Merlot - The Tragedy of the Overnight Sensation!
It has become popular in the past few years to sneer at Merlot, at least among those who think they know about wine. This hostility towards one of the world's great grapes is unjustified, if understandable. For many years, Merlot was the step-child of Cabernet Sauvignon, derided as a "blending grape", useful only as a sort of Cabernet helper. Then, the wine world realized that Merlot was a grape with the same familiar flavors as Cabernet, but without its sometimes overly aggressive tannins. So, after years of anonymous toil, Merlot was an overnight sensation. Wine drinkers couldn't get enough of it. This led to the planting of Merlot on any open plot of land, whether the soil and climate were suited to Merlot or not. The result was an ocean of flabby, vaguely red wine labeled Merlot. These dull wines, combined with the bizarre tendency of the world to want to drag down the successful, led to the anti Merlot movement. This hatred of Merlot is summed up by the character Miles in the movie Sideways, when he said "..., if anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any (expletive deleted) Merlot!" The fact of the matter remains Merlot grown in the right place, and vinified the right way, belongs in every wine lover's cellar.
From Grape to Bottle - Merlot in the Vineyard and Winery
In the vineyard, Merlot is not a difficult grape to grow, but it does take some care. It grows well in a variety of soils, perhaps best in rocky ones, and does well in clay soils that Cabernet does not like. It is an early budding and flowering variety, so care does have to be taken in the event of spring frosts. It is susceptible to coulure, which is a failure of the pollination of the flowers, leading to poor fruit set. Once it is past these dangers, Merlot takes off. Left on its own, it would produce large amounts of vegetation and fruit. Too produce top quality fruit, this tendency must be reined in by pruning and removal of some clusters of unripe fruit in mid summer. Then, as harvest approaches, Merlot has to be watched carefully. It ripens early, and if not harvested as soon as it ripens, it tends to lose its acidity, and produce flat, flabby wines.
In the winery, Merlot presents a fairly straightforward task for the winemaker. The fruit is crushed, and the juice and solids are put together in the fermentation vessel. During fermentation the mass of pulp and skins rises to the top of the fermenting wine, forming a cap, which is either punched down into the juice, or the juice is pumped over the top, so that extraction of the color and flavor from the skins continues. When the yeast has consumed all of the sugar, and fermentation stops, the pulp and skins are left in the must for a period of from a few days up to a few weeks, depending on how much extraction of flavors is desired. The wine is then run off the solids, and the solids pressed to extract the remaining wine. Because it is less tannic than Cabernet it can be bottled without barrel aging, but the best Merlot will receive barrel aging to round out the flavors and lend complexity.
In the Glass -The Flavors of Merlot
Merlots color is similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, if a little less deep. It is a wine possessed of much of the same flavor profile as Cabernet Sauvignon. The primary aromas and flavors are dominated by currant, plum, and black cherry with an underlying herbaceous character. That herbal quality may be accentuated if the grape is either unripe, or overripe, verging on bell pepper and asparagus. The use of oak barrels will impart flavors of vanilla and smoke, as well as oak. With aging, cedar, leather, cigar box, and earthy qualities will be added to the mix. Where Merlot differs from Cabernet is in its mouthfeel. First, it is, in general, less full bodied than Cabernet, although there is considerable variation. Second, it is lower in acidity, which increases the feeling of silkiness on the palate. Third, and most importantly, its thinner skins produce a wine with a lower level of tannin, making it less mouth puckeringly astringent. The difference can be summed up as this-Cabernet is like putting a cube of wood in your mouth-angular, with edges, and hard, while Merlot is like putting a small rubber ball in your mouth-smooth, round, and pliable.
On the Table - Merlot and Food
As you might expect from its similarity in flavor to Cabernet, there are similarities in what foods go well with Merlot. Its affinity for rich, fat laced red meats is clear. However, where Cabernet is best suited to the richest, most intense cuts of meat and sauces, Merlot shines when the cut of meat is less richly flavored, or the saucing or spicing of the dish is less robust. If Cabernet is best for a pepper crusted steak, Merlot may be better suited to a steak with beurre rouge, a red wine, butter and shallot sauce. Its lighter profile also allows Merlot to pair well with lighter meats that would be overwhelmed by Cabernet. Roast pork, chicken, turkey, and veal, while sometimes suited to white wines, can pair well with Merlot if the saucing or spicing is on the richer side. Merlot, in its softest styles, can also pair with meaty fish like tuna or salmon. As a partner to cheese, Merlot has an affinity for sheep's milk cheeses, less ripe washed rind cow's milk cheeses, and lighter English cheeses.
The Geography of Merlot - Where It Grows, and Grows Well
While Bordeaux is thought of as being a Cabernet Sauvignon based wine, there is actually more acreage planted to Merlot than Cabernet. That, combined with Merlot's greater yield, means that even more of the average Bordeaux wine is Merlot. Merlot's importance in Bordeaux varies by sub region. In the Medoc peninsula, on the western side of the Gironde, where the famous wine towns of Pessac Léognan, Margaux, Saint Julien, Pauillac, and Saint Estephe are located, Merlot plays the secondary role. It still amounts to some 15-50% of the blend in these areas. On the eastern side of the Gironde, in the towns of Saint Emilion and, most famously, Pomerol, Merlot plays a more significant role. In Saint Emilion, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the co dominant grapes. In Pomerol, there is no doubt that Merlot is the leader. Here, Merlot typically is from 60-95% of the blend. Such legendary wines as Chateaux Petrus, Trotanoy, l'Evangile, Lafleur, Le Pin, Certan de May, and Vieux Chateau Certan are all in this heavily Merlot group. In the lesser appellations of Bordeaux such as Cotes de Castillon, Cote de Bourg, Cote de Blaye, Fronsac, Lalande de Pomerol, Bergerac, and Bordeaux, Merlot is also at least a co equal partner with Cabernet. Elsewhere in France, Merlot is widely grown in the south in the Languedoc Roussillon region. Here it is mainly used to produce inexpensive, everyday drinking wines, much of it for export to the United States.
Merlot is fairly widely grown in Italy. In many regions, it is used in its traditional role as a blending grape, to add a roundness and voluptuousness to the sometimes chewy and acidic Italian varieties. In the north east of Italy, in the Friuli region, it is often seen as a single varietal bottling. In the Collio, Colli Orientali, Isonzo, and Grave del Friuli districts there are specific DOCs for Merlot. Here it makes a very soft, easy drinking red, designed to be consumed young, while its fruit is still fresh. There are occasional bottlings of top quality, but for the most part, northeast Italian Merlot is of the everyday drinking variety. In Tuscany, with the rise of the "Super Tuscan" wines, Merlot has found an important home. Here, blended with Sangiovese and/or Cabernet, it is a vital component in wines such as Sette Ponti Crognolo, Oreno, Ornellaia, Mormoreto, Serre Nuove, and more. The wine generally considered the finest pure Italian Merlot is Masseto, one of Italy's most sought after, and most expensive, red wines. Merlot also has an important role in the wines of Umbria, most notably from the Falesco winery.
The Rest of Europe
Merlot is widely grown in Eastern Europe, but nowhere has it risen above the level of sound, everyday wine. It is virtually unknown in Germany. In the Italian cantons of Switzerland it is used, but the wines are mostly flabby, and uninteresting. It shows up in Spain, often blended with local varieties, but is not a grape of great importance.
Merlot became hugely popular in the 90s, and was widely planted all over California. In 1986, there were only about 2,500 acres of Merlot in California, by 2006 that number had skyrocketed to over 50,000 acres. In that planting boom, much was planted in areas not likely to produce top quality. While Napa and Sonoma now have about 14,000 acres, the too hot for Merlot Central Valley has over 24,000 acres. This has been the cause of much of the disaffection with Merlot. In the better regions, Napa and Sonoma, along with Mendocino and the Central Coast, Merlot can be a top quality wine. By far, however, the best quality Merlot in California comes from Napa and Sonoma. Here, wineries like Duckhorn, Newton, Pride, Shafer, Beringer, Benziger, Chateau St. Jean, St. Francis, Whitehall Lane, Pine Ridge, and more have more than proven the quality of this grape. There do not seem to be distinct differences in the wines produced between the two counties, and the differences in style one does find have more to do with winemaking than climate. The cooler zones of the Russian River Valley and Carneros show some effect of temperature, but greater effects on style can be found between valley floor and mountain fruit. The other regions of California show some differences from temperature, with Paso Robles fruit showing more of the hot climate side of Merlot with lower acidity, while Monterey shows the cooler climate characteristics of a more vegetal character.
Washington is the only other American source for significant quantity of top quality Merlot. In the cool desert environment of the Columbia Valley, protected from excessive rain by the rain shield of the Cascade Mountains, Merlot ripens gently and produces world class wines. Pedestal, Leonetti, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, and Owen Roe have all produced Merlot to compete with the vary best. Some good Merlot is found from Oregon, but most of the state is too cool for Merlot. On the North Fork of Long Island in New York Merlot has also shown flashes of brilliance, but not in large enough quantities to be commercially important.
Merlot is Australia's third most important grape. Of course, it is way behind Shiraz and Cabernet, both in quantity and quality. A large amount of fairly ordinary Merlot is produced from grapes grown in the warm Riverina and Murray regions of New South Wales. This is used primarily for the ubiquitous "animal label" Australian wines in the under $8 range. In cooler areas like the Adelaide Hills, Limestone Coast, and Coonawarra in South Australia, Merlot of a much higher quality can be found. As of yet, there is no distinctly Australian character to any of the Aussie Merlot, so while they may be very good wines, they suffer from a bit of an identity crisis.
Merlot was at one time widely available from Chile, until they discovered that most of what they had been selling as Merlot was actually another grape, Carmenere. It is still an important grape in Chile, but mostly for the production of everyday wines. The same is true for Argentina, where Merlot is a distant third behind Malbec and Cabernet.
There have been various stabs at Merlot production in New Zealand. Much of the country seems a bit too cool for great Merlot, and it often shows its weedy side in New Zealand bottlings. The Hawkes Bay area of the North Island has produced a scattering of top quality Merlot, and may be the source for future developments. In South Africa, Merlot is fairly late to the game, and is often used in blends with Cabernet, although a number of delicious pure Merlot wines, mostly from the Stellenbosch, show that the future may bring South Africa into serious contention in the world of Merlot. Israel has also embraced Merlot, and a number of fine Merlots have been produced in the Galilee region.