Mellow Merlot

What’s dark and plush and well-priced all over? Merlot from Washington State, one of the world’s great underpriced wines. Of course, Merlot’s historical home is in France’s most esteemed wine region, Bordeaux, where Merlot plays graceful queen to Cabernet Sauvignon’s forceful king. However, when it’s grown at Washington’s northern latitude the grapes get long, long sunlit days in which to develop complex aromatic compounds, yet since it’s never too hot they don’t get overly raisinish and sweet. Now, here’s why it’s cheap: American wine consumers are still reeling from the film Sideways, where the neurotic Miles calls Merlot every name in the book. He was wrong, but let’s thank him for keeping prices low for the discriminating drinker. 

Charles Smith The Velvet Devil Merlot, Columbia Valley, 2009 ($14)
Smooth and rich, all dark cherry and dark chocolate, plush and velvety without being sweet, this wine by Food & Wine magazine’s 2009 wine maker of the year is the cheap, sexy, good Merlot America needs. Available: Lunds and Byerly’s (including the Burnsville Byerly’s), 952-892-5600

Dusted Valley Vintners Boomtown Merlot, 2008 ($16)
Mocha, earth, and spice flavors make this Merlot a top pick for French wine lovers who swoon for the symphony of non-fruit notes that make this a deep, but not sweet, wine. Try it with lamb burgers on the grill to get a sense of the wine’s berry-smoke resonance.  Available: Thomas Liquors, 651-699-1860,

Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells Merlot, Columbia Valley, 2008 ($18)
Sophisticated. The ripe blackberry fruit is given lots of spicy structure and a vanilla edge with French oak, and the two elements combine on the palate in such a way that the wine seems both big and restrained, like a regal period armoire.  Available: Surdyk’s, 303 E. Hennepin Ave., 612-379-3232,

Natalie’s Estate Winery, Pines Vineyard Merlot, Columbia Valley, 2007 ($30)
Graceful, melodic, even lilting—this happy little Merlot is all flower fragrances, bright berries, and reclining delicacy. Try it on a spring night in a flowerful garden.  Available:  South Lyndale Liquors, 5300 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls., 612-827-5811,