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Virginia merlot helps the transition from summer whites to autumn color.

Crossing the Line

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Merlot is considered by many wine folk to be a good crossover wine, a wine that helps dedicated white winers cross over to the ruby rich world of red wine. It is more substantial than Beaujolais yet not as stiff and dry as red Bordeaux; more penny loafer than church cap-toe. And its crepe sole, business-casual approach can ease novice red-wine drinkers into the complex character of red wine without demanding too much of the informal taste bud.

Our recent sampling of 12 Virginia merlots yielded a split panel on that score. While the one avowed non-red wine drinker found a couple of red wines she liked, what we found as a panel was that our individual tastes ranged widely on many wines. The big lesson we took from this is that merlot in Virginia remains a transition wine itself in transition.

Moreover, because of this disparity, it can only help to know your particular taste preference when you go into the store to buy one of these Virginia wines.

For example, my preference in red wine is for something with a little spine, a tannin structure that pushes back and leaves me thinking of pepper and other spices, my mouth a little scratchy and dry.

Of the wines we tasted, I favored the Oakencroft 1997 Monticello Merlot and the Ingleside Lot 97 Merlot. To me, the aroma of the Oakencroft hinted at chocolate while tasting like red berries. It was polished and balanced but very dry with a hint of cedar at the end. The Ingleside was even spicier with a dry peppery finish. Also high on my list was Chateau Morrisette 1997 Merlot (blackberries open to cherries and a hint of chocolate with a tapering finish), and Jefferson 1998 Monticello Merlot (deep aroma of black cherries, a little tart at first, muscular tannins, finishes very dry and peppery).

But the other panelists found the wines I liked too laced-up, too stiff and cotton-swab dry. Their preferences were for the milder, fruitier crossovers like White Hall Lot 97 Merlot (very even with a hint of sweetness at the end, "engaging but not overbearing" wrote one panelist); Gray Ghost 1998 Merlot (similar to White Hall, a straight fruity shot down the middle); and Oasis 1997 Merlot (raspberry aroma, crisp and soft).

Only one wine was universally disliked by the panel, but no matter which wine we preferred, we each found something to match with the spicy beef chili we served as a reward for our panelists' time and attention. Other fall dishes that should match well with these wines, particularly the drier ones, include beef fajitas, lentil soup and anything Tex-Mex.

But the biggest challenge of all may be in finding some of these wines without going to the wineries themselves, though doing so makes a great fall weekend or day trip. Merlot is made in limited quantity in Virginia, and several wineries we contacted said they were sold out of vintage 1997. Though we were able to find each of the sold-out wines with a little calling around town, we did have to trek all the way out to Powhatan from our North Side home for two of them.

Still, with the 1998 vintage — reportedly superior to 1997— all bottled up and ready to hit the shelves, there should be plenty out there to help you transition into winter.

The Merlot Index

Wines are listed in order of tasting. Prices are those charged at the winery. Certain vintage 1997 wines may be difficult to find locally.

Chateau Morrisette 1997 Virginia Merlot, $15 (83) — Looks thin but big on taste; blackberries, cherries with a lingering dry finish.

Tarara 1997 Virginia Merlot, $15.99 (81) — Brief and acidic; stewed.

Willowcroft 1998 Virginia Merlot, $15.79 (83) — Ruby red, deep and plummy with vanilla touch on finish.

Oasis 1997 Virginia Merlot, (86) — High scorer; herbal, spicy with tapered finish; a little thin. (The 97 vintage is sold-out at the winery, 98 vintage is $24.50.)

Barboursville 1998 Virginia Merlot, $15.99 (82) — Soft tannins, lightly dry; currant notes.

Jefferson 1998 Monticello Merlot, $19.95 (80) — Very dry and peppery; broad shoulders; strong black cherry nose.

Oakencroft 1997 Monticello Merlot, $16.50 (83) — Very nicely balanced; whisper of chocolate, red berries, cedar.

White Hall Lot 97 Virginia Merlot, $11.99 (85) — Even, soft and fruity.

Gray Ghost Vintage 1998 Virginia Merlot, $20 (85) — Berries and cherries, bright and soft, good balance.

Ingleside Lot 97 Virginia Merlot, $15 (83) — Shy, smooth, spice and pepper, short dry finish.

— P.G.

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