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Duckhorn Merlot Howell Mountain 1995
Co-founded by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn in 1976, Duckhorn Vineyards has spent almost forty years establishing itself as one of North America’s premier producers of Napa Valley wines. From its modest inaugural vintage of 800 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon and 800 cases of Merlot in 1978 to its addition of Sauvignon Blanc in 1982, Duckhorn Vineyards has crafted a tradition of quality and excellence that continues today.
Fundamental to this tradition was the early, pioneering decision by Duckhorn Vineyards to focus on the production of Merlot. Though many Napa Valley wineries were using Merlot as a blending grape in the late seventies, few were exploring the potential of this varietal as a standalone wine. A great fan of Merlot since traveling to St. Emilion and Pomerol, Dan Duckhorn felt that this elegant varietal was underappreciated in North America. “I liked the softness, the seductiveness, the color,” says Dan, “the fact that it went with a lot of different foods; it wasn't so bold, didn't need to age so long, and it had this velvety texture to it. It seemed to me to be a wonderful wine to just enjoy. I became enchanted with Merlot.”
Dan also believed that the American palate was undergoing a gradual but dramatic shift, moving away from jug producers toward quality varietal wine. This conviction made the timing perfect for the introduction of Duckhorn Vineyards’ Napa Valley Merlot.
The quality of Duckhorn Vineyards wines has always been based on a commitment to selecting the finest fruit. Whether carefully sourcing grapes from top sites in the Napa Valley or committing itself to establishing a world-class estate vineyard program, the winery was built on the belief that great wines begin in the vineyard. At Duckhorn Vineyards this has always meant an emphasis on site and terroir. Beginning in 1988, hand-selected Napa Valley properties were purchased for the estate vineyard program, guaranteeing a consistent source of high quality fruit, year after year.
Today, the winery’s seven estate vineyards are located in alluvial fans of the Napa Valley and on the coveted slopes of Howell Mountain. The shallow and rocky alluvial soil drains easily, forcing the vines to send roots deep in search of water. The rocks retain the day’s heat, bringing relief to the vines during cold spring mornings and foggy summer nights. Because of its topography, soils, and climate, Howell Mountain has distinctly different grapegrowing conditions than the valley floor. Often during summer months, the maritime fog seeping into the Napa Valley below will not reach the mountaintop, giving more sunlight and moderate temperatures. As a result, winemaker Renee Ary has numerous vineyard blocks to choose from, each offering markedly different flavor profiles.
For nearly four decades, the commitment to crafting wines of distinction has remained at the heart of the Duckhorn Vineyards philosophy. As its Napa Valley estate properties continue to mature under Renee’s stewardship, the winery will continue creating world-class wines from exceptional vineyards.
Winemaking in Howell Mountain was abandoned during Prohibition, and wasn’t reawakened until the arrival of Randy Dunn, a talented winemaker famous for the success of Caymus in the 1970s and 1980s. In the early eighties, he set his sights on the Napa hills and subsequently astonished the wine world with a Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. Shortly thereafter Howell Mountain became officially recognized as the first sub-region of Napa Valley (1983).
With vineyards at 1,400 to 2,000 feet in elevation, they predominantly sit above the fog line but the days in Howell Mountain remain cooler than those in the heart of the valley, giving the grapes a bit more time on the vine.
The Howell Mountain AVA includes 1,000 acres of vineyards interspersed by forestlands in the Vaca Mountains. The soils, shallow and infertile with good drainage, are volcanic ash and red clay and produce highly concentrated berries with thick skins. The resulting wines are full of structure and potential to age.
An easy-going red variety with generous fruit and a supple texture, Merlot’s subtle tannins make it perfect for early drinking and allow it to pair with a wide range of foods. But the grape also has enough stuffing to make serious, world-renowned wines. One simply needs to look to Bordeaux to understand Merlot's status as a noble variety. On the region’s Right Bank, in St. Emilion and Pomerol, it dominates in blends with Cabernet Franc. On the Left Bank in the Medoc, it plays a supporting role to (and helps soften) Cabernet Sauvignon—in both cases resulting in some of the longest-lived and highest-quality wines in the world. They are often emulated elsewhere in Bordeaux-style blends, particularly in California’s Napa Valley, where Merlot also frequently shines on its own.
In the Glass
Merlot is known for its soft, silky texture and approachable flavors of ripe plum, red and black cherry and raspberry. In a cool climate, you may find earthier notes alongside dried herbs, tobacco and tar, while Merlot from warmer regions is generally more straightforward and fruit-focused.
Lamb with Merlot is an ideal match—the sweetness of the meat picks up on the sweet fruit flavors of the wine to create a harmonious balance. Merlot’s gentle tannins allow for a hint of spice and its medium weight and bright acidity permit the possibilities of simple pizza or pasta with red sauce—overall, an extremely versatile food wine.
Since the release of the 2004 film Sideways, Merlot's repuation has taken a big hit, and more than a decade later has yet to fully recover, though it is on its way. What many viewers didn't realize was that as much as Miles derided the variety, the prized wine of his collection—a 1961 Château Cheval Blanc—is made from a blend of Merlot with Cabernet Franc.