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Varietals in the Vineyard
NM: Speaking of softer, rounder red wines, let's talk about the Merryvale Merlot. I imagine there's a challenge to selling a $35 Merlot to consumers these days, in large part because the varietal has fallen out of favor in the market over the last few years.
SF: First off, Merlot is a noble varietal; it's pedigree is phenomenal. Just as with a lot of other noble varietals, when it's farmed in a way that's in keeping with what it needs, it can be quite expressive. But if it's farmed in the way that overcrops and takes advantage of tonnage, then it becomes a very thin, weedy, uninteresting wine. And that's really what happened with Merlot in California — it was planted and grown in places that it shouldn't have been, and ended up making a great deal of weak, boring, monotonous wines. Merlot is otherwise phenomenal for blending or as a stand-alone wine; it's got unique varietal expression, mouthfeel, and complexity. Here, we're trying to make a wine that's a truly noble expression of the Merlot varietal. We stand by our Merlot and think that there could very well be a pendulum swing with its popularity in the market. Plus, we'll have to see what happens with Pinot Noir, because like Merlot, Pinot is very sensitive to where and how it's grown. And there's been a lot of Pinot planted lately in places that probably should not be growing it. So, what happened to Merlot may, in fact, end up happening with Pinot, because right now there's a lot of mediocre Pinot being produced. Whereas we try to source only vineyard sites that express Merlot very well, like Carneros or cooler pockets in the valley itself, versus the warmer sites that tend to be better suited for Cabernet.
NM: This Merryvale Merlot is strongly suggestive of a cooler site, with its bright, fresh fruit and pronounced floral aromatics. Its acidity pumps that up even more. I wonder if that's really key to showcasing Merlot in general, since it does tend to like cooler sites.
"We stand by our Merlot and think that there could very well be a pendulum swing with its popularity in the market."
SF: I think what we find with Carneros Merlot is that we get a very nice expression of fresh, ripe black cherry — versus Merlot from some other warmer areas that tend to be a bit overripe, perhaps even prune-like or raisiny. In the cooler sites, it retains its freshness. We make our Carneros Merlot under the Merryvale tier as an expression of that fresh fruit with a slight herbal quality and I think, in the best cases, even a dried herb background, along with a bit of chocolate and other aromas along those lines. And it does have some really nice acidity! But it's a challenging varietal to grow, to be honest. People say that Pinot is very finicky, which is true, but Merlot can also be quite challenging.
NM: On the flip side, I understand that one of the easiest varietals to grow and manage is Cabernet. And the irony there is that it's probably the only varietal in the U.S. marketplace that's able to command the prices that it does. And of course, that's a function of the quality that can come out of it, both in terms of vineyard practices and in the winemaking techniques. So, in a sense, Cabernet seems to be doubly blessed: it's less temperamental that some other varietals, and its quality can be pushed very far.
SF: I think you're right on with those comments. Cabernet is a very vigorous variety, so it definitely takes management, but it's very consistent in the vineyard. What it offers is the ability to have a consistent canvas, so then it's up to the individual growers and winemakers to tailor it with things like ensuring the yield is appropriate to the site, and deciding on when to pick and how irrigate. With a lot of other varieties, some of the energy is spent just trying to get things uniform. Cabernet's fairly uniform on its own in the vineyard, so it can be an easier wine to hone in with efforts in the cellar. Whereas Pinot or Merlot, for example, provide unique challenges just in growing. And Cabernet really thrives in the soil types and the climate we have here. In fact, what we do get concerned about is getting the vineyard in balance because, as I said, Cabernet is a very vigorous variety; encouraged or just left unchecked, it will grow and grow, putting its energy into vegetative growth rather than in maturing fruit. So, we really want to make sure to reign it in, which we do with irrigation and the way we manage the cover crop to help de-vigor the vines. Then we've got to ensure we get enough light on the fruit to convert the bell-peppery aromas into more ripe berry aromas.