Uprighting Sideways: Why the World Still Loves a Great Merlot

It’s been more a decade since the debut of the ultimate wine film, Sideways, but its popularity endures today. One line, in particular, lingers in the hearts and minds of wine enthusiasts and cinephiles. It’s the scene when Paul Giamatti’s wine snob character, Miles Raymond, openly declared his disdain for Merlot? “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving, I am not drinking any (bleeping) Merlot!”

 

The effect was instantaneous. After the film’s release in 2004, Merlot’s sales dipped by 2 percent (%). It was a small ebb, but it lasted for years. Despite the fictional flack it has received in the past, connoisseurs understand that there’s so much more to Merlot than being one character’s hated drink. They stood by it and their enduring love for the tipple has allowed the varietal to regain its footing as one of the most popular wines in the world. Nowadays, Merlot enjoys the reputation of being a prized variety for winemakers and drinkers alike. With a vine area of over 600,000 acres worldwide, the grape is also one of the most planted varieties on the planet. It’s second only to Cabernet Sauvignon.

From Merlau to Merlot: How the Little Blackbird took Flight

Prior to becoming the Merlot that we know and love today, the grape was called Merlau: it’s a word in the Occitan language that refers to a type of blackbird. The term first appeared in 1784 when a Bordeaux official wrote about one of the finest wines from the region of Libournais. According to historical records, the grape was also a mainstay in the vineyards of the Left Bank wine region, Médoc. The vintners who sampled the grape’s varietal found its lush fruit flavors and soft tannins to be stellar additions to the early Bordeaux.

In the early 19th century, Bordeaux wines began dominating the wine markets in Europe and America. In a matter of years, Merlot went from an unknown grape to a highly sought-after variety. Vignerons from around the globe scrambled for its seeds and cuttings. And by the end of the 1800s, the grape had found new homes in Italy (as Bordò), California, and Switzerland.

 

While most early producers regarded the grape as a blending agent, American winemakers saw its value as a stand-alone varietal. Its promise prompted other New World wine countries like Chile, Argentina, and Australia to follow suit. By the 1990s, Merlot had positioned itself as one of the top-rated wines in the international market. Though still used in blends, its varietal has gained quite the following, with the most ardent vino lovers willing to pay thousands of dollars for choice vintages.

The grape’s fame also inspired researchers from the University of California to try and trace its origins. Through DNA testing, scientists discovered that Merlot was the offspring of Cabernet Franc and a rare grape variety called Magdeleine noire des Charentes. This makes Merlot the half-sibling of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère, and Malbec.

Handle with Care: Merlot’s Growing Conditions

Though not as sensitive as Pinot Noir, Merlot is a grape that requires exacting growing standards. Its vines and thin-skinned fruits are susceptible to a myriad of viticultural hazards. It is prone to Botrytis bunch rot, downy mildew, leafhopper infection, and even cold frost.

Climate also plays a factor in grape yields and flavor. While the vine can grow in warmer regions, it flourishes best when planted in cooler ground, specifically ferrous clay. To ensure proper growth, vignerons are advised to curb water absorption, as Merlot thrives in well-drained soils. It’s also highly recommended that yields be kept low to improve grape quality.

On the upside, the grape remains a staple for most vineyards because of its rich and fleshy fruit. When made well, the wine can easily soften the most austere of vinos. Merlot also ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, making it the failsafe choice for vintners when facing lean months for other varieties.

Merlot Flavor Profile

Merlot is an incredibly versatile wine. It covers a gamut of styles from dry to fruity, smooth to tannic, light- to full-bodied. This vino is an expert at reflecting its producer’s technique and its terroir. At its lightest, the wine exhibits a soft and fruit-forward style that’s ripe with berry flavors and nearly untouched by tannins. While its heaviest variants showcase a tannic structure and robust flavor profile reminiscent to Cabernet Sauvignon

Generally speaking, this varietal offers a complex array of red and dark fruit undertones. Think cherries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, boysenberries, cassis, and plums. Underlying hints of graphite, tobacco, cedar, vanilla, mint, green olives, mocha, black tea, leather, clove, and mushrooms bring complexity to its flavors and aromas.

With 8-12 months of oak aging, winemakers can introduce a myriad of secondary aromas to the drink. Oaked Merlot features flavors that may include tobacco smoke, walnut, vanilla and espresso. Include milk chocolate, leather, and caramel in the list of flavors as well. Aging in American Oak barrels can also add a rustic feel to the wine. One thing to remember though: Merlot high alcohol content. Its usual ABV can go from 12%-15% depending on the winemaker.

Regional Differences: Old World vs. New World Merlot

Like a plethora of other fine wines, Merlot tends to mirror its growing conditions. In colder Old World countries like France and Italy, the grapes are harvested early. This allows winegrowers to retain the varietal’s fresh strawberry and raspberry flavors. But they still manage to keep acidity levels high. Depending on the producer’s winemaking and aging practices, the resulting vino can either be crisp and slightly vegetal, or earthy and tannin-heavy.

The latter is a popular Merlot style in the Gironde’s Right Bank. In this vino, the red fruit flavors are subdued, with smoky mushroom, pear, and cigar notes engaging the palate. A great traditional Merlot exhibits the delightful mix of cocoa and cherry flavors. Yet it’s balanced by the sweet and piquant underpinnings of aromatic clove and French vanilla.

Though predominantly seen in the older wine regions of Europe, some New World countries have also chosen to adopt this winemaking style. Take Chile, for example. The country’s primary wine offerings are Merlot-based cuvées that are similar to Pomerol, Fronsac, and Saint-Émilion wines.

Now, the other dominant style for this varietal is one that’s most prevalent in warmer New World wine countries like California, Argentina, and Australia. Vintners from these regions practice late harvesting. This allows them to create velvety, fruit-forward, and fuller-bodied wines with intense blackberry, boysenberry, and plum flavors. Some of these New World producers opt for longer oak treatment to help improve the structure of the varietal. Popular examples of this style includes Napa Valley and Paso Robles Merlots.

Merlot Food Pairing

When it comes to food-wine pairings, the ripe and easy-drinking Merlot makes an excellent companion to a myriad of meaty and fowl-centric fares. From beef bourguignon to osso buco, roasted duck to herbed chicken, you can expect this wine to accentuate the dish’s flavor. It will also bring textural contrast to your meal.

Fuller-bodied Merlots that are similar to Cab’s robust structure are a hit with grilled and barbecued meat. Think beautifully charred or roasted racks of lamb with a side of sautéed wild mushrooms, or a medium rare rib-eye doused in fragrant red wine reduction. While an elegant Bordeaux-style Merlot should go swimmingly with a platter of beef wellington and roasted turkey.

If you prefer the fruit-forward New World Merlot, then prepare to feast in savory dishes like smoked ham, mild jambalaya, and baked lasagna. While the light and refreshing variants of this wine are best suited to traditional Italian fares like pizza and pasta. It’s splendid with Mediterranean spreads of grilled chicken with dill-yogurt sauce and roasted vegetables as well.

Bottle Aging Potential

Like most other wines, Merlot’s cellaring potential differs according to its structure. The most budget-friendly of Merlots are usually built for immediate consumption. You can afford to keep this bottle in your wine cellar for a few months to a year tops. But it will do little to improve the vino’s flavors.

Fine wines with better body and structure can be bottle-aged anywhere from 3-12 years post-vintage. While the most investment-worthy Merlots have a shelf life of up to 25 years, provided the wine is stored properly.

Recommended Brands and Vintages

2007 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto Merlot. If you want the very best Toscana Merlot on the market, prepare to splurge on this wine. It is absolutely opulent with a mouthwatering perfume of dark chocolate, cinnamon, and dark cherry. This drink is as scrumptious and sinful as it sounds. Its lush, silky tannins are smooth in the mouth, but packs a long and decadent finish.

2008 Mt. Brave Merlot. This Napa Valley Merlot is a gorgeous example of a fruit-forward and ripe New World wine. Lavish notes of black cherry, plum, boysenberry, cocoa, and tobacco deliver stunning depth to the vino. Its lingering undertones of crème brûlée and dark chocolate truffles add a touch of luxuriousness to this supple drink.

2008 Leonetti Cellar Merlot. This Walla Walla offering is unique. One drink sends wave after wave of intense blackberry, dark cherry, licorice, plum, dark chocolate, and coconut flavors to the palate. Stunningly rich and intense, this exquisitely concentrated vino ranks high in our list of wine vault must-haves.

When it comes to vinos, few can match the superb flavors of this stellar wine. Don’t let one bad fictional review stop you from indulging in one of the wine world’s finest spirits. The next time you’re in the mood for a bottle of red, go for a magnificent Merlot.