Merlot: The Ups and Downs of a Great Grape
Wines, like beehive hair styles or bell bottoms, go in and out of fashion. These days, all it takes is for a celebrity to be seen drinking a wine, or to post on social media how much they like a wine, and it instantly becomes a hot trend. Last summer, for example, a singer posted about loving a new sweet-style sangria wine, and Capriccio Red Sangria immediately sold out and was unavailable for 2 months. This year, everyone has forgotten Capriccio and is ready for the newest hot item.
In the 1990’s, America’s wine industry had a breakout decade as Americans learned to buy wine by the type of grape from which it was made, and Merlot became a favorite. A perfect “Goldilocks” grape, it was neither too sweet nor too dry, nor too rich nor too light. A few years later, Americans began exploring the lighter Pinot Noirs and the fuller bodied Cabernet Sauvignons, and Merlot began to fade a little.
This trend away from Merlot was not helped by the 2004 release of a popular film, “Sideways”. In the movie, the main character, Miles, was obsessed with Pinot Noir, and uttered one line about Merlot before heading into a restaurant: “No, if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any f****** Merlot”, and what became known as “The Sideways Effect” was born. Pinot sales shot up, while Merlot sales continued trending downward. In the movie, Miles’ ex-wife loves Merlot, which probably explains his strong feelings. In fact, the biggest joke of the movie is that, at the end, (is a Spoiler Alert needed if a movie is 15 years old?) Miles is seen enjoying a bottle of 1961 Château Cheval Blanc, a very famous French Merlot. If you are lucky enough to find a bottle for sale today, expect to pay between $1,000 and $4,000 a bottle!!
“The Sideways Effect” is unfortunate, because, although Merlot has had its ups and downs, it is still a great grape. In general, Merlot is described as a middle to full-weight red wine, with flavors of cherry, plum, and spice. The Merlot grape can be vinified into almost every style of wine, from light red wines to full-bodied red wines, to a Rosé or even to a Late Harvest dessert wine, and everything in between. Even if you don’t know you are enjoying Merlot, you probably are. Merlot is a key ingredient in red blends as well as Cabernet Sauvignon – yes, most Cabernets have some Merlot blended into them to smooth them out.
In California, for a wine to be labeled a particular grape varietal, it must contain at least 75% of that particular grape. A wine labelled “Merlot” for example, contains at least 75% Merlot grapes, and any percentage of other varietals to make up the rest. A great example of a California Merlot comes from Duckhorn Vineyards. The tasting notes from their website for Duckhorn’s 2016 Napa Valley Merlot read, “[On the nose], inviting aromas of fresh black raspberry, vanilla, tea leaves, pie crust and licorice. On the palate, luxurious red-fruit flavors of strawberry, plum, Bing cherry and loganberry are supported by silky tannins and a bright, mouthwatering acidity that carries the wine to a lingering finish, with hints of maple, cedar and sweet spice”. I don’t know about you, but to paraphrase Miles, “If anyone orders that Merlot, I’M NOT ******* leaving!”
Leaving California behind, let’s take a quick jaunt across the pond to the wine region where Merlot originated. Merlot is one of the five Noble Grapes of Bordeaux- Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petite Verdot are the other four.
In Bordeaux itself, things seem more complicated, but are easier to understand if you look at the geography of the region. Greatly simplified, Bordeaux is a wide river valley, divided by two rivers into two main wine regions. Because of the soil composition, more Cabernet Sauvignon is grown on the Left (West) bank, so these “Left Bank Blends” feature Cabernet, with the other grapes, including Merlot, enhancing its nuances. Because of the clay in the soil, the “Right Bank Blends” feature Merlot, often enhanced with Cabernet Franc and other grapes. Wines in this style can range from $10 to sky-high prices, as some are highly sought after. Château Petrus, Château Le Pin, Château Ausone, and Château Cheval Blanc produce wines that are primarily Merlot and are arguably some of the world’s greatest and most expensive wines.
So you see, despite “The Sideways Effect”, and the ebbs and flows of fashion, Merlot has always been and will continue to be an important grape both by itself, or as part of a blend, whether an inexpensive California wine or, through its heritage as a Right Bank Bordeaux, among the most expensive wines in the world. After 15 years, it’s time to give it a fresh try!!
Written by Pat Daniel. Permission to publish by Columbus & the Valley Magazine.