Merlot: It's all in the micro-climates

Sprawling Columbia Valley boasts diverse conditions, distinctive merlot

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Merlot from Washington's Columbia Valley. (Bill Hogan, Chicago Tribune / November 30, 2009)

Telling Mike Januik that his merlot reminds you of cabernet sauvignon won't exactly break the Washington winemaker's heart. For Januik, who produces wine under his eponymous label and for Novelty Hill, believes what sets the merlots of the Columbia Valley region apart from others is their sense of place; these wines have a point of view.

"I think (consumers) think of merlots that are totally fruit forward, soft, without much mid-palate or finish," said Januik, who has been named one of the world's "masters of merlot" by Wine Enthusiast magazine. "Our wines have a lot of structure to them."

Back in the 1980s when the huge Columbia Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) was created, some Washington winemakers thought merlot would be their trump card in the wine game. It has been to a degree, but Columbia Valley is home to a number of well-known grape varieties.

Gary Werner, communications director for the Washington Wine Commission, said merlot, riesling, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon run "neck to neck" in the Columbia Valley.

"Given the size of the region and its various microclimates, we can grow just about anything," he said. "We're not ones to hang our hat on just one (variety)."

The Columbia Valley is not the soggy Washington state we all picture in our minds. This region lies east of the Cascade mountains and, in Werner's words, "is as dry as a bone." The sun shines 300 days a year, the annual rainfall is only 6 to 10 inches, and the temperatures can fluctuate from winter chill to summer scorcher.

Early winemakers there were worried about the temperature at first. They planted cold-hardy whites like riesling, recalled Coman Dinn, director of winemaking at Hogue Cellars.

"Merlot was chosen primarily because it is an earlier ripening grape compared to cabernet," he said.

Winemakers began to realize how different climate zones were in the valley. Certain south-facing hillsides were warmer than others, meaning winemakers could plant cabernet and other more cold-sensitive varieties there.

These micro-climates are the reason there are eight sub-AVAs in the Columbia Valley wine region; each has its own characteristics that favor certain grape varieties.

But back to merlot. In the book "Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide," author Paul Gregutt wrote that Washington merlots "start where most others leave off, with ripe flavors of sweet cherries, and then reach well beyond simple and fruity, adding plush, packed, textured flavors."

What makes these merlots so good?

"It's our northerly location and our limited growing season," said Dinn. "It doesn't warm up here until late April. Once it warms up, it warms up fast and the days grow rapidly longer and the grapes catch up. By Oct. 15 the season is over. … This keeps our crop load modest. You need a modest crop load to show character and intensity."

Dinn said irrigation is used to control vine growth and berry size. Want more intensity? Go with a smaller grape. And get sunlight in on the grape clusters, he added, to develop color and flavor.

Januik points to another factor.

"We are one of the few areas where we grow the vines on their own roots," Januik said. "Nothing is grafted. That more than anything has had a big impact."

Last, Werner said the small scale of Washington's wine production plays a role.

"We have to pursue quality," he said. "To make our mark, we have to let the fruit speak for itself and don't do a whole lot with it."

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