In the 1980s, Washington was white wine country. Red wine was considered somewhat exotic.
Then came merlot. The Bordeaux variety known for its soft flavors and silky tannins proved to be a good match for Washington’s Columbia Valley and its dry, arid soils. By the mid-1990s, merlot was Washington’s dominant red grape, and the state was gaining fame for it.
In recent years, with the rise of syrah and the emergence of cabernet sauvignon, interest in merlot has waned. And yet it remains a stalwart. Each year, it ranks among the first red grapes picked and brought to the winery. Those are qualities that winemakers appreciate during the crush of harvest.
So merlot is still proving to be a good match for Washington — and Idaho, too. Here are some examples we’ve tasted recently worth checking out. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the winery directly. Depending upon the property, it might be the winemaker who answers the phone.
Boomtown by Dusted Valley 2014 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $19: Walla Walla winemakers Chad Johnson, Corey Braunel and Griffin Frey team up with Wahluke Wine Co., to produce these affordable and approachable wines. Their expression of merlot features dark purple tones of blueberry, black cherry and pomegranate with lavender, chalk and Craisin skins. Enjoy alongside robust beef dishes and, like all Dusted Valley wines, this is safeguarded by a screwcap. (14.2 percent alcohol)
Cathedral Ridge Winery 2013 Reid Vineyard Merlot, Columbia Valley, $32: Columbia Gorge vintner Robb Bell and Sonoma winemaker Michael Sebastiani show their dedication to merlot in Oregon with this vineyard-designate project with Reid Vineyard, up the Columbia River near The Dalles. It yields aromas and flavors of blackberry and cherry with sturdy tannins and lively acidity. Enjoy with spicy bacon burgers. (14 percent)
Chateau Ste Michelle 2014 Indian Wells Merlot, Columbia Valley, $18: Bob Bertheau and his red wine team build their fruit-driven Indian Wells wines upon the shoulders of fruit from the Wahluke Slope, which is home to the tier’s namesake vineyard. There are tones of toast, milk chocolate, Wheat Chex and cardamom with flavors of black currant and pomegranate. (14.5 percent)
Claar Cellars 2013 White Bluffs Merlot, Columbia Valley, $22: The Claar-Whitelatch family picked these grapes Sept. 5 from its White Bluffs Vineyard, a Salmon-Safe site overlooking the Columbia River. Barrel-aging makes for a dense nose of dusty blueberry and Marionberry with brown sugar, black pepper, Graham cracker and a whiff of wild game. Inside, its burly, blueberry skin tannins are backed by Bing cherry and chocolate-covered pomegranate. (14.1 percent)
Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2014 Merlot, Lewis-Clark Valley, $25: Nearly a year ago, the Umikers were granted approval to list “Lewis-Clark Valley” on the label for this Merlot, a blend of their estate vineyard in Idaho’s Lewiston Orchards with fruit from young Rock n’ J Vineyard — the easternmost planting in Washington state near the town of Asotin. There’s a theme of vanilla bean, dark toast, caramel and spice box along with sweet cherries and red pepper flakes. Fine-grained tannins allow for a mouth-filling finish of black cherry, bittersweet chocolate and toast. (14.9 percent)
Columbia Winery 2013 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $17: Canadian native Sean Hails has made more wine than most as a result of his years of work in California on behalf of Gallo. His latest release of Merlot for the Woodinville showpiece also ranks as one of the largest in Washington. Whiffs of dark currants, cherries and smoked meats are mirrored on the palate with dusty tannins and Montmorency cherry in the finish. Enjoy it with tenderloin medallions in a huckleberry glaze, roasted chicken or cannelloni with Italian sausage. (13.9 percent)
14 Hands Winery 2014 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $15: This Prosser winery, now one of the largest in the state, offers a fragrant, composed and resilient merlot that’s capable of accommodating a wide range of foods at the table, such as ribs, tri-tip or pasta in a tomato sauce. This earned the title of best merlot at the 2016 Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition, and it should be quite easy to find. (13.5 percent)
Milbrandt Vineyards 2014 Traditions Merlot, Columbia Valley, $17: The breadbasket that is the Wahluke Slope creates the platform for this rather stylish merlot from Milbrandt, which gets some flesh from syrah and added bones from petit verdot. There’s toastiness to the aromas, joined by milk chocolate, raspberry and chokecherry. Its flavors are smooth with a long stream of plum, cherries and chocolate, a scrape of vanilla bean and finished by espresso ground tannins. (13.5 percent)
Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company. Learn more about wine at greatnorthwestwine.com.