Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Chateau St. Jean, Merlot, Sonoma County, 2001 $25

Merlot can be a bridesmaid grape. Frequently planted near, and blended with, cabernet sauvignon, it regularly plays second fiddle to cabernet’s power and panache. That’s why, despite the literally millions of bottles that sport the name on the label, wines made from merlot often prove disappointing. Too many of them lack stuffing and substance.

The exceptions tend to be wines from regions in which this early-ripening grape does not get too sweet too early. Merlot needs time on the vine to end up not tasting sappy or candied. At the same time, if the climate proves too cool, the wine will taste green and weedy.

The winemakers at Chateau St. Jean achieve the desired balance by blending fruit from different Sonoma County subregions. The cool Russian River area yields grapes with a firm structure, while warmer Alexander Valley provides brighter, sweeter fruit. Add to these grapes from Knights Valley as well as the winery’s estate vineyard in Sonoma Valley, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

Though not cheap, this merlot clearly has the charm to shine all on its own. Richly textured but at the same time soft and juicy, it is marked by cherry, plum and red berry flavors as well as secondary notes reminiscent of chocolate and mint. Drink it with similarly textured meat dishes — tender roast beef or pork tenderloin.

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