Swanson Napa Valley Merlot 2003 Tasting Notes
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Swanson Napa Valley Merlot 2003 Tasting Notes

Merlot saw a tremendous consumer surge during the 1990s. The effect of the movie Sideways aside, the ride could not go on forever. Demand outstripped supply, and a good amount of mediocre Merlot was rushed through the wine-chain. Ironically, a similar demand-supply interrupt is now diluting the quality of much Pinot Noir, the grape seemingly championed by the trendy film.

Family-owned Swanson Vineyards has been committed to Merlot for several decades, since before the wine became the easy-to-pronounce darling of American consumers. Looking in Napa's Oakville AVA, which is prime real estate for Cabernet rather than Merlot, Swanson's founders zeroed in on some unusual clay-rich terrain, finding, in effect, the equivalent of Merlot-friendly Pomerol in the midst of an area that promised to be another Médoc. The 2003 Merlot is sourced from Swanson's Oakville Cross Road and Schmidt Ranch Vineyards, and is enhanced with sensible yet small additions of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, also estate grown. The wine is aged 20 months in a combination of new and old American and French oak.

The $36 wine has the kind of soft tannins you would expect from a good Merlot, and these tannins meld well with a bright but grown-up acidity. These elements sustain an excellent balance throughout the experience, and give a nice crispness to the finish. They allow you, in essence, to enjoy the fruit.

The ripe fruit here, on both the nose and palate, brings mainstream berry and cherry: blackberry, blueberry, sour cherry, and a touch of raspberry with some plum. Behind the fruit are notes from the oak: a sweet cocoa, vanilla, and some baking spice. It's all quite delicious, of obvious sophistication, and yet hardly a chore to drink. I hope they sell it all.

Verdict: A fine effort
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Merlot is ultimately a friendly grape. I predict a sustained future for the grape on the American market. The best producers will prevail.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award


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