Charles de Monteney Bordeaux 2005

Price: $5
Maker: Charles de Monteney, France
Varietal: Bordeaux (100% Merlot)
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, natural cork
Alcohol: 12%
Our Rating: 8 out of 10

Charles de Monteney Bordeaux 2005 is 100% Merlot, and is found only at Aldi stores. It has an interesting nose of licorice, woody cedar, and raspberry. This is a lighter-bodied Merlot, with berry flavors that are rather lost in its puckery dryness and strong tannins. This is definitely a European-style wine, not as fruity or accessible as a typical California or Australian Merlot.

We couldn’t learn too much about the maker – the Charles de Monteney website is quite minimal. The parent company site, Benoit Valerie Calvet, has a slightly more elaborate site describing their Bordeaux wines. One claim on the site is that the firm holds costs down by subcontracting what it can.

Overall, this wine is very inexpensive but doesn’t really do much for us. If your taste leans toward dry reds with a bite, maybe it will work better for you.

Boho Central Coast Merlot 2006

Boho Central Coast MerlotPrice: $22
Maker: Boho Vineyards, Ripon, California
Varietal: Merlot
Packaging: 3-liter box, twist spigot
Alcohol: 13.5%
Our Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Boho Central Coast Merlot 2006 may well be the nicest boxed Merlot we’ve tried. It has blackberry, clove, and leather aromas. On the palate, it offers juicy cherries and chocolate notes, leading into a long oaky finish with chewy tannins.

Boho seems to be a young brand with an environmentally conscious personality. The packaging is a natural brown cardboard box, and there are a host of slogans proclaiming the winery’s green orientation: “Protect The Wine, Protect The World;” “Better Wine – Better Value – Better Environment;” “Respect for the Earth – Passion for Handcrafted Wines – Value for Money.” Some might say this is sloganeering overkill, but this Merlot speaks for itself. I think that the packaging may appear a bit downscale to some buyers, but most who take a minute to study the box will no doubt get what Boho is trying to say.

We think Boho Central Coast Merlot 2006 is an example of what boxed wines can deliver – it’s juicy and flavorful, finishes well, and offers convenient packaging and a fine value. Now, if they could only get rid of the twist spigot… like most of these closures, it will release a drop or two shortly after pouring. Don’t let that discourage you from giving this Merlot a try.

Lindemans Bin 80 Cabernet Merlot 2007

Lindemans Bin SeriesPrice: $6
Maker: Lindemans Wines, Australia
Varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon 60%, Merlot 40%
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, artificial cork
Alcohol: 13.5%
Our Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Lindemans Bin 80 Cabernet Merlot 2007 is a youthful but nice addition to this Australian winemaker’s lineup. We’ve been partial to their products in the past, notably Lindemans Cawarra Shiraz Cabernet 2004 and Lindemans Bin 50 Shiraz 2005. This red wine is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot. It has an earthy cherry and spice nose. It’s well-structured, with plum and cherry notes dominating its fruit forward flavor.

Perhaps it’s the minimal age of this wine, but we found it needed plenty of breathing time to bring out the nice balance between fruit and tannins.

As seems to be typical for Lindemans, their Bin 80 Cabernet Merlot 2007 is a true bargain – a very drinkable red at a great price.

McWilliam’s Hanwood Estate Merlot 2006

McWilliams Hanwood Estate MerlotPrice: $12
Maker: McWilliams Hanwood Estate, New South Wales, Australia
Variety: Merlot
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, natural cork
Our Rating: 8.5 out of 10

McWilliam’s Hanwood Estate Merlot 2006 is another example of the inexpensive but tasty red in McWilliams’ Hanwood Estate Line. We found it on sale for a mere $8, and it was difficult to pass up. Its nose is licorice and berry, and it has plum, clove, vanilla, and oak notes on the palate. The wine is well balanced, and the finish is relatively complex.

We last tried the 2003 version of McWilliam’s Hanwood Estate Merlot, and scored it a rare “9” – either our standards have gradually shifted, or the 2003 was an exceptional year for this wine.

The McWilliams Wines indicates that McWilliam’s Hanwood Estate Merlot 2006 has already won a couple of silver medals – one at the 2008 Monterey Wine Competition and one at the 2008 Florida State Fair. Of the McWilliams wines we’ve tasted lately, our favorite remains the 2005 Shiraz. This Merlot might be a close second, though.

Souverain Alexander Valley Merlot 2005

Souverain MerlotPrice: $17
Maker: Souverain, Napa Valley, California
Varietal: Merlot
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, natural cork
Alcohol: 13.9%
Our Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Souverain Alexander Valley Merlot 2005 is a very pleasant red. It has a spicy berry aroma, with black cherry, plum, and chocolate notes on the palate. The finish has spice and oak with mild tannins. We liked the balance of this wine, and are looking forward to sampling some of their other wines.

Souverain has an interesting history:

The history of Souverain began in the Napa Valley in 1944 when J. Leland “Lee” Stewart harvested his first crop of wine grapes from his Howell Mountain property in the northern part of the valley. At the suggestion of his young daughter, Stewart named his winery “Souverain” (taken from the French word for “sovereign” or “supreme”), and his Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings from the 1960s were considered by many to be just that.

In the years that followed, Stewart used innovation and a natural gift for winemaking to establish Souverain as one of the great California wineries. The winery moved to the Alexander Valley when Stewart eventually sold it in 1973.

Gato Negro Merlot 2007

Gato Negro MerlotPrice: $5
Maker: Viña San Pedro S. A., Molina, Chile
Varietal: Merlot
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, natural cork
Alcohol: 13.5%
Our Rating: 8 out of 10

Gato Negro Merlot 2007 was an inexpensive find at a megastore wine shop. Its label reminded me of some of the great Trader Joe bargains I’d tried last year, but the wine itself didn’t quite measure up. It had an odd aroma that had woody licorice notes overpowering weak berry notes. The flavor was also a bit odd, with plum, herb, and chocolate notes. If this wine has a redeeming feature, it’s the long finish that brings out some spice, more pleasant berry notes, and robust tannins. Gato Negro Merlot wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but was lacking in typical Merlot characteristics.

We did find that this wine was helped by extensive breathing when half a bottle was accidentally left uncorked overnight. I was expecting the worst when I next tasted it, but the wine had actually improved a bit.

Viña San Pedro is a significant player:

Founded in 1865 by the Correa Albano brothers, Viña San Pedro is today the second largest Chilean wine exporter and the country’s third biggest winery. The winery and is located in Curicó Valley, where San Pedro owns one of the largest continuous area of vineyards in South America, with 1,200 hectares. In total San Pedro has over 2,500 hectares planted all along the Central Valley. Since 1990 the company has long term contracts and has been acquiring vineyards in Chile’s other main viticulture valleys, such as Leyda, Colchagua, Maipo, San Antonio, Casablanca, Elqui and Limarí. Today these vineyards provide perfect conditions for several varieties.

VSP is present in almost 80 markets on all five continents with its brands Cabo de Hornos, 1865, Castillo de Molina, 35°South, and GatoNegro. This wide brand portfolio allows it to target a great variety of consumers throughout the world.

Gato Negro Merlot won’t make our favorites list, but we look forward to tasting some other products from this Chilean winery.

Estancia Paso Robles Meritage 2004

Estancia Paso Robles MeritagePrice: $25
Maker: Estancia Winery, Soledad, California
Variety: Meritage – blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (61%), Merlot (30%), Petit Verdot (9%)
Packaging: 750 ml Bottle, natural cork
Alcohol: 14.5%
Our Rating: 9 out of 10

Estancia Paso Robles Meritage 2004 is an interesting and tasty wine. First, a bit about the label. “Meritage” isn’t a varietal. Rather, it’ a controlled designation originally intended as California’s answer to Bordeaux. Meritage is actually a trademark that can be used only by members of the Meritage Association and put only on wines meeting specific criteria. The wine must be a blend of at least two grapes from a list that includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and others. In addition, the association expects that wineries will use the label only on their finest blend, and will limit the production of that blend.

Our impression of the Estancia Meritage is that the winery has indeed followed the guidance of the Meritage Association and used the label on a blend they consider superior. This is a big wine that seems almost like a Zin with its powerful nose, big flavor, and relatively high alcohol content. This wine’s aroma is full of cherries, spice, and oak. On the palate, it starts with more cherries, blackberries, and a hint of mocha, leading into a lengthy finish that’s a balance of tannins, oak, and mild pepper. This is exactly the kind of red wine that we’re partial to, and pouring the last glass from the bottle was a sad moment. Pair this with beef or other strongly flavored entrees that need a red wine that can hold its own.

Hunting around wine blogs for commentary, we found that The Wino Club awarded Estancia Paso Robles Meritage 2004 a “double gold” when they tasted nine different Meritages.

Overall, this Meritage is a red wine worth trying. Our bottle came as a gift at our annual Christmas party – a thoughtful gift indeed!

Bogle Merlot 2004

Bogle MerlotPrice: $8
Maker: Bogle Vineyards, Graton, California
Varietal: Merlot
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, natural cork
Alcohol: 13.5%
Our Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Bogle Merlot 2004 offers more evidence that Bogle Vineyards knows how to make wines that are tasty but inexpensive. This Merlot has a pleasant aroma of berries, oak, and a hint of butterscotch. On the palate, it is smooth and well balanced, starting with cherry and blackberry notes, leading into an oaky finish with nippy tannins. All in all, Bogle Merlot 2004 is a very nice value at a sub-$10 price tag.

Earlier this year, we tasted Bogle Old Vine Zinfandel 2004 and liked it a lot, too. We gave that wine a rare (for us) 9 rating, not bad for a $10 wine. Actually, we’d consider the 2004 Merlot to be on the high side of our 8.5 rating.

We can’t praise the Bogle website quite as much – it features broken images and links that go nowhere.

If you can still find the 2004 Bogle Merlot on your wine shop shelf, by all means grab a bottle and see if you agree.

Robert Mondavi Private Selection Vinetta 2005

Robert Mondavi VinettaPrice: $9
Maker: Robert Mondavi, Woodbridge, California
Varietal: Blend – 68% Cabernet Sauvginon, 14% Merlot, 11% Petit Verdot, 5% Malbec, 2% Cabernet Franc
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, artificial cork
Alcohol: 13.5%
Our Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Robert Mondavi Private Selection Vinetta 2005 starts with a powerful licorice and berry nose. The flavor of this wine was rounded, fruity, and well-balanced, with cherries and a bit of cocoa leading into a finish that was long, a bit oaky, and slightly acidic. This was a very nice red wine that is supposed to be Bordeaux-style but is probably a bit fruitier than the real appelation. That’s OK with us, as we tend to prefer fruitier wines vs. those that are more mineral in character.

According to the Robert Mondavi Private Selection website, “The wines of Robert Mondavi Private Selection embrace the best characteristics of their distinctive vineyards on California’s coast, where cool fog and ocean breezes create a long growing season that results in grapes of intense flavor concentration.” Sounds fine to us, and it’s borne out at least in part by the pleasant character of this wine.

Vendange Merlot 2005

Price: $2
Maker: Vendange Wine Cellars, Lathrop, California
Variety: Merlot
Packaging: 175 ml bottle, screw cap closure
Alcohol Content: 13.0%
Our Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Vendange seems to be doing more with creative packaging than just about any other winery – the Vendange Merlot 2005 we tried came in a small 175ml bottle, and they also offer standard 750ml and 1.5l bottles plus their fairly unique 500ml Tetra Paks. This wine is a bit less creative. The nose was a bit weak, with spice, leather, and licorice notes. The flavor was plummy and earthy, with an oak finish. Were it not for the earthiness, which we associate with some of the cheapest boxed plonk, we would have liked this wine more. We rated Vendange Merlot 2004 (that one from a Tetra Pak) as better than this one – we found the two to be quite different.

One issue with wines in tiny bottles intended for single servings is that they are unlikely to get much breathing time. We’ve found young, cheap reds often benefit from some extra air. We didn’t experiment with this particular wine, but we may try that in the future.

In short, this wine is drinkable, but is far from our favorite cheap Merlot. If you don’t have to have the 175ml packaging, consider Bohemian Highway Merlot or Forest Glen Merlot. Both of these can be found for $5 – $8 per 750ml bottle, and are a lot more fun. If you can step up all the way to $10 or so, try Concannon Central Coast Merlot.