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In my first wine study, we explored the king of wine, Cabernet Sauvignon. Well if Cab is king, then Merlot is his queen. It is soft, lush and many times feminine. Sounds tasty, right? Over the past couple of years, though, it has gotten a bad rap, just as Chardonnay did in the 1980s (many restaurant goers were touting the line ABC – Anything But Chardonnay). It is coming back though. To me, it seems as though winemakers are rallying against the bad press and the lingering effects of the movie Sideways. This 2004 Oscar winner skyrocketed Pinot Noir and left Merlot rotting on the vine when the main character, Miles–a wine snob to the tenth degree, states, “I am not drink any f***ing Merlot!” This wine study will focus on dispelling any lingering thoughts that Merlot is a lesser wine and promoting it to her place upon a throne.
What Is it?
Merlot–A red wine grape that’s name is thought to come from the French word merle, which means young blackbird. Whether it was named this because of its blue/black coloring on the vine or because the blackbirds loved it so, the name stuck.
Where Does It Grow?
As the root of its name suggests, Merlot is most prominent in France, where it is revered, and the main grape in some of the world’s most expensive and elusive Bordeauxs, namely Chateau Petrus. Because of its soft qualities, it is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Merlot grows in pretty much every wine-making region, most notably Washington, California, Chile, Italy and Hungary. It ripens early and is more adapted to the cold than Cabernet Sauvignon, making it a favorite of the Eastern European countries. They make many wines from this grape, again blending it often to make sweeter, fruitier reds.
In the colder-weather wine regions, like Washington, the wines end up a little more structured and robust. In Italy, it is the 5th most widely grown grape and is blended often with the light-bodied and acidic Sagniovese, giving the wines more body and a rounded finish. In California, with its long, warm growing season, the wines are lush and fruit forward. This became a blessing and a curse since the ease of California Merlot made it very drinkable and popular but turned off wine connoisseurs that thought these wines were flabby and nondescript. Chilean Merlot also had a sordid tale since for decades it had been picked and blended with the long lost, late ripening grape Carmenere. The wines were unbalanced and tasted of green pepper. Owners of Chilean winery Domaine Paul Bruno brought in experts to decipher if they were dealing with more than one grape. When it was revealed that many wineries were growing Carmenere instead of Merlot, it greatly helped the image of Chilean Merlot.
What Does It Taste Like?
The primary fruit flavors of Merlot are plum, black cherry, and red currant–non-fruits being chocolate, tobacco, and licorice that are enhanced by oak aging. California Merlot is often a low-tannin wine, leaving a smooth, soft finish. With French Merlots, the tannin levels can be ramped up, leaving a drier finish; whereas with Chile, the finish is a bit peppery. Overall, Merlot is fruity and appealing.
What Do I Pair It With?
Since Merlot is low in tannin, it can be enjoyed with anything from roast chicken to prime rib. I don’t recommend it with fish, but if you must, salmon would be a good bet. Hearty vegetarian meals, pork, and wild game work too. Cheeses that pair well are milder and creamier, such as Gouda, Gruyere, and mild Blue Cheese.
Now, one of my mentors has a strong belief that wine and food should always go together, inseparable, like the letters Q and U. So when I say that Merlot is one of those wines you can drink on its own, sans food, I hope he never finds out!
What Are My Favorites?
Ancient Peaks Merlot, Paso Robles, California 2010 $16.99 –
Red plum and vanilla are on the nose with a hint of cherry, medium in body with red currant, cherry and notes of stewed tomato, with cedar and mocha on the finish. This Merlot is well balanced and has nice tannins, a knockout for the price!
Chateau Couronneau Cuvee Pierre de Cartier, Bordeaux Superieur, France 2008 $24.99 –
If you have a nonbeliever of Merlot in your family, take him or her this beauty. The Chateau Couronneau is rustic and chewy, with intense blackberry and cassis, sure to fool any wine drinker into thinking it’s Cab. Coffee and raspberry on the finish, with tannins that beg for creamy, decadent cheese.
Pedestal Merlot, Columbia Valley, Washington 2006 $64.99 –
Iconic winemaker Michel Rolland is a believer in letting Merlot ripen longer, letting it become fuller and more lush. But he’s smart; he only does it in Bordeaux and Washington, where the wines will become mouth-filling and elegant–not in California, where late picking can lead to flabbiness. The Pedestal is everything that is good about Merlot–soft, ripe, rich, and round, with black cherry, forest fruits, cocoa and spice; a silky mouth feel and polish; integrated tannins on the finish.
My dad’s favorite wine is Merlot. Much like my mother, it is adaptable and likable but can also be elegant and complex. I can see why he loves them both.
– Jennifer Laurie