Unearthing Upscale Merlot 

The much-maligned grape goes grand

This much-maligned grape--"I ain't drinkin' any [expletive deleted] merlot"--never deserved the backlash the movie Sideways caused. Sure the grape was over planted and shop shelves were awash in a sea of cheap, mostly forgettable wine, but the variety has much to recommend it. Lush fruit flavors mark the best merlot, and it is the primary grape of some of the greatest wines in the world. This week, we decided to go a little upscale--here are the panel's top picks:

2006 Januik Merlot, Klipsun Vineyard, $27

The sole Northwest entry, this Washington winery delivers something of a bargain for its consistent level of quality. A subtle combo of smoke, spice, plum, vanilla, violet, chocolate and cherry all intrigue the nose. The flavors are elegantly intense with well-integrated oak backing the creamy dark berry and plum fruit flavors. A hedonistic pleasure of a wine.

2007 Neyers Merlot, $33

This organically farmed Napa Valley, Calif., wine includes almost 25 percent cabernet sauvignon in the blend, which definitely adds some grip and depth. The aromas are a mix of dried cherry, fresh roast espresso, spice and tobacco. Ripe and round in the mouth with a silky texture, the flavors evolve with time in the glass and include sweet cherry and dark chocolate nicely balanced by soft acidity. This is a California classic.

2004 Pietra Santa Merlot, $15.99

From low-yield, mountain vineyards located east of Monterrey Bay, Calif., this 100 percent merlot was something of a ringer in terms of price and vintage. Time in the bottle has softened the tannins and added complexity. There's a pleasant earthiness to the spicy cherry, plum, vanilla and soft oak aromas. Beautifully balanced in the mouth, creamy cassis and black cherry fruit are complemented by touches of leather, cedar and spice. This wine is an amazing value.

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