcard from the ends of the world” comes from southern Argentina in the area directly south of Mendoza.  This dry climate in the shadow of the Andes is a perfect place to produce the Malbec varietal.  Aromas and flavors of plum and cherry are complemented by notes of vanilla, cocoa and sweet tobacco with just a hint of citrus on the finish – excellent value! 

2012 Merlot
IGT Toscana, Italy

Danzante is an Italian word for dancing, and it expresses this brand’s passion and style for enjoyment and “la dolce vita.”  The grapes for this wine were grown in Tuscany near the town of Livorno, just 10 km from the sea.  This vintage has a dab of residual sugar complementing aromas and flavors of red berries, cherry, cocoa and anise – good value.

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©  October, 2014  Chuck Hill
All rights reserved.  Last revised: 10/31/2014