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Merlot Can be Great – Try These from Winemaker Chris Carpenter

IMG_1289We’ve mentioned it before here at Red Wine Please, how the movie Sideways ruined the reputation of Merlot in the United States for a very long time.  To be fair, there was a lot of mediocre Merlot, and the criticism levied by the movie was on point with those.  What many don’t realize, because they never experienced it, is that Merlot can be great.  It can be profound.  Some of my favorite wines are Merlot, and not just a blend but entirely made from Merlot.  Let’s take a closer look at this grape through the wines of one of today’s outstanding California winemakers, Chris Carpenter.  Chris makes wines for many labels you might recognize, including Lokoya, Cardinale, Mt. Brave and La Jota.  Chris also makes wines down under at Hickinbotham in McLaren Vale in South Australia.  His is a very impressive portfolio, and we invariably love his wines.  The Napa Valley mountain wines from Mt. Brave and La Jota are great for the price.

Chris is very much a fan of the Merlot grape, and believes it can have power, character, elegance and really resonate on the palate.  We Mt Brave Logoagree.  If you think about some of the most expensive wines in the world, you will find many are based on Merlot.  Names like Pétrus, Le Pin and Lafleur from the right bank of Bordeaux command extraordinarily high prices, and are primarily Merlot.  In fact some are 100% Merlot.  These wines fetch thousands of dollars per bottle.  If you travel to Italy you can find many more Merlot superstars, including Masseto from the Bolgheri region, which will set you back over $600 per bottle.  One of our favorite wines on Earth is the Galatrona from Petrolo in the Chianti region, another Italian, 100% Merlot based wine.  This you can usually find for under $100, but Hickinbotham Logonot much under.  Try some of these and you can forget about the ubiquitous denounciation of the grape in the movie.  There are great Merlots.

As with any project Chris Carpenter undertakes, it all starts with the vineyards, which supply the raw material for Chris to shepherd through the winemaking process in the search for the underlying terroir, and its unique characteristics.  Each of his wines stays true toCapture this philosophy, and you can see and taste the differences.  We are fortunate here to have three of his Merlot wines, two mountain wines from Napa and a new wine from his Hickinbotham project.  We are certain they will all be unique to their terroir.  To really appreciate the side by side comparison these were all opened and tasted at the same time.

Let’s see what’s in the bottles.


2014 La Jota Howell Mountain Merlot – from the La Jota Vineyard (1,800 foot elevation) and the W.S. Keyes Vineyard (1,825 foot elevation), this is 90% Merlot with the remainder coming from Petit Verdot.  So a little toward a Bordeaux blend, and something IMG_1293you might see on the Right Bank.  The wine is aged for 19 months in French oak.  Production was 1,523 cases.  La Jota tends to be more dense and structured generally.  Our thoughts:

This is a dark, pure ruby in color.  The nose is big, and carries darker fruits including some cherry notes.  We got blackberry, oak and some herbs as well.  It has some characteristics of a Bordeaux, and you definitely get the impression it is blended wine and not just 100% Merlot.  That works great here, as the wine is rich, complex and long.  Good acid keeps it beautifully balanced.  This is truly exceptional.  Not our favorite of the three however, and that is saying something for the other two.  SRP is $85, and it deserves that.

2014 Mt. Brave Mt. Veeder Merlot – from the Mt. Brave vineyard, at 1700 feet on Mt. Veeder, this is 100% Merlot.  It is also aged in French oak for 19 months, so we get a direct comparison to the fruit from the La Jota above.  Much lower production at only 548 IMG_1294cases, which is a shame because this is soooo good.  If you can’t tell yet, we liked it, and here are our notes:

This was my favorite, and a close second for Cheri.  Another wine with a dark, pure ruby color, it was very close to the La Jota in appearance.  The nose was of dark fruit, tending toward blue fruit.  There was some bramble and woodiness as well.  Just a touch though.  This full bodied wine has an incredible, pure blue fruit experience on the palate.  There were distinct blueberry flavors.  Brisk tannins and great acid keep this fresh, but it is the laser beam focus of fruit which makes it stand out.  It is incredibly long.  Hands down the best of three great wines in my opinion.  $75 SRP, and definitely worth it.  That is why we have our own opinions however, as Cheri thought a bit differently….

2014 Hickinbotham “The Revivalist” Merlot – now we head down under, to McLaren Vale in South Australia.  This wine is also 100% Merlot, aged 15 months in French oak.  Another small production lot at only 560 cases.  The vineyards are at 800 feet, so roughly IMG_1295half the elevation of the previous wines.  Our impression:

Here the color was a bit more muted, and less vibrant.  That was the first noticeable difference from the two wines above.  Some orange hints crept into the rim.  On the nose you get rich, ripe fruit and a good bit of earthiness.  This seems rounder than the other two, and more mature.  Caramel and blueberry make an appearance.  It is rich on the palate, full bodied and quite complex.  There was a nice balsamic note.  To me it drank like a bit of an older wine, and Cheri absolutely loved it.  This was her favorite.  For me it was third, in a group of three great wines.  You can’t miss here.  SRP of $75.

While there were distinct differences in each of these wines, there was a consistent thread also, and that was quality.  As with everything Chris makes, these are pure expressions of place and just wonderfully made wines.  I loved the purity of the fruit from the Mt. Brave, the more structured power of the La Jota and the earthy notes from the Hickinbotham.

At some point we need to get to Napa and try the super-premium Cardinale and Lokoya wines.  I imagine they are fairly mind-boggling.

There is an interesting aside here, which we share as it is also a great way to appreciate how wonderful wines of this caliber really are.  After tasting all three of these we poured a glass of a wine we buy by the case, as a house wine.  It was horrible, made so by the comparison to juice which answers the question as to whether you get better wines by spending more.  Sometimes, as it is here,  the answer is a most resounding yes.  Occasionally it is not.  As to the multiple thousands for a bottle of Petrus, well that remains something we cannot and probably never would do.  And yes, we still drink that house wine, just not right after a bottle which Chris Carpenter made.

All of the wines reviewed above are part of the Spire Collection, and you can see the rest of their portfolio at

Try some great Merlot.  They are out there.

A votre santé!


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