Recently Northstar Winery, a part of the Chateau St. Michelle wine family, in the Walla Walla region of Washington State brought a small group of journalists and restaurant professionals together for their first annual Merlot Camp with Winemaker David “Merf” Merfeld, designed to give guests an in-depth overview of not only Northstar Winery and their award-winning Merlot but also about Washington State Merlot as a whole, from vine to glass, delving into why the area is ideally suited for producing stunning Merlot.
In the years since Sideways, which in all honesty stemmed from a trend of some wineries (not to be named) over producing high alcohol, flabby, jammy and uninteresting Merlot, the varietal has gotten a bit of a bad rap and has really had to work to regain popularity. Enter the eastern half of Washington State, filled with mineral rich soils from the Missoula Floods; an arid, dry climate with rainfall totals equalling less than 15 inches a year in most parts of Walla Walla and the Columbia Valley; and cool nights and hot days with temperatures fluctuating from the low 50′s to the high 90′s in the summer time in a single day. Growing conditions are tough, but that makes interesting wines. Merf’s goal since becoming head winemaker in 2007 for Northstar has been to make an Old World style Merlot, influenced by great Right Bank Bordeaux with complexity, elegance and the ability to age gracefully, from the best New World Merlot grapes in Washington State.
Camp started with an in-depth overview of the terrain of Columbia Valley and Walla Wall with Professor Kevin Pogue. I had met Kevin last year at the TEXSOM conference and heard a version of this presentation. For some reason it made more sense this time; probably because I drove through Washington State last year and had driven around a bit this year before we started. Actually seeing the land helps you understand how something like this Missoula Flood that occurred at the end of the last ice age through eastern Washington and down the Columbia Gorge, carrying land deposits and altering the geological history of the land, shifting sediments, and in the end creating ideal soil for growing grapes. Kevin was with us the next day as we visited a number of vineyards Northstar sources grapes from, pointing out areas where the earth shifted, granite was deposited, rock was eroded and more making the area what it is today, all with the knowledge that change still continues.
From visiting vineyards to the lab where we watched Enologist and Assistant Winemaker Noah Reed chemically pull tannin out of wine. (Fascinating to watch). Northstar is the only winery in the area to do this process, which helps them understand the best time to press their whole cluster fermented grapes. Tannin is added to juice when left on the skin during fermentation. Though much of the work is done strictly by taste, as Merf has a great understanding of his grapes and the type of wine he is creating, lab tools help him guarantee he makes the right decisions with his palate by checking tannin structure throughout the process.
From the lab we really started tasting, and the tasting was plentiful. From a 10 year vertical of Northstar Columbia Valley Merlot; to a 5 year vertical of Walla Walla Northstar Merlot; to a tasting of Merlot from around the world; to my favorite, a tasting and blending session of Merlot from specific vineyards around the region that are still being aged, to create our favorite blend, we tasted a lot of Merlot.
They say the best way to really learn about a varietal is to drink only that varietal for a period of time. Though three days is probably not enough time to learn all the ins and outs of the Merlot grape, it was plenty of time to understand why Washington State is doing it so well. Layers of dark cherry, black plum and blackberry combined with graphite, pencil lead, herbal notes and hearty minerals. These aren’t the fruit bomb Merlots that are produced in other areas of the world. These are complex with bold tannins, dense flavors and subtle elegance displaying an ability to age, but with enough fruit and acidity to be enjoyed now. Though there were variances through the years, the basic flavor profile remained consistent and representative of the fruit coming from this land.
Of all the Northstar we tasted there were several stand outs with a true highlight being a 1994 Magnum of Columbia Valley Merlot. There was some skepticism in the crowd, with some wondering if a 17 year old Washington State Merlot could hold up? It did, beautifully – In fact it had enough structure to still be enjoyed several years from now. This example really hits on what Merf has been trying to do at Northstar – create a wine that can be enjoyed today, but can easily be aged for 10-20 years, maybe more.
Which brings up to the “Big Dipper” Merlot, the test name of an ultra-premium, small production Merlot Merf has been focused on for the past several years, working with the Chateau Michelle winemaking team to create a stand out Merlot from Washington State, unlike any other, that will have an ability to age 20+ years with low alcohol, slightly higher acidity, strong fruit characteristics and good minerality. 2009 will be the first vintage with the expected release date of late summer/early fall 2012.
We had a chance to barrel taste the wine. Though still needing a bit of additional aging, the wine is destined to be everything Merf and team hope for. Red fruit and spice notes with caramel, chocolate and layers and layers of mineral notes both from the various vineyards sourced from, and the process used to make the wine as the first fermentation goes through a special cement fermenter Merf had built not far from the winery, with a second fermentation occurring in barrels. It still needs to round out a bit, but all indicators are that this will be the wine Merf has been focused on creating, unlike any from the area.
Understanding the land where the grapes are grown made the tasting that much sweeter, in the sense that you meet the people growing the grapes, you walk the vines, you see the geography and terroir, understanding the stress nature puts on the grapes. You taste single vineyard pressings to then create your own blend and see the process a winemaker goes through, and feel that you are a part of it.
This hands on experience from vine to glass – walking the vines, understanding the soil, seeing the lab and winery in action and finally making the wine was such a special experience. It makes it easy to see why the winery lifestyle is so intoxicating, and not because of the alcohol.