A Merlot Throwdown 

California vs. Washington

Merlot is one of the primary grapes for the wines of Bordeaux and the most widely planted variety in that region. If there was a one word descriptor for Merlot—especially in comparison to Cabernet Sauvignon, with which it is often blended—it would be "smooth." That quality makes for a wine more approachable in its youth but, when done well, it has the structure and tannins to age for several years. It is responsible for some of the best red wines from both Washington and California. In a head-to-head tasting, both locations proved worthy.

2012 L'Ecole Merlot, Columbia Valley, $27

There are touches of earth and coffee coloring the dark plum and cherry aromas. You get a nice kiss of smooth oak on both the nose and the palate. The juicy flavors are a lively mix of Bing cherry and blackberry, with green olive, anise, spice and ripe tannins coming through on the long finish.

2011 Provenance Merlot, Napa Valley, $26

The creamy dark cherry and plum aromas are quintessential California Merlot, while hints of pepper and spice add complexity. The flavors on the round and ripe palate favor sweet plum, balanced by tart cherry, backed by dark chocolate, soft oak and a whiff of smoke.

2013 Tamarack Cellars Merlot, Columbia Valley, $27

Not to sound like a broken record, but the nose leads off with dark plum and cherry. Here, you also get pomegranate, mocha, vanilla, savory herb and anise. The layered palate offers bold berry fruit with notes of smoky bacon, Kalamata olives, licorice, vanilla and toasty oak. There's a nice tannic grip to the finish.

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