Between the Vines is a biweekly column on wine and wine making in the Livermore Valley region. This column was contributed by members of the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association. Each month, Livermore Valley wine country highlights a grape varietal grown in our region. November's featured varietal is merlot.

A dark blue colored grape, merlot is originally from France, where the name translates to "young blackbird" and is said to refer to the grape's color. Luscious and approachable, this classic varietal is known for its fruity aromas and herbal hints. But don't assume it's all soft; the right Livermore Valley merlot can go glass-to-glass with the biggest, boldest cabernet sauvignon.

"A well made merlot has the depth and body of a big red wine, such as cabernet sauvignon, but it will not be as astringent," says Darcie Kent, of Darcie Kent Vineyards. "Livermore Valley has that rare combination of warm days, cool nights and persistent breezes that allow merlot grapes to obtain ideal ripeness before harvest."

"We make merlot because it is so popular, easy to drink and a very agreeable wine but with complexity. It has a more lush mouth feel than most varietals and is a perfect blending wine," says William Westover Smyth, owner and winemaker at Westover Vineyards in Castro Valley. "It is a key component of Westover's 'je t'aime' -- 'I love you' -- wine, which blends merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. We also make merlot with grapes from Scott Burkhardt's Thatcher Bay Vineyards in Livermore Valley."

Noah Taylor, Retzlaff Vineyards' assistant winemaker, agrees that "Livermore Valley is well suited and known for producing characteristically large, fruit-forward and tannin-balanced merlots.

"Retzlaff produces a merlot similar in style to those made in Saint Emilion, France, with rich flavors of plum and jam with smooth tannins and a lingering fruit finish," continues Taylor. "Merlot is wonderful with a mustard-encrusted pork tenderloin, currant couscous, nuts or strong cheeses."

Visitors will find merlot at more than 25 Livermore Valley wineries. To learn more, visit www.LVwine.org or www.discovercaliforniawines.com

wine country events

  • Winemaker's Dinner with Karl Wente -- 6:30 to 9 p.m. Nov. 7 at Wente Vineyards Event Center, 5050 Arroyo Road in Livermore. Cost is $109. A four-course meal paired with Wente Vineyards Small Lot and Nth Degree red wines from bottle and barrel will include dessert presented by special guest Steve Genzoli, a Ghirardelli chocolate professional. For information, call 925-456-2405 or buy online at shop.wentevineyards.com. Seating is limited seating, and reservations are required.

  • Winemaker's Dinner with Occasio -- 6 to 10 p.m. Nov. 16 at Occasio Winery, 2245B S. Vasco Road in Livermore; www.occasiowinery.com. Cost is $120. A reception plus a four-course dinner will be paired with Occasio wine, including the new, unreleased Malbec.