THE YEAR'S BEST
  Each issue Wine & Spirits focuses on one variety or group of related wines and selects the best wines in that category for the year.

June 2004

Over the last twelve months,
Wine & Spirits tasted 418 merlots.

The following 12 wines received the strongest praise from our critics. A list of all merlots wines tasted, with the recommended wines highlighted, is available on www.wineandspiritsmagazine.com.

Merlot
94 I Pepper Bridge $45
2001 Walla Walla Valley Merlot

Norm McKibben planted vines at Pepper Bridge in 1991; this blend also draws on Seven Hills Vineyard, which he planted ten years before. Those vines, in glacial sediments and wind-blown loess, yielded one of their best vintages yet in 2001, building a wine of suppleness and finesse. The taste of the dark, ripe grape skin and a black soil character add complexity to what is otherwise a generous, round, deliciously spicy and rich merlot. It's a beauty, and there's nothing hard to grasp about what makes this wine great. Take a sip and consider how long the flavor lasts. Then serve it with a crown roast of pork stuffed with chestnuts and wild rice and watch how quickly the bottle is gone. (999 cases) (W&S 6/04) Pepper Bridge Winery, Walla Walla, WA
 

 
94 I Provenance $27.50
2001 Carneros - Napa Valley Merlot

Tom Rinaldi had developed his red-fruited merlot style at Duckhorn for more than twenty years before launching this new project with the Chalone Group. They established long-term contracts, mostly with Andy Beckstoffer, for grapes from Oakville, Rutherford, as well as the original Las Amigas Vineyard in Carneros. Rinaldi then blended a wine at once precise and formidable, with the tenderness of the grape at its core. The luscious cherry flavor feels bright and lifted, an enveloping hug made forceful by the mineral firmness of the tannin, which is so round and supple it seems to disappear into the fruit. Delicious now, this will only gain stature with age. (W&S 6/04) Provenance Vineyards, Napa, CA
 

 
93 I Clos Pegase $25
2000 Carneros Mitsuko's Vineyard Q Block Merlot

Tightly built, this wine maintains the tension of its structure as it builds in complexity with air. When first opened, it shows intensity through potent, clay-mineral tannin and a floral perfume. If black rose could be a fruit flavor, this merlot has it, and it keeps pumping that flavor through a lasting finish. By the next day, the tight structure is still there, though the wine has grown more expansive, its black flavor targeting roast suckling pig or something equally fat and round. (W&S 4/04) Clos Pegase, Calistoga, CA
 

  
93 I Etude $48
2000 Napa Valley Merlot

Tony Soter began making merlot under the Etude label in 1999, when he signed long-term contracts on the vineyard sources. He blended this with 25-percent cabernet franc to create a substantial merlot, one that will likely be at its best eight to ten years from the vintage. The dark, super-ripe fruit hits a clear note of black currant, intensified and brightened by its structure. That structural edge, built on acidity and tannin, feels like stone dust, black and sharp against the supple texture of the fruit. Hints of green olive and black mint begin to emerge, to add more depth to the flavor and place the wine with lamb. (540 cases) (W&S 6/04) Etude Wines, Rutherford, CA
 

 
93 I Joseph Phelps $40
2001 Napa Valley Merlot

The taste is an immediate hit of succulent red and black berries, a layered impression of strawberry, boysenberry and black raspberry. Then the wine continues to open and expand, with a taste of freshly turned earth, the smokiness of oak, the silken texture of merlot's soft tannin. The bright scent of the wine deepens with a sense of Napa Valley grandeur, more pleasurable than profound. This will probably drink at its best over the next several years, an elegant partner to filet mignon with sautˇed chanterelles. (W&S 6/04) Joseph Phelps Vineyards, St. Helena, CA
 

 
92 I Tamarack Cellars $28
2001 Columbia Valley Merlot

All about fruit, with deep and delicious flavors of dark plum and black cherry, this merlot is meaty and rich enough to be a meal in itself. The roundness in the mouth tightens to a light grip in the end, tinged with cedar and smoke. Blended predominantly from Walla Walla and Red Mountain fruit, this feels youthful, the red plum flavor plump and fresh. From a winery established in '98 by Ron and Jamie Coleman. (1,830 cases) (W&S 4/04) Tamarack Cellars, Walla Walla, WA
 

 
92 I Albini $ 27
2001 Russian River Valley Merlot

Dark and fleshy with extract, this takes time to evolve in the glass. It grows more intriguing, with the cool, foresty feel of the Russian River Valley to keep it fresh, a frame for the melting chocolate tannin and dark, five-spice scent. That freshness should prove an asset as the wine ages over the next five to eight years. (W&S 6/04) Albini Family Vineyards, Windsor, CA
 

 
92 I Andrew Will $40
2001 Walla Walla Valley Seven Hills Vineyard Merlot

This merlot's luscious red fruit carries lively cherry flavor along with floral tones. It's Walla Walla in the generosity of texture, firm and well proportioned. The full richness comes along with a black tar edge, delicious with a steak. (270 cases) (W&S 12/03) Andrew Will Cellars, Vashon, WA
 

 
92 I Chateau Ste. Michelle $24
2001 Columbia Valley Canoe Ridge Estate Merlot

Flavors of Christmas spice and black currants draw a simple line, while the texture expands that fruit into a luscious, supple feel. The flavor develops a cool, potent intensity as the wine takes on air, lifted and mouth-filling, with a gamey scent that parallels roast partridge or Cornish hens stuffed with wild rice. (W&S 6/04) Chateau Ste. Michelle, Woodinville, WA
 

 
92 I L'Ecole No. 41 $40
2001 Walla Walla Valley Seven Hills Vineyard Merlot

Grown in one of Walla Walla's premier sites, this silky merlot is soft as a down pillow, with tannins that show the fineness typical of the region. The flavors are not long, just exotic, spicy and heady while they last. Oak age leads the fruit toward browner tones of Worcestershire and the charry edge of roast beef, a natural match for this dense and supple wine. (1,338 cases) (W&S 2/04) L'Ecole No. 41, Lowden, WA
 

 
92 I St. Clement $28
2001 Napa Valley Merlot

Bright and lasting, this rich merlot carries a bevy of red fruit over blacker, ferrous tannin. It's perfumed and lilting, lifted by rather than caught up in its firm structure. Bridge the blacker elements to the red fruit with a skillet-grilled steak. (W&S 6/04) St. Clement Vineyards, St. Helena, CA
 

 
92 I Swanson $30
2001 Napa Valley Merlot

Feeling more Bordelais, more St-Julien than Napa Valley, this sturdy, traditional style of merlot is decked out in sumptuous, well-upholstered red fruit. A heady red to cushion hanger steak. (W&S 6/04) Swanson Vineyards, Rutherford, CA