A few days after returning from Napa Valley, a friend who had overheard my question about the ageability of Merlot, gave me a bottle of 2001 Merlot from Seavey Vineyards in St. Helena. “See what you think,” he said.
Other than that these vineyards were considered exceptional producers of Bordeaux-style wines, I knew little of William Seavey and his family winery, though I had noticed it along the roads when driving around the Valley. His winemaker notes predicted that this vintage would “continue to age well for years.”
I confess that I had always believed Merlot to be a wine meant for early drinking, that it would not cellar well for long periods of time. It is an early ripening, early maturing grape, and in my early days of learning about wine, I believed its main purpose was to soften Cabernet Sauvignon. It is, nonetheless, the most widely planted grape in Bordeaux, the principal grape in wines from St-Emilion and Pomerol, and one of the most widely-planted in California. It became a very fashionable wine in the States in the 1990s, then took a sucker punch from Miles in Sideways during his hilarious quest for Pinot Noir. It has recovered and is once again a popular wine.
This 2001 Seavey Merlot is the oldest Merlot I have sampled. It opened with a pleasing fragrance, suggestive of truffles. Its deep, red color extended across the bowl, without that slight grayish tint around the edges associated with younger wines. It was soft and sensuous on the tongue, gentle and loving on the finish. And it was just the proper alcoholic strength for a fine wine – 14.1%, adding a faint touch of sweetness.
Merlot has long been called “Cabernet without the pain,” a moniker probably justified. It is often described as more texture than flavor; this bottle had both, a tribute to its maker who trained in New Zealand, Bordeaux, and with the Mondavis before coming to Seavey. The 2001 had been bottled in 2003 and seemed to appreciate its liberation after nine years of confinement as much as I did. It has caused me to re-think my beliefs about the ageability of Merlot.