Matanzas Creek, Bennett Valley (California) Merlot 2005 ($35): Whenever I write about Merlot, that disparaging remark in the film, Sideways, continues to pop into my mind just the way a competitor's website might annoyingly pop up when you google your own business. I look forward to the day when good California Merlots no longer have to take a defensive stance. I applaud wines such as this fine Sonoma County Merlot that will help speed the arrival of that day.
The key to producing good Merlot in California is to have the right terroir. Merlot grows easily in California's interior, industrial vineyards but the wines produced from those grapes tend to be thin and boring, with weedy flavors. In good sites -- those with a relatively cool climate and well drained soils, generally clay -- the grapes ripen slowly and evenly, and the wines have that special combination of ripe but low-key fruitiness, fairly substantial body and soft tannin that makes Merlot so special.
Matanzas Creek's 2005 Merlot is a quintessential fine California Merlot. It is properly dry, with nearly full body and soft, velvety texture of fairly soft tannin. Its aromas and flavors, medium in intensity, suggest fresh dark plum and blackberry and subtle herbal notes, with the slightest floral nuance and a definite mineral element. I use the word 'inky' to describe that mineral note on the nose and in the flavor. Oak is evident throughout the wine's taste, as vanilla on the nose and as a clean, firm energy in the rear of the mouth. But the oak in no way dominates the wine's taste. Instead, it forms a frame that contains the wine's richness.
This wine is a blend of fruit from Bennett Valley (86%) and Knights Valley. Bennett Valley is a fairly recent AVA, a cool wine region whose wines have high acidity; in fact, harvest at Matanzas Creek takes place eight to ten days after the cool Russian River Valley. In terms of grape varieties, the wine contains 12% Cabernet Sauvignon (from Knight's Valley) and 3.5% Syrah. Winemaker François Cordesse likens the addition of Syrah to the pre-twentieth century practice of adding Syrah from Hermitage to Bordeaux wines, and believes that this grape brings additional layers to the wine's taste. The winemaking involves a cold soak and a short maceration at cool temperatures, with 15 months aging in French oak, only 31% of which is new.
When I tasted this wine, I surmised that a secret ingredient of the wine's quality must be the fine 2005 vintage. Winemaker Cordesse found 2005 to be a difficult vintage because rain during the winter and until April encouraged vigor in the vines and fostered astringent tannins in the red wines. A foggy summer with cold nights in the 40°s made the region even cooler than it normally is. Cordesse commented that the skins of the grapes had a tactile character in 2005 that was completely different from anything he had noticed previously in California.
The wine's taste does suggest a cool vintage in the freshness of its fruit character and its high acidity, but the tannins show no sign of astringency. The wine is young yet, and will probably improve over the next couple of years as it softens further in texture. That said, the vibrancy and freshness of the wine's fruit is compelling right now.