Anything But Merlot
The movie “Sideways” starring Paul Giamatti as a struggling wine enthusiast and writer turned 10 years old last year. But up to now, people are still talking about how this movie affected the sales of both Merlot and Pinot Noir. Giamatti’s character was a big Pinot Noir fan and adamantly refused to drink Merlot. In 2009, Dr. Steven S. Cuellar, an associate professor of economics at Sonoma State University and senior research economist at Sonoma Research Associates actually conducted a research to find out how the movie affected the demand for both wines based on the price and quantity sold for each varietal. Results showed that “Sideways” had a negative impact on the consumption of lower priced Merlot while increasing the consumption of Pinot Noir. BUT it also showed that drinkers of higher priced Merlot were continuing to drink their wine of choice.
To backtrack a bit, Merlot hit its high in the 1990s and became the top-selling red varietal wine in the United States. It rode the same wave as the dot coms in California that Industry Analyst Jon Fredrikson dubbed it “the Silicon Valley grape” with sales growing between 20 to 30% year after year. After that, its popularity became its downfall. Merlot struggled in both reputation and sales and became the wine that “newbies” drink.
Obviously, Merlot has the United States to thank for its increase in popularity. Plantings in the U.S. are definitely not as much as in France but it hasn’t stopped American vintners from making fresh, fruity and easy to drink reds with this French native. Merlot had become the red counterpart of Chardonnay. In the wine world, popularity is not always a good thing. In Merlot’s case, this was true. People who drink it have very little to say to describe its flavor. Most common descriptors would be “smooth” or “easy to drink.” As Jancis Robinson mentions in her book The Oxford Guide to Wine, it is “Cabernet without the pain.” Pain, of course alludes to the astringency that the thick-skinned Cabernet Sauvignon grape brings to its wines.
To understand the wine, it is always good to understand the grape. Merlot is a black grape variety originally associated with the great wines of St-Emilion and Pomerol. It has become very popular worldwide that it’s only competition as far as plantings is concerned are Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot is an earlier ripening grape than Cabernet Sauvignon and is relatively easier to grow in more marginal climates.
So yes, for beginning wine drinkers, Merlot is heaven sent. It is the wine to go to if you want something that has more ripe fruit flavors, less tannins and a smoother finish. It is also a good food-pairing partner. And, depending on where it’s from, Merlot is also generally a little bit more affordable than Cabernet Sauvignon.
But while Merlot is known to be less bold than Cabs, there are wines made from Merlot that can be just as intense as its Cabernet Sauvignon counterpart. A good tip to remember is to seek out Merlot from hillier estates. (winefolly.com has good examples of these). Where the wine is made also makes a big difference in the taste profile. Merlot that come from cooler climates (Old World) have a tendency to have a higher acidity and a more restrained fruitiness to them. Those from warmer climates (New World) are a bit bolder and fruitier. They also tend to have higher alcohol content and may have a bit more residual sugar.
So did Merlot really deserve to get such a bad rap? The answer is, of course, a resounding “no.” Yes, Merlot is known as a blending partner for Cabernet Sauvignon, to soften the latter’s astringency and make it easier on the palate. But when Merlot is vinified on its own by a winemaker who knows his stuff, it can definitely get the top billing. It can be a star. Whereas Cabernet Sauvignon is usually tannic, powerful and robust, Merlot is elegant, interesting and gentle. Also, those who know the great Merlot-based wines from France such as the Chateau Petrus 2004 and La Mondotte 2004 must know that these wines can age gracefully, with complexity and drinkability even getting better with time.
Apart from Bordeaux, Merlot is also a success in other areas of southwest France and even in Languedoc. The very reason that the wine is maligned (due to its drinkability at an early age) is the same reason why it is well-loved. There is no need to wait for years until it is good to pour. Merlot from France is ready to drink, rich and flavorful from the get go.
At the end of the day, wine lovers can agree that the best Merlots are excellent. Even your “everyday” Merlot, for as long as they come from brands with established reputations, are still worth trying out. As with all wines, the provenance as well as the reputation of the winemaker is of utmost importance here. So, go on out there and give Merlot a second chance.