I have always found merlot to be an uninspiring varietal best suited to the dÉclassÉ role of a cocktail wine, as in "I'll have a glass of merlot, please."

It does do sturdy duty as stable mate to its more interesting and complex Bordeaux sibling, cabernet sauvignon. On its own, apart from a few rare and extremely expensive exceptions in St. Emilion and Pomerol, it tends to be inoffensive and completely innocuous—perfect for people who know little about wine and want something slightly sweet and toothsome.

Occasionally, though, I run across an interesting exception as in this gem from California, the Duckhorn Vineyards 2002 Napa Valley Merlot, Three Palms Vineyard, and it just goes to show that for any generalization one cares to make about wine, there's always an exception to prove one wrong.

Duckhorn has been a star of Napa winemaking for 30 years but the secret here, along with their meticulous wine-making, is the source of the grapes. Three Palms Vineyard is owned by the Upton brothers, who make no wine of their own but grow some of the most prized merlot grapes in California.

Here the result is a delicious, rich, and polished merlot. It is velvety in texture but has real acid structure and is not "over-extracted"—wine-speak for the New World affliction of jammy, over-ripe, and over-oaked reds. Cherry and vanilla flavors predominate at first, but after a while spicier, earthier notes begin to emerge tinged with hints of licorice and cedar. Duckhorn is known for tannic wines, and this version is only just now coming into its own. At around $90 a bottle it's not a cheap wine, but it will be spectacular in ten years' time.

When to Drink: Now, and for the next 10 years Breathing/Decanting: One hour minimum Food Pairing: Any rich meat, especially lamb, and game Grapes: 100% merlot Appellation: Napa Valley Region: California Country: U.S. Price: $90 Availability: Limited Web Site: www.duckhorn.com

See more wines at www.nickonwine.com.

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