“If anybody orders merlot, I’m leaving!
I’m not drinking any f…ing merlot!”
Miles from the movie ‘Sideways’.
Wow. Miles had some strong feelings about this varietal. Because of this movie, merlot sales tanked for a long period of time. Such are the powers of Hollywood, eh? And, let’s be honest here, are you one of those people who still carry a prejudice against merlot? I was serving a woman in the winery a year or so ago and when it came time to taste the merlot, she said she would skip that one.
Surprised, I asked why. Her husband promptly breathed out the word “Sideways.” This woman hadn’t tasted one merlot in over eight years. “Get over it,” I exclaimed! Then she bought two bottles of the merlots we were selling at the time. Moral of the story: don’t take another person’s judgement as your truth. (Good advice for many of life’s quandaries.)
But, ok, maybe, at the time the movie was made in 2004, the wildly popular, simple and over produced merlots needed to take a breather to reassess. It did. And merlot sales are once again up along with fabulous quality.
The Case for Merlot
Why do people like merlot in the first place? Because it tastes good! It can be soft and silky with lots of plum and cherry fruit, chocolate and low tannins. Or, especially true here in Washington, it can be more highly structured and deeply concentrated with aromas and flavors of blackberry, cassis, mocha and sometimes, leather. Certain regions in northern Italy and Long Island in New York are known for a lean, sleek style of merlot. While in Bordeaux and California, merlot is often said to be more soft, fleshy and plump.
Merlot just seems to have a more immediate appeal than, say, cabernet sauvignon, it’s nearest wine rival. It ripens earlier, has lower tannins and higher sugar levels which translates to higher alcohol content and is just a little easier drinking. In general, it doesn’t age quite as long as a cabernet sauvignon and has never gained the prestige of that wine.
That being said, cab and merlot make excellent blending partners. They complement each other by filling in with what the other may lack. More fruit and softness for the cab, more tannins and structure for the merlot. And where did this all begin?
The History of Merlot
Well, for a little historical reference, put your berets back on, because these wine roads lead us back to France. France, particularly Bordeaux, is merlot’s home territory. The name comes from the French word “merle” which means little blackbird, perhaps because of the beautiful, dark blue color of the grapes.
Or, perhaps, because they just loved eating the grapes. Dunno for sure, but I do know that Merlot is by far the most planted red grape in the Bordeaux region and that It is typically blended with cabernet sauvignon and perhaps a bit of the other approved grapes of Bordeaux, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec. I know, I recently told you how carménère is one of the original gang, but it is hardly grown there anymore let alone in the blend. Sigh.
Really good merlots can be had for a reasonable price, too. Just try Northwest Cellars current 100% Merlot from Coyote Canyon vineyard in Horse Heaven Hills. Beautifully structured and delicious, it’s only $24.00. Or, then again, you could buy a bottle of Château Petrus, an estate in Pomerol located on the right bank in Bordeaux for a mere average price of $2600.00. Yeah, you read that right. One of the most expensive wines in the world. I have never tasted one, but my understanding is that it has everything to do with its expression of the terroir and its blue clay. Most are 100% merlot, Miles!
Merlot is grown extensively in many parts of the world. Chile, Australia, South Africa, Northern Italy, New Zealand, Argentina, many parts of France, Switzerland, Romania, and Bulgaria, not to mention in the U.S, most notably our own Washington state which has already been recognized as a premium merlot grower and maker. Try some from different places and see what style you like. And if you happen upon a bottle of Château Petrus, please, please bring it by and share it with me! I said please….!
One side note- if you haven’t seen Sideways, I would recommend that you do. It’s about wine and life. Get ready for some outrageousness and a little poignancy. And so funny.