Category Archives: Merlot

Hills, horses and heaven

It's getting hot in here!Few images evoke the romance of the West more strongly than a herd of wild horses roaming grassy hills, steam from their collective breath diffusing the sunrise into a golden mist. This symbol of fierce independence and perseverance descended from horses brought to North America by Spanish conquistadors 400 years ago.

Wine grapes established themselves much more recently but have just as assuredly become a fixture in the western landscape. Washington’s Columbia Crest vineyard unites both bits of regional history in the 2010 Horse Heaven Hills Les Chevaux red wine.

“Les Chevaux,” for those of you whose knowledge of French is limited to fries, toast and whatever you learned in the back seat of first car, means “the horses.” The “hills” refer to the dry-but-fertile ground in eastern Washington where Columbia Crest grows grapes of consistent quality and intensity. The terrain and ever-present winds challenge vintners here, but the result in this case is an interesting, affordable wine.

We picked up a bottle for $11.99 at Fred Meyer on a co-worker’s recommendation. That’s a little more than we usually spend, but there’s value in knowing that someone’s already taken the wine out for a spin and enjoyed it. To be honest, we were so busy enjoying the first bottle that we had to buy a second to review. (This happens more often than we’d like to admit.)

The dark cranberry color and fairly unremarkable nose don’t immediately reveal this wine’s complexity. It brings a combination of berry and earthy oak flavors, with a hint of smokiness. The winemaker also claims notes of licorice, chocolate and mocha. Hmmm. Chocolate, maybe, but this wine doesn’t seem to aspire to those darker regions of the palate. The finish is slightly acidic, with tannins that excite the tongue without lingering.

This vintage is 80% merlot, 13% cabernet sauvignon and 7% syrah. According to Columbia Crest’s website, the 2010 growing season was cooler than previous years, and fruit was generally less plentiful. A consistently warm autumn ripening season resulted in grapes that produced wines of fairly low alcohol content and balanced acidity.

This is no sweet summer sipper, nor is it a heavy red best paired with beef or hearty pasta meals. It’s a delightful middle-of-the road blend that doesn’t skimp on drinkability or flavor.

Overall, this wine pairs nicely with the creamy Finnish summer soup we were enjoying in the dead of winter. There aren’t many things that are better on a cold winter night (it’s down around 0° as this is being written) than a warm bowl of homemade soup — unless it’s a warm bowl of soup and a glass of wine. And a vision of a wild stallion roaming the rolling hills of the upper Columbia River Valley.

Aromatique: The thin, almost watery nose is deceiving. It hints at a much lighter wine.

Sip quips: Intense blueberry and dark cherry backed by a hint of earthiness, oak and distinct tannins.

Kitchen couplings: Mild fish or chicken dishes would do well, as did our version of this creamy Finnish summer soup. Apparently summer in Finland is a lot like winter in Idaho.


Lighting up at 30,000 feet

This one earned a half glass.Airline wine. It’s usually more sleep aid than something to savor. I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I mean, Alaska Air doesn’t have to provide free regional wine or microbrew on its flights. It’s a nice perk. But it’s usually pretty forgettable stuff, served in those little plastic cups. My flights are usually short, so there’s not much time to let the wine breathe. And the accompanying food — even the new macadamia-nut and dried fruit snack that Alaska has started handing out — isn’t particularly complementary.

Chuck would drink it straight out of the bottle.

But the Washington Hills 2008 Merlot served on a recent trip was an exception.  I didn’t have great expectations. Mostly, I was just glad that the string of chardonnays the flight attendants had been serving recently was finally over. But this wine is complex and robust. Bold fruit — blackberry and dark cherry along with a hint of cedar — grows from the first taste, and then gives way to strong oak flavors.

The finish is something I’ve read about but never experienced. It can only be described as cigar smoke, and it lingered after the cup was empty. I’m not a smoker, especially not of cigars, but this wasn’t unpleasant. Sort of like the aftertaste you’d expect after hanging out in a fancy cigar shop poking your head into humidors … not like breathing in your uncle’s secondhand stogie smoke for an hour.

How do they do that? I don’t think tobacco is even grown in Washington. It’s nowhere in the Top 10 tobacco-producing states, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. But hey, if combining vices is your thing, this might be a nice way to go about it.

Although this wine was free (or, several hundred dollars,  if you include the cost of the plane ticket), it can be found on the shelves of regional retailers, or online for under $10 per bottle. Wine Chateau offers it online for $9.79 (regularly $13.49).

Washington Hills is among the many thriving wineries on the eastern side of the Cascades, both in Washington and Oregon, that take advantage of the region’s ample sunshine, well-drained soils and relatively low rainfall. Cool fall nights keep the grapes from losing their acidity and becoming too sugary before harvest. The result is consistent quality that allows vintners to blend their wines with subtlety.

Of course, I’m guessing most of that didn’t matter to the airline. The key here? Screw top. Flight attendants don’t have to mess with corkscrews. Why does the TSA even allow corkscrews on airplanes? I have seen some flight attendants that should definitely not be allowed to handle sharp objects. I mean, I can’t even bring toenail clippers on board, but that woman in a tight polyester skirt being harassed by a half-dozen boozed up frat boys headed to a college football weekend is allowed to wield a deadly weapon? Actually, come to think of it … forget I said anything.

Oh well. Nobody wants to see me giving myself a pedicure in these cramped quarters. That would ruin even a good wine like this, and that would be a shame.

Aromatique: A sniff or two fresh out of the bottle doesn’t reveal much about the wine’s complexity. You get a hint of the oak, along with the usual dark merlot fruit.

SipQuips: Rich flavor that changes dramatically from start to finish — dark berries and cedar to cigar smoke at the end.

Kitchen Couplings: I’d love to try this with a savory buffalo steak, or by a roaring fire with strong cheeses.


Where will it take you?

It's getting hot in here!Pedaling along a stretch of country road in the south of France is a glorious way to spend a summer’s eve. The gentle breeze flowed though my hair and the warmth of the setting sun was at my back. I could ride for hours on my red bicycle gazing at the stone cottages and the lush landscape speckled with lavender. Perhaps I shall stop off and pick up a few bars of French milled Lavender soap before heading back to the bed and breakfast. They would make lovely stocking stuffers for my family back home…

“Earth to Debbie, come in Debbie,” I heard myself say. I stood in my mother’s kitchen as my brother opened his latest wine find on a visit back home. We children and our brood had flocked to our birthplace for the long holiday weekend. My parents love having us all in one place, though we were minus one. Nonetheless, it was an occasion to BBQ costly cuts of meat and feast on fresh vegetables from the garden. There isn’t a finer restaurant where I would rather be. My dad had opened the “Bloody Mary bar” a couple of hours prior, but that didn’t stop us from opening the lone bottle of Red Bicyclette Merlot sitting on the counter.

I found a small crystal goblet in my mother’s cabinet and poured a glass. I passed it to my brother and asked him to tell me what it smelled like. He tasted it. I said, “Nooooo. What does it SMELL like? Do you smell berries or pepper?” My pseudo sister-in-law, piped up. “Leading the sniffer!” … or something like that. He took a good whiff and said, “It smells like rotten grapes!” I laughed. He tried again. “It smells like pine and kinda peppery.” I laughed again. “Okay, so pine needles? Well, we all smell things differently!” I replied. I passed it to the sis-in-law. She changed her voice to that of a very stuffy wine snob and said, “This wine has been aged in 100-year-old oak barrels and has well balanced tannins.” … or something like that. My mother came in, so naturally I made her smell it too. “I can’t smell a thing … allergies.”

At last it was my turn to take it for a swirl. “I smell cherries and maybe blackberries?” I said. I took a sip and WOW! It was quite tart and didn’t finish well. This wine needed to breathe! We talked about how long you should allow wine to breathe. Depending on the age and type of wine, you should let it “hang out” for about twenty to thirty minutes. This is fairly typical of most reds. A young wine could take up to an hour. This doesn’t mean in the bottle, according to various wine experts. One should either pour it into a glass or a decanter in order to let the air get to it. For a more immediate solution, a wine aerator is your best bet. Unfortunately, mine was at home. So, I allowed my little glass some space while we had dinner. Eventually, we reunited and the difference was quite noticeable. It had the familiar spicy warmth and I could easily discern the berry flavor. The strong finish was more pleasant than my earlier sip. My brother thought it was pretty good, although that could have been the Bloody Marys talking. My sis-in-law was not a fan, but she isn’t too fond of Merlot in general.

I filled my miniature goblet several times. This wine was growing on me. I know what you’re thinking. If you can handle a few glasses of any wine, they all start to grow on you! As it turns out, the vintner describes this wine has having a red berry jam flavor with blackberry and cherry. I guess my first sniff wasn’t too far off. I might actually have a knack for this wine thing! At a mere $6.99 on sale at Smith’s Food and Drug, I recommend any fan of Merlot take this little gem out for a spin. Just remember, if you happen to ride solo and finish the bottle, cycle safe and wear a helmet!

Here’s a little something from the vintner, “From vine to wine, Red Bicyclette starts with special fruit.

Since 2003, Red Bicyclette wines have captured the spirit and flavor of the Southern French countryside. Every bottle comes from Languedoc-Roussillon, a beautiful region on France’s Western Mediterranean coast. With a legacy of winemaking that dates back more than 2,000 years to the Romans, the 700,000 acres of Languedoc produce more vin than any other region in France.

The Languedoc’s ideal grape growing conditions – warm, sunshiny days and cool nights – mingle with mountains and valley, rivers, plateaus and coastline. No other wine is quite like the wines made from the grapes of Southern France… and no wine embodies the French Countryside quite like Red Bicyclette. Try it and see where it takes you!”

Aromatique: Peppery, with hints of blackberry and vanilla

SipQuips: Warm on the tongue, full dark berry flavor, strong finish

Kitchen Couplings: BBQ beef or pork, hearty stews, dark chocolate.


Rainier Ridge merlot — fine at 30,000 feet

This one earned a half glass.What to say about this wine, which I tasted twice over a weekend, courtesy of Alaska/Horizon Airlines? I don’t expect much when the flight attendant hands me that little plastic cup, three-fourths full. I’m just grateful there’s no sudden turbulence, sending my gratis vino all over my seatmate’s lap.

Actually, I was lucky on the return flight, because the stewardess emptied the bottle filling my glass only half full. She handed it to me with the promise of a top-off once she uncorked the next bottle. I was sure to get in a few long sips before she hit me with the refill.

Rainier Ridge 2006 MerlotAnd really, what do you want in an in-flight wine anyway other than something you can drink quickly and which helps you nod off? Mostly, I was glad the airline’s wine of the month was a red and not a forgettable chardonnay like the last time.

The Rainier Ridge Winery’s 2006 Merlot was actually pretty good … not too sweet with a soft, almost clean finish. It could have benefited from a longer breathing period to bring out the oak flavors, I think, but the primary dark cherry flavors were a nice accompaniment to the little packet of salty snacks.

This wine is not a full merlot, but rather a blend, with 16% Sangiovese, and 5% Cabernet Franc. It comes from Washington’s Columbia Valley, on the dry side of the Cascades. WashingtonWine.org touts this winery’s reds as delivering “grandiose flavors at a modest price.”

Grandiose? Merriam-Webster says grandiose is “characterized by affectation of grandeur or splendor or by absurd exaggeration.” That’s probably about right. This is a decent little wine, but I don’t know that I would attribute much grandeur or splendor.

As for modest price, it’s available online for $6.54 per bottle and probably about the same on your local grocery shelves. Rainier Ridge is distributed by Precept Wine Brands of Seattle. If you’re looking for a serviceable red to have as a table wine for a reasonable price, you could do worse.

Aromatique: Not terribly complex. Grape and cherry aromas that probably were muted by the fact that the wine was served a little cold.

SipQuips: Again, not very complex. Mostly dark cherry and maybe a little plum, followed by an even acidity that did not stay on the tongue for long.

Kitchen couplings: Went fine with salty snacks. It would be good with cheese or with pasta dishes.