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Uncorked: Tastings invoke new respect for merlot

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 17, 2002

Continuing its way around Tampa Bay, the spring wine caravan holed up in posh digs at Sarasota's Ritz Carlton and then pitched its tents outside SideBern's restaurant in Tampa this past weekend.

The marathon of dinners, auctions and tastings at Florida Winefest followed by the Bern's Wine Fest raised thousands of dollars for charity and gave local wine lovers dizzying choices of hundreds of wines.

Some indulged in rare treats from ancient labels such as Margaux and Beaucastel; others explored the newest from Argentina's malbec to Santa Barbara's magic California vineyards that grow almost everything.

The strongest aftertaste, however, was new respect for merlot. In Bordeaux it was used mostly to soften cabernet, but in a few places such as Pomerol it stood on its own grandly. In the United States, merlot went quickly from a blending ingredient to a wine of its own just as popular and badly overproduced as white zinfandel.

"There's a lot of bad merlot out there," Robert Rebuschatis Jr. of MacRostie in Sonoma, Calif., said, "Every dairy farmer, every cotton farmer who could, planted merlot. They overcropped it and planted it where it's too hot. It gets real flabby."

No longer. Smart growers pick better spots such as MacRostie in cool Carneros at the southern end of the Napa Valley. Firestone's winemaker studied at Petrus to learn from merlot's best growers and winemakers.

So merlots tasted in Sarasota and Tampa this year had long life and backbone as well as soft drinkability. Their flavors combined fruits from red to black as well as the characteristic blueberry taste and hints of cedar, mint and black pepper.

The best new vintage on the tables I tried were the '99 Duckhorn, '98 Vine Cliff, '97 Turnbull, '98 MacRostie, all from Napa and the '99 Canoe Ridge in Washington State.

Recent years of too much merlot had a silver lining. When California had one of its great vintages in 1997, it also had a bumper crop of merlot, enough for good wineries to make first-rate '97 merlot reserves. They're being released now when most '97 cabs are gone. The '97 reserve merlots from Firestone and Napa Ridge are the best $20 buys around; for more money, seek out Markham's and Sterling's.

There was much more to taste.

The best of the rest

CHARDONNAY: Domaine Thibert produced a line of modest Burgundies with a crisp taste of French chards, from Macon to Pouilly-Fuisse. Creamiest of the 2000 California crop were Edna Valley, Geyser Peak, Shafer's Red Shoulder Ranch.

OTHER WHITES: Best sauvignon blancs came from New Zealander Alan Scott and Firestone. For pinot grigio that tastes like wine and not bottled water, try Santa Barbara's Babcock Vineyards.

TOP TOP-DOLLAR REDS: If you want to pop $50 or so, try '97 Kenwood Artist Label cabernet, the '99 Dead Arm shiraz from D'Arenberg in Australia, '98 Cyrus meritage from Alexander Valley or the '98 cab from Dunham Cellars in Washington State. For a pinot, try the '99 Torii Mor from Oregon.

GUTSY BLENDS: Creative wineries mix odd lots with success. For $10 to $20, try Coudoulet de Beaucastel, a classic Cotes du Rhone blend; the Costa Del Sol bottling of merlot, zin and sangiovese, or Goats Do Roam, a delicious pun from South Africa, made of Rhone varietals and their own pinotage. For slightly more, the 1998 Ensemble from BV combines Rhonish reds with a touch of white for wine that's as meaty as it is fruity.

SYRAH WITH LOVE: In tastings loaded with Bordeaux reds, the favorite grape of the norther Rhone, Australia and spicy points in between still stands out for combining jammy flavor and smooth drinkability. Best of show for me were the 2000 Hattrick from ADW in Australia and the '99 Black Label syrah from Babcock, both more than $35 but worth it.

BEST WINE FOOD: SideBern's chef Jeanne Pierola laid out 20 bites of her global cuisine, sweet and savory. Imagine bourbon molasses short ribs, baked white beans, green chile oyster stew, scotch bonnet shrimp and ceviche topped with house-made corn nuts and plantain shoestrings.

NAMES TO KNOW: If you can remember only a few words, think MacRostie, Babcock or Beneserre, and try anything they make.

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