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This is the third in a short series of reviews of red wines which have impressed me over the years. These wines do share a common theme. They are medium priced, reasonably easily available, can be found gracing the wine list of a range of restaurants and are dependable across time and space. The bottom line is that when I order a bottle when out for a meal or when choosing an accompaniment for the Sunday roast there is a very good chance I will not be disappointed with my wine.
I have tried glasses of them often enough to persuade me to buy a case of each to lay down at home. There are also very good bargains out there (sometimes on line, sometimes at the supermarket) with quite deep discounts on the single bottle price.
Merlot has become one of the strongest selling wines in the United States. Fetzer “Eagle Peak” is one of the top selling labels there.
The Fetzer vineyard is in Mendocino County, California, the most northerly part of this wine producing region. Protected from the coastal fogs by a range of hills, the McDowell valley tends to be warm and dry. Huge acres of vines are planted along the banks of the Russian River. I posted a review of another of the Fetzer labels – “Valley Oaks” Cabernet Sauvignon - a few days ago. This is the ideal opportunity to sample and compare a wine from the same stable using a different grape.
Many varieties of wine grape are grown in California. “Eagle Peak” is another example of a single varietal. The Merlot** grape (strictly speaking the Merlot Noir) has much larger dark blue berries and thinner skins than the Cabernet Sauvignon. It also ripens much earlier in the season giving a juice that is higher in sugar but lower in tannins. It is the fundamental ingredient of the French Saint-Emilion and Pomerol wines. It is also grown as a blending ingredient with other varieties.
The Fetzer vineyards developed out of the Sundial Ranch in the town of Hopland, Mendocino. Originally a major producer of livestock, poultry and pears these gave way to grapes in the early 1980s. Expansion saw the purchase of the adjacent Valley Oaks ranch which already had an organic garden. This prompted the spread of organic growths and production methods (they do not use pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers) throughout the vineyards. The company was bought out by the Brown-Forman Corporation in 1992. This conglomerate also owns Jack Daniels Bourbon, Southern Comfort, Lenox china and Hartmann luggage as well as a number of wineries.
The wine is housed in a dark green bottle. The style of the labelling is standard across the Fetzer range – the colour of the label varying with the type of wine. The bottle is closed with a cork bearing vine leaves and has the Fetzer name imprinted along its side. The free edge of the cork is then sealed with a layer of hard wax (rather than the usual metal capsule). It is recommended that the cork screw is inserted through the wax to remove the cork. The neck bears a label announcing the Fetzer name in gold lettering on a blue background.
The main label is in two parts (again the dark blue colouration is carried through) and declares the contents as “Eagle Peak” Merlot, Fetzer Vineyards, California along with its vintage. The top outline of the lower half suggests a vineyard on a hillside. There is a small square graphic of a mountain set against a dark blue sky. The rear label notes that it has been aged in barrels of American or French oak, made on site in their own cooperage. It is produced to a 13.5% ABV.
The vintage under scrutiny is 2001 but I have also tasted samples from 1997 and I still have a couple of bottles of the 1999 in store.
The usual advice is to store red wines in their bottles horizontally if they are to be kept for any length of time. It is also recommended that red wine should be opened and poured gently into another vessel (decanter) an hour or two prior to serving. This allows the wine to “breathe” and develop its flavour (exhaust any fusty smell and absorb a little oxygen). It also allows the separation of any sediment from the bottom of the bottle.
“Eagle Peaks” has a quite delicate nose. It is certainly vinous with plenty of red and black fruits (red cherries, blackberries and raspberries). There is also the vaguest hint (again) of Rowntree fruit gums – this time the red one – although nowhere near as pronounced as with the Cabernet. There is also a very subtle hint of oak.
The wine poured a deep ruby red (claret) which was quite clear when examined against the light of a window. There was no sediment left behind in the bottle. I left it for couple of hours in a decanter to reach room temperature and then poured it into a large lead crystal wine goblet. “Eagle Peak” is a full flavoured, medium bodied red wine. The first taste is beautifully and gently medium dry. It is full of fruit flavours and is smooth and well balanced. There is a very mild oak cast with mild smooth tannins. These flavours linger pleasantly on the palate after swallowing.
This is another of those wines which keeps well to the next day when tightly corked or kept cool in a stoppered decanter.
The vintner suggests serving “Eagle Peak” Merlot with grilled or roast meats or poultry, Italian dishes and spicy sausages. We had our bottle today with our Sunday roast (chicken and Cumberland sausage). It was a perfect accompaniment.
Fetzer Merlot is another label that I have enjoyed over the years and have marvelled at its reliability and unvarying taste from year to year. Please bear in mind that the glass beside me as I write is from the 2001 vintage and as such it is quite young by red standards. The vintners recognise that it is ready for drinking now but will also benefit from keeping for another four or five years. If the 1999 is anything to go by, I believe them. I can recommend laying some down to find out – if you can resist touching it in the meantime.
It is interesting to compare the Merlot with the Cabernet Sauvignon. The latter is a much more robust, fuller bodied “masculine” wine whereas the Merlot is slightly sweeter, smoother and rounder despite being slightly the stronger in alcohol. I have also tried a number offerings from other Californian vintners (Gallo, Robert Mondavi), most producing great wines in their own right. However, for overall taste, consistency and value, I always come back to Fetzer.
This is a medium bodied, medium-dry red that I can readily recommend.
Fetzer “Eagle Peak” Merlot vintage 2001 750ml bottle Sainsbury supermarkets: £ 7.08 (Watch out for special offers, particularly at Sainsbury. I bought a case of 12 bottles for £56.88 (£4.99 a bottle with a further multi-buy discount of 5%)
I have bought bottles at branches of Publix in Florida. I was also helped in my consideration of both this and the Cabernet at the Grand Hyatt Hotel and the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Tampa where both labels are served by the bottle and by the glass.
[**POSTSCRIPT: My sources tell me that Merlot – pronounced Mer-loh – comes from a French word for young blackbird]