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Two memorable Merlots from California

Deitch: '00 Ferrer, Miner Family have distinct qualities, great flavor
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In recent years, the reputation of Merlot has not fared too well.  It became the red Chardonnay, almost a synonym for red wine by the glass, often bland and generic, bringing down good, distinctive Merlots with it. There were seas of it -- from California, France, Italy, South America and Australia. Many wine drinkers began to pass on it, seeking out more interesting wines for their money.

But let’s not forget that Merlot is one of the world’s top grapes. It can produce beautiful wines that are softer and somewhat more approachable when young than Cabernet Sauvignon, with which it is often blended. Merlot is, after all, the main variety in some of the most sought-after Bordeaux, such as Pomerol and St.-Emilion. And, if you look, you can find good ones from all the regions I mentioned above -- and beyond.

Two Merlots from California I tried recently hit the mark with quite different styles and prices -- Gloria Ferrer’s 2000 Merlot from the Carneros area of the southern Sonoma Valley, at $20, and Miner Family Vineyards’ 2000 Merlot, from Napa, at $35.

The Ferrer, with 2,800 cases produced, is elegant and lighter in style.  Ruby in color, it is 100 percent Merlot and is dominated by cherry, blueberry, a touch of orange and spice.  It is at once easy to drink yet interesting and will complement a range of simply prepared foods from lamb to chicken, even salmon. Gloria Ferrer, by the way, is known first as a sparkling wine producer with roots in Spain as part of the big Freixenet concern.

The Miner Merlot is a more major wine, so to speak -- bigger, darker and more complex, “proof positive,” says Miner’s Web site, “that we will never hang our hats on a wimpy, diluted and flavorless Merlot.” They don’t have to worry about that.

The wine has sweet, chalky aromas and is full of ripe fruit tastes, including cherry, currant and blackberry with notes of chocolate. The tannins are balanced by the beautiful fruit, and there is nice complexity. This is a big, rich Merlot made for cold-weather foods (fill in your favorite roast here).

The wine is a blend of 88 percent Merlot, eight percent Cabernet Franc and four percent Cabernet Sauvignon, grown in the relatively high-elevation Stagecoach Vineyard area and aged 20 months in oak. 2,898 cases were produced.

With plenty of Merlots available form California and elsewhere, these two will give you a good taste of what the good ones are all about.

Edward Deitch's wine column appears Thursdays. Write to him at .