Merlot plays a minor role in just about every important wine region in the world. The primary exception is Washington, where Merlot has been a major player since the early 1990s.
Today, Merlot is the No. 4 wine grape in Washington, but it trails Chardonnay, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon by a tiny amount, and these big four varieties comprise about 80 percent of the state's total production.
Merlot can be incredibly smooth or big and bold. It plays well in blends but also can handle the spotlight on its own. It can be a value wine or carry a reserve-level price tag.
Here, we tried to show the range of Washington wine from examples we've tasted in the past couple of months. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the wineries directly.
Airfield Estates 2010 Merlot, Yakima Valley, $20: Smoky oak produces aromas of white chocolate in front of notes of plum, saffron threads, rose hips, green peppercorn and Weetabix biscuit. Plum, black cherry and lavender arrive on the palate with sandy tannins and pomegranate acidity.
Anelare 2010 Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Merlot, Red Mountain, $49: A robust and age-worthy wine, it opens with raspberry syrup aromas among barrel tones of cocoa, vanilla bean, peanut butter, molasses and nutmeg. The palate is dominated by rich cassis, more raspberry and pomegranate, presented amid juicy acidity and assertive tannins. There's pleasing length to the finish of tobacco leaf and white pepper.
Columbia Crest 2010 H3 Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills, $15: Enticing aromas of Nutella, black cherry, plums and toasted cherry wood evolve into rich and bold flavors of black cherry, blackberry and more plums. Its smooth midpalate, bright acidity and finish of chocolate-covered espresso beans make this a crowd-pleaser at any price.
Daven Lore Winery 2010 Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills, $28: Plums, pomegranate and Almond Joy candy bar aromas are transformed into fresh raspberry and cherry flavors, backed by more plums. The tannins are nicely managed, and it's finished with anise and boysenberry. These two scientists suggest pairing their Merlot with Spaghetti Carbonara, quiche or even flán.
Grantwood Winery 2010 Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, $15: This Merlot is a big wine with many layers, starting with a nose of dark chocolate, plum, blueberry, nutmeg, sweet pipe tobacco and NECCO Wafer. Flavors start with blackberry, blueberry, black olive and more chocolate, backed by Western serviceberry chalkiness and Swisher Sweets cigar, then black currant. Earl Grey tea tones make for an extended finish. Its alcohol level would place this in the realm of "drink now" and enjoy with a well-marbled steak.
Holmes Harbor Cellars 2009 Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, $28: This alluring Merlot opens with aromas of black peppercorn, boysenberry, smoked bacon, mint and cherry, followed by flavors of dark chocolate, cherry syrup and raspberry. It's all backed with fine-grained tannins and has a line of minerality running through the aromas and flavors.
House Wine 2011 Mountain Merlot, Columbia Valley, $11: This easy-to-enjoy Merlot sends out aromas of dark cherries, plums, pomegranate, milk chocolate and vanilla, and there's some hedonism awaiting inside. Think of juicy black cherries supported by blackberry and blueberry, backed by ripe tannins and some chocolate undertones. There's a bit of residual sugar, which makes it more appealing to those just getting into red wine and a tasty foil to backyard fare such as smoked pizza and sliders.
Two Mountain Winery 2009 Copeland Vineyard Estate Merlot, Yakima Valley, $22: Aromas of vanilla, chocolate, red currant, honey ham, artichoke, cedar and leafiness get your juices flowing. Flavors are filled with hints of ripe red fruit such as cherry, raspberry, strawberry and currant, backed by dark chocolate and black olive with taut tannins and lime juice.
-- Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue are wine journalists and judges; www.greatnorthwestwine.com.