Wayne On Wine
Merlot, the prodigious grape of France and the world
By Wayne Crawford
Movie history and wine! In the 2004 film, “Sideways,” showcasing a winetasting road adventure in California, Paul Giamatti plays wine elitist, Miles. In a conversation with his traveling buddy, Jack, played by Thomas Haden Church, Miles replies, “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving, I am not drinking any (expletive) … Merlot!”
This scene sent shock waves through the wine realm, particularly in California where Merlot sales plunged, but it did great service to Santa Barbara. Thirteen years of dust has settled and merlot remains a principal red grape.
On the right bank of Bordeaux, France, north of the Gironde estuary, merlot is the leading black grape in blending Bordeaux wines. In point, it is the second most-planted black wine grape in the world, almost tied with cabernet sauvignon.
The earliest mention of merlot is by Jancis Robinson in “Wine Grapes,” 1783-4, in the Gironde. The parents of this grape are cabernet franc—also the father of cabernet sauvignon—and Magdeleine Noire des Charentes, the mother.
In my article on 2017 wine trends, I highlighted that Merlot was fourth on the red wine consumption list in the U.S., behind Cabernet Sauvignon and blended red wines, which may include merlot and pinot noir.
Merlot comes in all price points and varies in aroma and taste, based on cool or warm climate growth and winemaker skills. Merlot is grown in several North Georgia wineries, where many use netting to protect this and other grapes from the big challenge birds present to grape production. Interestingly, the name merlot comes from the Occitan, spoken in southern France and the official language of Catalonia. It is derived from the word for blackbird, merlau, and this early ripening grape often was attacked by blackbirds as the fruit ripened. It makes for a good story!
The 2005 Chateau Petrus 100 percent merlot with a 97 rating and has an average asking price of $4,088 per 750 ml., not bad for a relatively small acreage in Pomerol, Boudreaux. A less expensive merlot is the Tuscany 2006 Tenuta dell’ Ornellaia Masseto, which has an average rating of 99 points by most wine experts and sells for $915. Something must be working well for this grape to demand such prices.
Several years ago I enjoyed a Masseto 2004 Merlot and recall delicious red berries and spice with a well-rounded mouthfeel in an exceptionally well-crafted wine with a long savoring finish—the advantage of sharing a wine with a distributor.
Merlot is an early bloomer with medium-sized, blackish, thin-skinned berries. The leading merlot-producing countries are France, Italy, United States, Australia and Chile, so there are lots of opportunities to find a Merlot to drink. The wine has medium tannins and acidity, is fruit forward when young with plum, black cherry, raspberry and mixed spices with a soft finish.
A young, warm-climate Merlot pairs nicely with braised, grilled or roasted chicken, lamb and pork. Older, cooler-climate, aged merlot pairs wonderfully with prime rib, duck, filet mignon, grilled steaks and aged blue, Cheddar and Gouda cheeses.
The Big Canoe Wine Group shared a Merlot blind-tasting in January, with wines ranging in vintage age from 2002 to 2013. Our first choice was a Twomey 2002 Napa wine. More unique was our second choice: a 2005 BlackStock Reserve Merlot from Georgia. Readers may recall several years ago BlackStock Vineyards and Winery went out of business. It has been replaced by Kaya Vineyard & Winery at the same location. The price then was around $20 and, after 12 years, it not only aged well but reinforces there is quality wine growing in the state of Georgia.
‘Wines Drinking Well Now’
Twomey 2002 Merlot, Napa Valley, Calif., $39. This is a single-vineyard wine, 94 percent merlot and 6 percent cabernet sauvignon. Color is dark-red with a slight orange tinge on the rim in a 15-year-old wine. Aromas of blackberry, spice, dried fruit and tobacco resonate. On the palate, it has a medium body, black cherry, pepper with soft tannins, good acidity and is balanced with hints of tobacco—a lingering finish offered in a complex, excellent wine. Highly Recommended. A 2011 vintage averages $58.
BlackStock Vineyards and Winery 2005 Merlot Reserve, Dahlonega, Ga., $20. Ruby-red in color, this wine is brilliant and reflective. Aromas are of black cherry, spice and apricot. It is a balanced, medium-body wine with a smooth mouthfeel, black cherry, white pepper and hints of apricot on the palate, with a lingering finish. This well-crafted wine is, unfortunately, no longer available for sale.
Beringer Merlot 2011 Napa Valley, Calif., $16.99. Ruby-red with aromas of black cherry, plum, spice and cocoa on the palate this wine offers a medium body. Black cherry and plum lead with pleasant acidity and a good mouthfeel. A long finish with black fruit dominates a well-crafted wine. Best Buy.
Shafer 2012 Merlot Napa Valley, Calif., $58. This wine is 88 percent merlot, 7 percent cabernet sauvignon and 5 percent malbec. Ruby-red colors showcase aromas of black cherry, spice, plum and cocoa. On the palate, the full body with rich black cherry and plum dominates with smooth tannins. A lingering finish complements this robust wine. Highly Recommended.
Other Merlots to consider: Lapostolle Cuvee Alexandre Merlot 2012 Chile, $24.99; Murphy-Goode 2013 California Merlot, $14.99; Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells Vineyard Merlot 2013 Washington, $21.99; Chateau Ste. Michelle Canoe Ridge Estate Vineyard Merlot 2013 Washington, $27.99; and Columbia Crest H3 Merlot 2014, $14.99.
‘Drink What You Like’
In my next article, the focus will be on Alsace white and red wines from this French land that has been historically in conflict between Germany and France. It Is there that exceptional, age-worthy wines—along with crisp, fresh wines—are made using riesling, gewürztraminer, pinot blanc, pinot gris and pinot noir as primary grapes.
Wayne Crawford is a French Wine Scholar (FWS), a certified specialist of Wine (CSW), a member of the Wine Scholar Guild, Society of Wine Educators and American Wine Society.