Tuesday, January 14, 2020

"Cabernet without the pain"


By now, anyone with even a casual interest in wine has heard the snarky line about Merlot uttered in the 2004 movie "Sideways." When offered a glass of Merlot instead of his favored Pinot Noir, Miles snarled "I'm not drinking any f!*#ing Merlot!"                                                                                                                                  

It was a simple throw-away line, but for some reason, Mile's criticism of Merlot resonated, creating ripples in the California wine industry. The degree of the impact is debatable, but no one could have predicted the sales backlash. Sales of Merlot dropped, at least temporarily, while Pinot Noir sales got a big boost. 

How important was the "Sideways" hullabaloo? Not very, I'd say. After all, it wasn't like Miles was a serious wine guy. He came off as a smug self-important wine drinker on a weekend jaunt, hoping to get lucky and drink some Pinot Noir. 

Maybe the question is does Miles, and by extension some wine consumers, understand Merlot?  At some point during the post-"Sideways" flap, someone said that Merlot is "Cabernet without pain," implying that Merlot has lower and softer tannins than Cabernet. Merlot does give the impression of being softer than Cabernet, but Merlot has more texture and up-front fruit, especially when both wines are young.

So what has happened with Merlot since the movie was released? Well, the California Merlot grape crush has mostly seesawed from one year to the next. The latest numbers I could find are from 2016, showing the total tons of California Merlot crushed in 2005 jumped to 425,000 from 300,000 in 2004. Then, starting in 2006, crush numbers settled down to approximately 325,000 tons until 2014, when the total dropped below 300,000 tons. As of 2016, Merlot was holding a 7% share of the total varietal market.   

Before Merlot stepped on to the world stage, it was valued as the primary grape of St. Emilion and Pomerol, two of the best red wines of Bordeaux. Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the main grapes in St. Emilion and Pomerol. Merlot is also a component part of the great red wines of the Medoc, although it is secondary there to Cabernet Sauvignon.  

(And that reminds me...In the late 1970s, when I was editor of the "Wine Spectator," I got a letter (pre-email days) from Alan Spencer, an Englishman living in Castillon with his French wife Monette, not far from the historic city of St. Emilion.

While traveling for his French computer software company, with the amusing name of "Kalamazo," Alan saw a copy of the "Wine Spectator" in an airport waiting area. 

Being an avid wine drinker, living in a world-famous French wine region, Alan bought a copy of the Spectator and began reading it on the plane. Months later, after we
became friends, he told me that he noticed there was no "correspondent" writing about Bordeaux. "So, I wrote you a letter saying that I had some wine contacts in the region and could send you news and reports on the local wines."  

Even later, on a trip to Bordeaux, Alan told me that he and Monette had become friends with Pascal Delbec, then the manager and winemaker of Chateau Ausone, one of St. Emilion's premier wineries and would I like to meet him and visit the chateau. 

Pascal Delbec is a quiet unassuming man who listens intently to questions and comments then considers his answers carefully before answering. Long story short, my visit to Ausone and conversations then and later with Pascal, introduced me to Merlot and demonstrated how as a single varietal, or even with the addition of a little Cabernet Franc, it shares greatness with the Cabernet Sauvignons of the Medoc.

The Merlot I tasted at Ch. Ausone and at other chateaux in St. Emilion and Pomerol had an earthy, slightly herbal character, just under layers of fruit. I had tasted a number of California Merlots, finding them stylistically split between fruit-forward almost plumy to slightly herbaceous, bumping up against dill in some cases. As the popularity of Merlot grew, that herbal characteristic disappeared from most California Merlot.)

Image result for free Merlot grape photos
Merlot cluster
Herbaceousness in wine is usually due to cool growing conditions, often resulting in under  ripe grapes. Merlot, an early-maturing variety, does well in cool soils and moderate temperatures, the sort of growing conditions to be found in eastern Washington, more than the warmer areas of California. 

Washington Merlot is well structured and fruity, but lacks the lush plump flavors of its California cousin, a style closer to St. Emilion than Sonoma and one that has a growing number of admirers. Here are four Washington Merlot producers worth a try: Long Shadows, Leonetti, L'Ecole No. 41, Seven Hills. 

California Merlot languished in the backwater of the state's vineyards until about 1970 when a handful of Napa wineries, notably Louis Martini and Duckhorn Vineyards, looked for a grape to soften the harsher tannins of Cabernet Sauvignon, bringing Merlot out of retirement. 

Today's California Merlot emphasizes black fruits, like dark cherries and plums, occasionally with an earthy or herbaceous note. California Merlot worth a try include Whitehall Lane, Duckhorn, Pride Mountain, La Jota, Ch. St. Jean, Markham, Trefethen, Keenan.

Although St. Emilion and Pomerol remain as the benchmarks for Merlot, they are priced well above many wine budgets. Look for better deals from California and Washington state. And forget Miles' dismissive rant; enjoy Merlot. 


Next Blog: Wine and the written word. 

Comments? Suggestions? Email me at boydvino707@gmail.com

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.