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Exceptional Napa Valley Merlot
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Jan 14, 2014
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Duckhorn Vineyards, Napa Valley Merlot, Three Palms Vineyard, 2010 ($90):  I recently sat down to a tasting of eight Napa Valley reds, six of them Merlots and two Cabernets, which really excited me.  It was a collection of current Duckhorn Vineyards releases, mainly from the 2010 vintage.  I loved and indeed admired every single wine.

“What was your overall impression?” my fellow taster asked, prior to our discussion of the individual wines.  I didn’t expect that question -- he never asks me that -- and so I answered without much thought:  “Very well-made wines, very California but showing restraint; superb varietal character, maxing the potential of the Merlot grape.”  A day later, I stand by those hasty comments, except to elaborate by adding that the wines combine the glorious raw material of Napa Valley with a winemaking sensitivity that transcends the region.

I don’t mean to dishonor the two Cabs in the tasting by speaking here only about the Merlots (look for my notes on those two Cabs in the Wine Reviews section of this site) but for simplicity I am devoting this column to Merlot -- specifically the stellar Three Palms Vineyard Merlot, along with my two other faves of the tasting.

As background, Duckhorn Vineyards has championed Merlot in Napa Valley since 1978, when Dan and Margaret Duckhorn released their first wines.  One of their inaugural releases was a Merlot that derived 85 percent from the Three Palms Vineyard, which lies on the northeastern side of Napa Valley, on an alluvial fan full of volcanic rocks.  Although the Duckhorn family does not own the vineyard, its name and that of the vineyard have become inextricably linked.  In 2011, Duckhorn signed an agreement with vineyard owners John and Sloan Upton to become the exclusive winery to receive grapes from Three Palms.  The Duckhorn 2010 Three Palms Vineyard Merlot is the 28th continuous vineyard-designated bottling of the wine.

In my recent blind tasting, the 2010 Three Palms Merlot was a standout in a field crowded with quality.  It is a huge Merlot, rich with beautifully ripe and concentrated fruit but also rich in structure.  The classy nose suggests both dark and red fruit, exotic spices, and cocoa; in your mouth, the flavors run to dark berry, plum, cherry, chocolate and a vein of mineral flavor akin to ink and lead pencil.  The wine is full-bodied and rounded -- spherical, except for the grip of youthful tannin on your tongue.  It is a cool, rich, dark wine, wondrously ample and utterly easy to appreciate, despite its depth of presence.  Thanks to its solid structure, the wine is in no way overly ripe or over-the-top.  The wine is 82 percent Merlot, with 15 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 2 percent Cab Franc and 1 percent Petit Verdot.

For as huge as it is, I would not use the word “powerful” to describe the 2010 Three Palms Merlot.  But that word aptly describes Duckhorn’s 2009 Stout Vineyard Merlot ($85). This wine comes from one of the winery’s seven estate-owned vineyards, one of two properties on Howell Mountain.  This wine is even darker in style than the Three Palms and more concentrated, with earthy and leathery notes that complement the wine’s extravaganza of dark cherry and berry fruit.  As rich and ripe as it is, this wine is also as solid.  While the Three Palms will benefit from a few years of aging, the Stout Vineyard needs aging -- not to make it drinkable (it is delicious now) but to enable its mountain-fruit power to express itself more fully.  Bordeaux would be proud to claim this wine, I noted.  This wine contains 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon.

A final favorite from my tasting was Duckhorn’s 2010 Atlas Peak Merlot ($70).  It shares with the other two Merlots the style of being ample, plump and round, but it is a bit lighter and less dense (which is not to say light, or thin).  Oak tannin is evident but the ripe red cherry and berry fruit spills over the tannin and covers it.  My notes describe this wine as “quintessential Merlot,” and in fact it is entirely Merlot.  A wine with grace.

When you have the opportunity to taste a Duckhorn Merlot, I hope that you will do so.  They are all marvelous wines.

2010 Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard Merlot, 93 Points

2009 Duckhorn Stout Vineyard Merlot, 93 Points

2010 Duckhorn Atlas Peak Merlot, 92 Points