Washington's Columbia Valley Merlot

A broadly drawn wine map of Northern California and the Pacific North West would designate the Napa Valley in California as the classic region for cabernet sauvignon, the Willamette Valley in Oregon as the American home of pinot noir, and the Columbia Valley in Washington state as the country’s premier producer of merlot. Yet unlike Napa cabs and Oregon pinots, which have plenty of cache and adoring fans, the high quality of Columbia Valley merlot tends to fly under the radar. Sideways aside, this is most likely because those of us who have not had the good fortune to taste a merlot from Masseto, Pomerol or Pride Mountain Vineyard often lack the framework for understanding just how delicious the variety can be at its pinnacle.

What makes Columbia Valley merlot so special? The Cascade Mountains form a massive wall, known as a rain shadow, along the Columbia Valley’s western border, which prevents the wet weather of the Pacific coast from reaching the valley floor. The valley also happens to be located along the same latitude as Bordeaux. As a result, it is a stony desert with well-drained soil and the kind of warm days and cool nights that allow merlot to ripen fully while retaining high acidity and firm tannins. In the glass, this means Columbia Valley merlot benefits from great structure on which to hang its luscious fruit.

A great place to begin exploring the merlots of Washington state is Northstar, a boutique winery under the Chateau Ste. Michelle umbrella with the sole purpose of sourcing the best merlot from more than a dozen vineyards throughout the Columbia Valley and blending the fruit into a wine that showcases the finer points of the region and variety. The blend includes merlot from Red Mountain, Cold Creek, Horse Heaven, Yakima and Walla Walla. The Northstar Columbia Valley Merlot is deep purple with aromas of blueberries, plums, white pepper, anise, and smoke, a gentle tannic grip and bright acidity. It is a hearty wine best served with rotisserie chicken, lamb, barbeque or well-seasoned chili.