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Originally published Saturday, December 10, 2011 at 7:00 PM

Wine Adviser

The best merlots? Right here in Washington

Wine columnist Paul Gregutt says emphatically that Washington merlots are the best, in every price range, in the country, in the hemisphere, in the entire New World.

Special to the Seattle Times

Pick of the week

Milbrandt Vineyards 2009 The Estates Merlot; $25

DARK AND dusty, this thickly fruited, complex wine is a beautiful example of what makes Washington merlots so delicious. Details of metal, mineral, espresso and clean earth roll into a finish of supple, ripe tannins.

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DESPITE ITS dramatic fall from favor after the release of the film "Sideways," merlot has remained among the leaders in plantings and production. The 2009 survey from the National Agricultural Statistics Service lists it as the No. 3 most planted grape (tied with zinfandel) in California, behind cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. California has more acreage in merlot than Washington has in all its wine-grape acreage combined. Yet that state can't seem to find a handle on what merlot is, or should taste like.

In lineup after lineup of widely available, California wine brands, the merlot is predictably the worst of the reds. The zinfandels and cabernets are always better — always. And, generally, if the wines are line priced, as most of these corporate brands are, the reds will all cost about the same, at most a buck or so apart.

It is all but impossible to find a California merlot priced at $6 or $8 that isn't just watery plonk. But you can choose from more and more such values here in Washington. I try to avoid generalizations, but this is one you can take to the bank. Washington merlots are the best, in every price range, in the country, in the hemisphere, in the entire New World.

This isn't new information. Washington state has had outstanding varietal merlots for decades. Among the first to excel with the grape were Leonetti Cellar, L'Ecole, Hogue Cellars and Waterbrook. The ranks of great merlot producers expanded throughout the 1990s, with numerous successes from Andrew Will, Canoe Ridge, Columbia Crest, Quilceda Creek and Northstar (founded specifically as a merlot specialist). Since that time the number of truly world-class Washington merlots has grown exponentially.

Which has led me to ask, why does Washington merlot taste like real wine, when only the priciest bottles from elsewhere can ever reach the same heights? How is it that merlot grapes grown in the Columbia Basin, the Yakima Valley, the Horse Heaven Hills, Red Mountain, Walla Walla and elsewhere, can produce these muscular, powerful, supple, complex and riveting red wines?

L'Ecole's Marty Clubb memorably once opined that "the key to Washington doing merlot right is that it's the thinner skin varietal and, like sémillon, it tends to plump up with rain at harvest. We don't have that problem. In my mind that is a key reason why we can make such extracted, aromatic, spicy, nicely balanced merlots. We control the water."

Add that to the long list of other factors that make Washington merlots unique — the desert climate, the huge diurnal temperature swings, the relentless wind that toughens grape skins and amplifies tannins, the basalt-rich soils — and you start to see that it is no one thing but all these things together that make these wines special.

If it's been awhile since you've tried a Washington merlot, now's the time. Among the best buys are the 2008 Waterbrook ($11), the 2009 and 2010 StoneCap ($8), the 2008 Washington Hills ($9) and the 2008 Hogue ($8).

At the higher end of the price scale, still under $40, are these high-scoring wines: the 2007 Chateau Ste. Michelle Cold Creek Vineyard ($28), the 2009 Sineann Champoux Vineyard ($35), the 2007 Tulpen Cellars ($28), the 2008 Seven Hills ($28), the 2008 L'Ecole ($37), the 2008 Obelisco Estate ($30), the 2008 Alexandria Nicole ($24), the 2007 Chateau Ste. Michelle Ethos ($31) and the 2008 Market Vineyards Benchmark ($35).

The revised second edition of Paul Gregutt's "Washington Wines & Wineries" is now in print. His blog is www.paulgregutt.com. Email: paulgwine@me.com.

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About Wine Adviser

My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.
paulgwine@me.com

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