Benziger Merlot 2008, Sonoma County

Cost: $15-18

What: It’s always nice to revisit old favorite wines to see if they have changed. In the case of the Benziger Merlot, the wine seems to keep getting better.

I have enjoyed Benziger wines for many years, but in the last 7 or 8 years there has been a big improvement as the family has gone to more natural farming methods. They also have put a much bigger emphasis on quality.

I have had the 2008 Merlot in my cellar for a couple of years, and it really is coming into its own now. If you have any in your cellar, drink it now. If you don’t have any, buy the current release because it likely will be even smoother and better than the 2008.

The wine opens with beautiful floral and coffee aromas. The taste is deep and complex, with notes of ripe plum, black raspberry and cherry fruit and a rich earthiness. It is a rich, lush wine, with rounded tannins and balanced acidity. The finish is long and smooth.

Benziger Merlot.
Benziger Merlot.

The grapes come from select vineyards throughout Sonoma which all contribute to the complexity of the wine. The grapes are fermented and aged separately in American and Hungarian oak for 18 months before the final blend is made. It is aged another 12 months in the bottle before release.

In the summer following harvest about half the wine is made into a base blend and returned to barrels until the final blend is assembled the next spring. This allows the components to marry in the cellar and gives the winemaker a more diverse palette for flavors when he assembles the final blend.

Benziger continues to do interesting things with its wines while releasing quality wines at low prices. This is a great example of what Merlot should taste like when it is grown in the right location and handled properly in the winery.

Winery: The Benziger Family has been growing grapes on Sonoma Mountain for 30 years, but since 2001 they have been working on a sustainable vineyard program. They enlisted environmental experts, tested their vineyards and made a number of changes.

The resulting program was called “Farming for Flavors.” It encourages growers to farm more responsibly and is one of the most thorough quality programs around. The family chose to go that route because they believe sustainable practices produce wines that reflect the characteristics of the vineyards.

The change came when the family noticed that spraying to keep weeds and bugs down and fertilizing to keep the grape yield up didn’t appear to help the vines. They didn’t look as hardy as they once did and the soil didn’t look as rich.

Many wineries are embracing sustainable farming practices, but the Benzigers jumped into it with a take-no-prisoners attitude.

Mike Benziger started pushing for greener practices, eventually discovering Biodynamics, an ultra-organic approach. They pulled up vines that weren’t suited to the soil they were in and planted fewer vines so they could thrive. They promote natural vineyard management and biodiversity, planting special gardens to attract “good” insects that naturally eliminate the pests.

Now the family grows all kinds of fruit and vegetables on their land and raises animals as well. Water is recycled and purified naturally. They go to extraordinary lengths to let the character of the land show through in their wines.

They also have a beautiful tasting room with a tour that shows visitors how they grow grapes in a way to preserve the land for future generations. I have visited the winery several times in the past few years, and every time was a great experience.

The winery produces many varietals at several price points. The Benziger Family wines, such as this one, are the least expensive. Considering the high quality of the wines, they are terrific bargains. The winery bottles about 20 different wines each year.

Benziger Merlot with the next day buffet.
Benziger Merlot with the next day buffet.

Goes with: Teri and I had this with another great meal of leftovers. I know some people will think we eat nothing but leftovers, and it is true we eat them a lot. I like to make extra when I cook, so then I can have another meal with the leftovers, which sometimes are better than the food was the first time around.

This time the leftovers were pizza from Giuseppe’s, spicy chicken wings from Publix and ribs from Clint Bryant with fresh salads. What a great combination. Teri called it the next day buffet.

The silky smooth Merlot matched all three main courses, with the silky fruit flavors nicely matching the various spices. Some people don’t think about red wine with chicken, but the Benziger Merlot is a nice match to all kinds of chicken dishes, neither overpowering the food nor disappearing.

The wine also would go well with broiled salmon, beef stew, roast pork loin or meats with savory herbs or subtle sauces.

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