RECOMMENDED: Carmen 2009 Merlot, Rapel Valley, Chile. 13.5% ABV. $9-11.

When our favorite local Thai restaurant (Ayuttaya Thai Cuisine, Ocala, FL) scaled down their wine list, at first we were disappointed. However, we’ve given a couple of their wines a try, and actually they’ve done a very wise thing—they replaced the previous, more expensive wines with less expensive wines that are actually better than what they had before. Case in point: the 2009 Carmen Merlot, which is available for as little as $9.18 online and for $16 on the restaurant’s wine list.

Founded in 1850, Carmen is Chile’s oldest winery. Their Gold Reserve wines routinely score in the 90s. And this, their entry-level Merlot, is just fine at one-tenth of the cost.

Scents of tea, fruit, and cedar/oak gave way to a pleasant, mouth-filling, balanced wine with gentle tannins, luscious fruit, and hardly any spice. It was slightly overwhelmed by the Thai dinner, but the flavor bounced back quickly enough.

LABEL NOTES: Between the world’s driest desert, the Atacama, and the Patagonian glaciers, harsh landscapes and variant microclimates cultivate Carmen’s outstanding Merlot. Uniquely bright black cherry colour, with intense aromas of caramel, cherries and ripe strawberries with a slight touch of spice, coffee and wood notes. Soft tannins and a lingering fruit finish. Enjoy with all kinds of cheeses, pasta, poultry and fish.

WEB: www.Carmen.com

Carmen is under the aegis of Trinchero Family Estates Wines, which handles 26 lines including not only Trinchero but also Newman’s Own, Joel Gott, Napa Cellars, Sutter Home, Menage a Trois, Folie a Deux, Angove, Avissi, Bandit, Dona Paula, alcohol-removed FRE, Jargon, Little Boomey, Main St. Winery, Montevina, SeaGlass, The Show, Terra d’Oro, Trinity Oaks, and Sycamore Lane.

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