In a word-association game, "cabernet sauvignon" just might prompt a response of "merlot" as quickly as it would "Bordeaux" or "Napa Valley." By history, tradition, culture and color, the two grape varieties are that closely identified. Many of the world's more esteemed wines involve both.
Yet, in a vineyard, the two don't necessarily thrive side by side. Uneasy neighbors, they do best on different soils, different drainages, different exposures and the like.
This lesson was reaffirmed for me most recently at the Dallas Morning News and TexSom Wine Competition in Arlington, Texas.
The panel on which I sat was assigned solely wines of Napa Valley. Not surprisingly, our single biggest class was cabernet sauvignon. We tasted 90 of them over two days. We thought so highly of the class that we awarded gold medals to 14, or 16 percent of the class, fairly high for any group of wines, but in line with Napa Valley's reputation for cabernet sauvignon.
The Napa Valley class that most excited us, however, was made up of blended wines based on traditional Bordeaux grape varieties like cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and malbec. These types of wines often are called "meritage" wines, though frequently they bear fanciful proprietary names.
Of the 13 in the class, five got gold medals, an exceptionally high 38 percent.
On the other hand, no class of Napa Valley wines was more depressing than merlot. We gave just one of the 24 entries a gold medal; 16 got nothing at all.
I know Napa Valley can yield wonderfully expressive and silken merlot. They either weren't entered or weren't showing well during our deliberations. Too many were stalky, stunted and rigid, lacking freshness and buoyancy.
The only merlot we gave a gold was a surprise if for no other reason than it was one of just two in the class from the 2010 vintage. Most were from 2008 and 2009.
Despite its youth, the gold-winning wine seized with confidence and balance the attributes for which everyday merlot is recognized: accessibility, graceful tannins, lingering finish and sun-warmed cherries and plums. The wine is the juicy and refreshing Napa Family Vineyards 2010 Napa Valley Merlot.
Napa Family Vineyards is a brand of the Winery Exchange in Novato. The Winery Exchange has no winery and no vineyards but buys juice and wine from others, finishes it, bottles it and markets it under a range of private labels sold exclusively by such retail chains as Cost Plus World Market, Trader Joe's, Safeway and Costco.
Its 55 labels include F.J. Serra (as in Father Junípero Serra, a missionary pioneer of the West Coast wine culture), Espuela Del Gaucho (for South American wines), Pacific Flyway (for Washington-state wines), Storyteller (for South African wines), and 31st State (in tribute to California). Wines sold under the label of Napa Family Vineyards are available only at Fresh & Easy stores.
The Winery Exchange also produces numerous brands of spirits and beer.
Jennifer Verdon, the media representative for the Winery Exchange, says the grapes that went into the merlot were gathered from "a variety of vineyards throughout Napa Valley."
Richard Mansfield, who oversees production of the Winery Exchange's wines in North America, says he blended 5 percent syrah into the Napa Family Vineyards merlot to intensify its richness and to bolster its backbone.
Syrah isn't often blended with merlot, but maybe that's just what it needs to amplify what the varietal has to say for itself in Napa Valley.
Napa Family Vineyards
2010 Napa Valley Merlot
By the numbers: 13.5 percent alcohol, 1,442 cases, $10
Context: Richard Mansfield recommends the merlot with "leg of lamb braised in red wine with chanterelle mushrooms and a side of Yukon potatoes and baby carrots finished with a dollop of demi-glace."
Availability: Fresh & Easy stores