The 2004 film Sideways firmly established Merlot as an object of derision with the memorable line “No f****ing Merlot” from its Pinot Noir-loving hero. You might think that this would make Merlot producers scurry for cover or switch sides. Not so Dan Duckhorn. He released his first Merlot in 1978 from the winery, Duckhorn Vineyards, that he and his wife started two years earlier and since then he has made wine every year the weather allowed.
In the crown of top Napa wineries, Duckhorn is one of the jewels, occupying a space as one of the best Merlot producers. They did it by employing some measures that, at the time, were radical. For example: bottle individual vineyards instead of using Merlot as a minor blending grape in other red wines. Use new, read expensive, French oak barrels to age up to 100% of the wine each year. And make such a priority of the importance of place, as to replant the vineyards even when they were destroyed by a louse (phylloxera) due to bad scientific advice about what root stock to bud the vines on.
Dan Duckhorn and Duckhorn Executive Winemaker Bill Nancarrow came to Dallas this week bearing not just their new wines, but his old ones as well! A quarter of a century old in one case (1984 Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot, Three Palms Vineyard). In the audience were restaurant sommeliers and retailers who sell these wines in a market that is as tough as it has ever been. As one retailer told me “at the high end, $30 is the new $50”.
We started the tasting with a flight of the Three Palms Vineyard Merlot. The 1984 has stood up to 25 years of ageing somewhat better than many people have over that time. It still has loads of red fruit, although it has faded from its peak. The tannins stand in contrast to today’s tastes for lush, soft, silky textures. They obviously represent an older, harder, school of winemaking and are still clearly evident today, even though tannins usually soften with time. The nose smelled like an old wine, all lead pencil and bread crust rather than oak.
At the other end of the time scale, the youngest Merlot was the 2001 Three Palms Vineyard. Duckhorn explained how the market’s taste had shifted from the 1980s to the turn of the century and the winery’s winemaking style had evolved with it. This wine was had an aroma of dark fruit, An explosive taste of fruit in the mouth. It was lush and showy reflecting use of lots new French oak. It is ready to drink now but will last for many more years.
Equally remarkable was a flight of the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from 1985, 1990, 1999 and 2006. These showed that Duckhorn is a premier maker of Cabernet, as well as Merlot. A final treat was the first release of a ‘halo wine’ for the winery, the 2006 Discussion. This is a blend of roughly half cabernet, a quarter merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc and the remainder Petit Verdot. Each was drawn from the best estate (winery-owned) lots. It’s impressive and, ahem, should get people talking.
Later, a packed ballroom followed a walk around of current Duckhorn releases from all four of the estates under the Duckhorn name. Best to look for now (in my opinion):
2006 Goldeneye Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, Gown Creek Vineyard.
2005 Duckhorn Vineyards, Napa Valley Merlot, Three Palms Vineyard.
2006 Duckhorn Vineyards, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
2008 Duckhorn Vineyards, Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc.