October is #MerlotMe month! This celebration of Merlot happens to coincide with a seasonal shift in the kitchen. Fewer daylight hours and more time indoors translates to comfort foods that simmer longer on the stove or in the oven, developing layers of flavors. I made a baked pasta with sausage ragù adapted from “Open Kitchen” by Susan Spungen and paired it with a sampling of Washington and California Merlot wines.
Join the Wine Pairing Weekend group Saturday, October 10th, at 11:00 AM ET on Twitter for our annual celebration of #MerlotMe month (follow hashtag #winepw). Don’t miss more articles from the group and discover some new favorite Merlot wines and food pairings at the end of this post.
Styles of Merlot
Merlot is native to France and is the most widely planted variety in Bordeaux. It prospers in cooler clay soils that are found on the Right Bank in Bordeaux. Here the style is known as Old World. The grapes are harvested earlier to produce a wine with medium body and alcohol, higher acidity, fresh red fruit flavors, often with vegetal, herbal, and leaf notes.
The other prominent style is International. This style is found in New World countries like North and South America and the South of France, Languedoc, and some Bordeaux estates. The grapes are harvested as late as possible to develop the intense color, full-bodied wines with high alcohol, ripe fruit flavors of blackberry and plum with soft velvet textured tannins.
Merlot is often blended with other grape varieties. Merlot is known for its texture, smooth, soft, velvety tannins. So what are some common grape varieties blended with Merlot, and what do they add to the blend?
Cabernet Sauvignon – adds structure with higher tannins, complexity, and flavor notes of green tobacco or dried mint.
Cabernet Franc – is lighter bodied, lower tannins, and can contribute fruit, floral, herbaceous, and mineral notes.
Petit Verdot – adds color and tannin for aging, and some spicy notes.
Malbec – adds color, body, smooth tannins, generally lower acidity, and black fruit flavors.
My Tasting Notes
Disclosure: The wines were provided to me as media samples. All opinions are my own.
Following Evan Goldstein’s price level recommendations in his book, “Perfect Pairings,” these three Merlots fall in the category of “Everyday,” “Premium,” and “Splurge.”
2017 Canoe Ridge Vineyard, The Expedition, Horse Heaven Hills, Washington
13.9% abv | $10.99 Costco (91 points Best Buy Wine Spectator) | 96% Merlot and 4% Cabernet Franc
Canoe Ridge Vineyards 181-acre estate is located in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA in South Central Washington along the Columbia River. The vineyards are planted on their own rootstock on a sloping ridge at 425-740 feet. The soils are sandy loam. The Columbia River moderates the vineyard temperature with cool up-river winds. This wine was aged in French barrels for one year.
Pale ruby in color with a garnet rim. Aromas of dark berries, spices, and toast. On the palate, dry, with medium body, tannins, and acidity. Flavors of blackberry and plum with a smooth, supple texture. This wine fits into an “everyday” value.
2017 L’Ecole, Columbia Valley, Washington
14.5% abv | $25.00 SRP (sample) (92 points from Wine Enthusiast) | 81% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 3% Malbec, and 2% Petit Verdot
L’Ecole is a third-generation family-owned winery established in 1983 in Walla Walla Valley, Washington. The vineyards for the 2017 Merlot came from Estate Seven Hills, Bacchus, and Dionysus, Candy Mountain, Klipsun, Weinbau, Pepper Bridge, and Stone Tree; all part of the Columbia Valley AVA. Each lot was hand harvest. The wine was aged in small oak barrels, 30% new with four rackings over 18 months.
Medium ruby in color. Aromas of black cherries, vanilla, and toast. On the palate, dry with medium (+) body and tannins, and medium acidity. Fresh flavors of cherries, black currant, plum, vanilla, and toast. Well structured and balanced. This wine falls into the “premium” category.
2015 Duckhorn Vineyards, Napa Valley, Three Palms Vineyard, California
14.7% abv | $121.00 (sample) (the 2014 vintage was named “Wine of the Year” by Wine Spectator) | 91% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1.5% Petit Verdot, 0.5% Cabernet Franc
Duckhorn Vineyards was founded in 1976 by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn – one of the first 40 Napa Valley wineries. From the beginning, Duckhorn has focused on producing Merlot. In 1978, the inaugural vintage was a single vineyard designate Merlot from the now legendary Three Palm Vineyard. The soils of Three Palm Vineyard are lean, forcing the roots deep down in search of nutrients. The wine was aged in 100% French oak; 75% new, 25% neutral for 18 months.
Medium (+) ruby in color. Aromas of cherries, blueberries, vanilla, and cedar. On the palate, dry with medium (+) body, medium tannins, and medium acidity. Flavors of cherries, black currant, plum, molasses, cocoa, and minerals. Well balanced and complex with lingering and emerging flavors. Smooth, silky tannins. This a “splurge” wine but will make any occasion a celebration!
Food Pairings with Merlot
Merlot’s different styles and the range of flavors, fruit, floral, vegetal, herbal, and earthy, make it a flexible wine for food pairings. Everything mushroom is my personal pairing favorite with Merlot. But Merlot can pair with pizza, hamburgers, grilled or roasted meats, even vegetables with leaner and less oaked styles. The essential rule to remember: match the weight and flavor intensity of the food and wine.
I paired these Merlots with a baked pasta with sausage ragù….not just any baked pasta dish. This one has layers of earthy, savory flavors, porcini mushrooms❤️, onions, garlic, fennel, tomatoes, and my favorite Italian sausage from Pine Street Market. Oh, and the pasta, seek out a quality artisan pasta; it is a make or break for this dish and well worth the effort. Not a weekday dinner, but rather a weekend or the perfect Sunday Supper. And don’t forget to lean into the new season; in the south, Fall is the best season!
Baked Pasta with Sausage Ragù
- 1 lb. Scialatiella This is a thicker artisan like spaghetti from Campania. I used Bella Italia from WholeFoods
For the Sauce
- 1/2 oz. dried porcini mushrooms
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large red onion, finely chopped
- 2 medium carrots, finely chopped
- 1/2 medium fennel bulb, finely chopped
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 4 medium garlic cloves, mashed and minced
- 1 lb. sweet Italian sausage, bulk or removed from casings
- 1/2 cup Merlot wine
- 26 oz. canned or jarred crushed tomatoes
- 1/4 cup fresh basil, coarsely chopped
- salt and pepper
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
- 1/4 cup fresh Italian parsley, coarsely chopped
- Add dried porcini mushrooms to a 1-cup liquid measuring cup. Pour boiling water over the mushrooms to fill the measuring cup. Let stand to soften for 15 minutes. Using a slotted spoon remove the mushrooms. Strain and reserve the liquid. Coarsely chop the mushrooms.
- Heat a 12-inch sauté pan over medium-high heat. Warm the oil in the pan and then add onions, carrot, fennel, and thyme, stir to combine. Once you have a good sizzle on the vegetables, turn the heat down to medium and cook for about 20 minutes or until they are soft and golden. Add the garlic and mushrooms and simmer for about 5 minutes.
- Add the sausage to the pan, brown the sausage breaking it up and stirring as it browns for about 10 minutes. Add the wine and let it completely absorb, about 2-3 minutes. Then add the porcini mushroom liquid, the tomatoes, and basil. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat, simmer for about 45 minutes or until the sauce has thickened. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if needed. Remove the thyme sprigs.
- Preheat oven to 375 F
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook pasta according to package direction minus a few minutes - pasta should be slightly firm and chewy. Reserve 1 cup of pasta water.
- Drain pasta and add it to the sauce. If it seems dry add a little of the pasta water, Stir to combine. Transfer the pasta and ragù to a 3-quart baking dish.
- Add the cream evenly over the pasta. Mix the breadcrumbs and melted butter in a small bowl and then add the cheese. Stir to combine. Sprinkle the mixture over the pasta in the baking dish. Bake for 35-45 minutes or until golden brown on top and bubbling around the edges. To serve: sprinkle with parsley.
Sources Used: “Perfect Pairings by Evan Goldstein, WSET, Canoe Ridge Vineyard, L’Ecole, Duckhorn Vineyards, and Wine Folly
More Merlot and Food Pairings to try from the Wine Pairing Weekend group ~
- Andrea at The Quirky Cork shares “MerlotMe with Three Turkish Merlots“
- Camilla at Culinary Adventures with Camilla shares “Merlot: A Varietal That Plays Well with Others“
- Cindy at Grape Experiences shares “Sip Memorable Merlot with Classic Vegetarian Favorites“
- Deanna at Asian Test Kitchen shares “Fall Vegan Menu Paired with 2016 Napa Merlots“
- David at Cooking Chat shares “Merlot Food Pairing: Tips and Favorites“
- Gwendolyn at Wine Predator shares “Meatloaf and #MerlotMe with Sonoma’s Selby and Columbia Valley’s L’Ecole No. 41“
- Jane at Always Ravenous shares “Merlot Pairing: Baked Pasta with Sausage Ragù“
- Jeff at Food Wine Click! shares “A Tale of Two Merlots at the Grill“
- Jill at L’Occasion shares “What’s So Special About Merlot?“
- Jennifer at Vino Travels shares “Fall is Here! Warm up with a Merlot and Pot Roast Pairing”
- Lauren at The Swirling Dervish shares “October is #MerlotMe Month: Here’s What I’ve Been Sipping“
- Linda at My Full Wine Glass shares “Kicking off #MerlotMe in the Pacific time zone”
- Liz at What’s in that Bottle? shares “Make Room for Merlot!“
- Lori at Exploring the Wine Glass shares “Leaves on the Ground and #MerlotMe in my Glass“
- Lynn at Savor the Harvest shares “Next Gen Merlot From Where It All Started“
- Martin at Enofylz shares “A Meatless #MerlotMe Redux“
- Nicole at Somms Table shares “5 #MerlotMe Nights“
- Payal at Keep the Peas shares “Kicking Off Autumn With #Merlotme”
- Pinny at Chinese Wine & Food Pairings shares “#MerlotMe with Markham and L’Ecole No. 41 Merlots and Army Ramen”
- Robin at Crushed Grape Chronicles shares “Merlot from elegant to badass. Time to #Merlotme.”
- Rupal at Syrah Queen shares “#MerlotMe – Best Food Pairings For Merlot”
- Susannah at Avvinare shares “Brazilian Merlot Is Always Welcome At My Table”
- Terri at Our Good Life shares “Merlot Me with Noodless Lasagne“
- Wendy at A Day in the Life on the Farm shares “Woohoooooooo….It is #MerlotMe month“