some Wallet-friendly Italian Merlot Wines  


Although Merlot is not generally thought of as being an important player in the Italian wine scene, it is in fact the third-most widely planted red variety in Italy (after Sangiovese and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo). In some parts of the country, particularly in the northeast such as in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Alto Adige and Veneto, it is one of the most popular varieties. Merlot is also widely-planted in Tuscany where it is used liberally in the production of many Super-Tuscan wines. Substantial Merlot plantings can also be found in parts of Umbria, Campania and Sicily, among other regions.

Merlot is used extensively in the production of blended wines where the variety’s easy tannins, soft texture and fruit-forward flavors are put to good use when blended with more tannic, structured varieties. In Tuscany, it is used to great effect alongside Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Sangiovese in the production of some of Tuscany’s world-class Super-Tuscan wines. In the Friuli region, Merlot is often partnered with Cabernet Franc in Bordeaux-style blends that also receive high marks.

Merlot is also used in the production of some delightful and intriguing pure varietal wines. Merlot grapes offer ripe, fruity aromas and complex, supple, full-bodied flavors. Merlot has a strong affinity for wood ageing that can augment the wine’s tannins and enhance the subtleties of the wine.

As a pure varietal, Merlot – especially in the hands of a talented winemaker – is capable of producing some simply stunning wines with concentrated aromas, good fruit and acidity and long, complex finishes. In recent years pure varietal Merlot wines have been some of Italy’s most celebrated - and expensive – wines as detailed in Italy’s Best Merlot Wines.

I recently (pre-coronavirus social distancing) had the pleasure of tasting a number of Italian varietal Merlot wines. Merlot varietal wines are not as Six bottles of Italian Merlot wines used in tastingeasy to find in the U.S. as are blended Merlot wines and when available, can be exceedingly expensive. The majority of the half-dozen Merlots tasted are what I would call “mid-priced” wines that range from $19 to $65 with the majority in the $30 to $40 range. When viewed in the context of prices of Italian Merlot wines overall, these indeed are “wallet-friendly” prices.

The wines were tasted “blind”, that is the identity of the wines wasn’t revealed until after all the wines had been tasted and evaluated. All wines had a few years on them with one from 2009, two from 2010 and the rest from 2014 and 2015 so they generally displayed the poise and confidence that comes with maturity.

The wines and their prices and reviews are presented below in alphabetical order by producer:

Avignonesi, “Desiderio” Merlot Toscana 2014 (about $65)
Avignonesi’s “Desiderio” is named after a majestic bull, reputed to be the largest in Tuscany, that lived on the Avignonesi estate over a hundred years ago. Because of his superior genes he sired many cattle that have over time helped define the Chianina Bottle label for Avignonesi's 2014 "Desiderio" Merlot Toscanabrand celebrated in Tuscany today. His image is prominently displayed on the bottle label.

While Avignonesi’s “Desiderio” may in some years includes a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2014 is a pure Merlot varietal. The grapes are picked in mid-September and undergo a 4-week fermentation using indigenous yeasts in temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks. The wine is aged for 18 months in French oak and has 14 percent alcohol.

This Merlot from one of Tuscany’s premier producers has an intense, dark red color with a deeply endowed bouquet of dark fruit and some freshly-brewed espresso complexity. It is full-bodied with a dense and velvety texture, ripe dark cherry and blackberry flavors, soft tannins and a long-lasting finish. It’s an elegant wine from beginning to end and a real pleasure to drink.

Barone Ricasoli, “Casalferro” Toscana IGT 2010 (about $40)
First produced in 1993, Casalferro is a pure Merlot from the estate’s vineyard of the same name near Gaiole in the heart of the Chianti Classico zone. It is only produced in the best vintage years.

The grapes undergo a two-week cold fermentation followed by 18 months ageing in large French oak vats and 6 months bottle ageing. It has 14.5 percent alcohol.
This medium-to-full-bodied wine is softly textured with delicate and enveloping tannins, velvety dark-fruit flavors and some sweet spice notes that give lift to the flavorful finish.

Famiglia Cotarella, “Montiano” 2014 (about $35)
Montiano is the flagship wine of the Cotarella (formerly known as Falesco) estate founded in 1979 in the Lazio region by the brothers Riccardo and Renzo Cotarella.

The grapes for this single-vineyard Merlot are harvested in early September and fermented in stainless steel vats for 15 days at controlled temperature with a long maceration on the skins. The wine is aged in oak barriques for 12 months followed by 6 months in the bottle prior to release. It has 14.5 percent alcohol.

The 2014 Montiano has a deep, nearly impenetrable dark color with ripe cherry and sweet spice aromas. It is a substantial, layered and complex wine accented with distinct tannins, plenty of grip and good ageing potential. It would be interesting to sample this wine again in, say, another 5 to 6 years.

I Clivi, “Rosso da Uve Merlot” Colli Orientali del Friuli 2009 (about $30)
While the Friuli region is known primarily for its outstanding white wines, Merlot is the second-most widely planted grape variety in Friuli and is one of Italy’s major production areas for quality Merlot wines.

Azienda Agricola I Clivi is a small, organic-certified winery with vineyards in both Colli Orientali del Friuli and Collio, two of the best appellations in the Friuli region that abut the border with Slovenia in far northeastern Italy.

The grapes for the “Rosso da Uve Merlot” wine are harvested from 60 to 70-year old vines in the Colli Orientali del Friuli zone. The wine undergoes natural fermentation and is aged in stainless steel tanks. It has 13.5 percent alcohol.

It is an elegant wine with a refined and intense aromatic profile, red berry fruit flavors and an excellent balance of acidity and fruit. It is a beautifully textured and sensuous wine that ranks high on a quality-to-price basis.

La Tunella, Merlot Colli Orientali del Friuli 2015 (about $19)
La Tunella has 175 acres of vineyards in the Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC area. The Merlot grapes are harvested in late September, crushed and then macerated and fermented on the skins in steel vats. The wine is aged in large French oak barrels for 5 months and then bottled with 13.5 percent alcohol.

La Tunella’s Merlot has a beautiful texture, round and soft and despite a reticent bouquet is loaded with red fruit flavors. It’s nicely balanced with soft tannins, delicate acidity and a long, textured finish. It’s an exciting, albeit still-young wine that nonetheless captures the suppleness and fruit-forward flavors of Merlot.

Tenuta di Renieri, “Grido” Toscana IGT 2010 (about $40)
Tenuta di Renieri has 55 acres of vineyards located in the commune of Castelnuovo Berardenga in the southern-most part of the Chianti Classico zone. The average age of the Merlot vines is 30 years. After fermentation and maceration, the wine is aged for 2 years in French oak barriques and another year in the bottle prior to release. The alcohol level is 14.5 percent.

Bottle label for Tenieri's 2010 "Grido" Toscana MerlotAfter 10 years, Tenuta di Renieri’s “Grido” is drinking very nicely. It has sweet, warm black fruit aromas with an attractive touch of dark coffee. It’s a big wine loaded with plush, velvety dark fruit flavors and firm tannins balanced with good acidity that portend a still-longer drinking life.

It was interesting to experience the evolution of this wine in the glass. Although the bottle was opened about 3 hours prior to the initial sample the wine didn’t really open up and fully reveal itself until a second sample about 2-1/2 hours later. Based on this experience, the wine probably needs to breath for at least 5 hours before it can be experienced at its most flavorful and complex best.

Overall, my personal favorite Merlot wine of the evening was the 2014 “Desiderio” from Avignonesi. I found its aromatic profile, sweet-fruited flavors and aura of elegance and refinement persuasive. The group as a whole, however, favored the 2014 “Montiano” from Famiglia Cotarella with its bold and rich dark fruit flavors and sensual force.

It was a very competitive tasting with only a few points separating all the wines so there were no losers in any qualitative sense.


©Richard Marcis
March 14, 2020

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