Looking beyond the favorites can be worthwhile

August 26, 2023

This week, let us explore a mixed selection of wines that are outside the scope of favorites. After Paul Giamatti’s character Miles in the 2004 movie “Sideways” made his infamous comment, “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving,” California Merlot suffered a decline in sales that was unwarranted and from which it still has not recovered. More’s the pity. In most cases, well-made Merlot is approachable early and improves dramatically with short cellaring times. Most agree Duckhorn is the bellwether Merlot name in Napa. Its Three Palms label rates 92-94 points depending on vintage and typically costs around $110 and up. I am not touting Three Palms; I’m directing you to the label, Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley. The 2018 or ‘19 both can be found under $50, for label showers. If you want top-flight Cali Merlot at the most favorable price, though, Stag’s Leap Winery Merlot Napa 2019, recently advertised at $119 for six 750s, is a terrific value, 92 McD. Natalie MacLean wrote 94, and she is a reviewer I frequently agree with. Single-bottle buyers will likely pay $35 plus. Cherry, plum, damp gravel and a hint of rose aromas. Blended of 94% merlot, 5% Petite Sirah and 1% Malbec, it is full-bodied, with juicy red fruit flavors repeating the aromas, supported by soft tannin and sufficient acidity through a medium-long finish. Clos Pegase and Grgich Hills are also favorable choices. I also sampled several selections from Bota Box. By far the best for my palate was Nighthawk Black Lush Pinot Noir, 86 McD, but add 2 price points; compare at $5/750 ml. Opens to cherry pie, with cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla spice. Their Breeze Dry Rosé was quaffable also, 85 plus 2 McD price points.

Bodegas Rectoral de Amandi Matilda Nieves Mencia 2020, 90 McD under $15, is dark violet with a red rim, opens to black cherry and raspberry aromas. Cherry and raspberry continue with subtle strawberry, butterscotch and anise sub-tones. Appropriate acidity and mild tannin frame support all. Pleasant, long finish is a bit surprising as orange flavors emerge. Mencia’s typical profile is earthy, vegetal and stony minerality, vinified to provide fresh acidity and soft tannins. Flavors can range from red to black fruits, often with an herbal dimension of mint or thyme.

Try F.E. Trimbach Riesling 2020, $25, 91 McD, or the Gewurztraminer 2019, $30, 90 McD, with Oriental and Tex-Mex spicy foods, both whites that go with barbecue and ribs also. It will be an enjoyable experience. The Reisling opens to white flowers, citrus blossom and honeysuckle. On the palate are lime, grapefruit, pear and slate. Medium dry, balancing acidity, with the minerality adding an offset through its long, clean finish. Riesling is versatile and will also enhance spicy fish and shellfish recipes. Chappellet Signature Molly Chenin Blanc 2021 is remarkable, maybe their best ever. Grown in the famous Pritchard Hill Vineyard, this is founder Molly Pritchard’s favorite. Many reviewers have given much higher ratings than we typically see for varietal wine considered second tier, and prices have escalated. If you can find any under $50, it is excellent value, 94 McD. The 2022 is supposed to be better and folks are quoting $70. My advice, buy the 2019, $46, 92 McD. Opens with citrus blossom, orange zest, subtle tropical fruit, mown hay and stony mineral aromas. On the palate, Meyer lemon and guava ride a bright acidity frame through a long, clean, palate-cleansing finish. I can’t write of Chappellet Pritchard Hill without mentioning their eponymous Cabernet Sauvignon. These have been rated 96 or better since 2012. It is noteworthy there is little price movement over time. The 97-point 2016 came in at $282 and is currently at $302-$310. The 97-point 2019 came in at $309. I have not sampled these, but I did buy three Mollys and three of the 93 McD Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir 2021 for $300, with free shipping to Gumboro or Philly. I will figure out how to have it wash ashore in the dead of night on Lewes Beach, in a bateau sent by Jean Lafitte, so I can “discover” it. A “save the bales” or whiskey rebellion, if you will.

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