There’s a bias against Merlot. Yet it’s renowned for pleasing aroma & smoothness on the palate.
Ahhh, Merlot. The grape that vies with Cabernet Sauvignon for the title of Red Grape of Bordeaux. Blend this with some Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot and you have the mixture used by vintners in St.-Emilion and Pomerol for centuries. It grows heartily in Virginia, and is renowned for its pleasing aroma of red berries, black cherries, and currants, as well as its surprising smoothness on the palate.
Yet movies such as Sideways tap into the popular bias against Merlot. (This is perhaps the red wine analogue of the “Anything but Chardonnay” trend.) It isn’t quite as pronounced, but there is a definite prejudice on the part of the consumer to the point that some customers (as with Chardonnay) ask to pass on the Merlot during their tasting flight.
Part of this, I think, is due to the fact that Merlot is grown in California in places where it simply does not belong. I talked with a gentleman and he mentioned that he was from the Central Coast of California (where Sideways was filmed). He said that Pinot Noirs from that region are excellent but that Merlots are mediocre at best. This mirrors the opinions of the protagonist from the film, as well as the book that Sideways was based on.
I will no doubt receive howls of indignation, demanding to know on what grounds I could claim that Merlot should not be grown in certain areas of California. I would reply: None. None at all, except the tastes of a consumer who finds missing in certain California Merlots–certainly not all!–from certain regions the strengths and character that good Merlots contain.
We drink our wines too young.
The other part of this bias, I think, is a mistake that we particularly here in America make with regard to our red wines. Drink a young (2004-2006) Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz vintage and compare it to a Merlot of the same year. Many red grapes such as Cabs and Shiraz are heavy-bodied, spicy in both aroma and flavor, with hard-hitting tannins that please the fans of “big” reds. Merlot is lacking in those qualities–the berry and cassis notes are subtle compared to the more straightforward Cabernet Sauvignon.
However, when you compare older red Bordeauxs from either side of the Gironde, the smoothness and richness of bouquet that is a result of the reductive processes that take place during bottle “aging” is present in both wines–one primarily Cabernet Sauvignon (Medoc and Graves), the other primarily Merlot (St.-Emilion and Pomerol).
Therefore, our basis of comparison is somewhat more skewed than it would have been 30 years ago, when very few people were bottling straight varietal labels of Cabs and Merlots. Obviously, times and tastes have changed and we have discovered that American Cabernets have excellent flavor, body, and aromas. That’s well and good, and to be expected with the advent of new vinification practices.
Merlot shouldn’t taste like Cab Sauv.
But as always, our basis for grading the quality of a wine should always be expectations prior to opening the bottle vs. expectations met once the wine has been drunk. We do not expect a Merlot to be similar to a Cabernet Sauvignon in aroma and flavor–we appreciate it instead for its texture, the silkiness and smoothness which adds so much foundation to fine Bordeaux wines.
As long as we continue to grade Merlot on the scale of other red grapes, it will come up sadly lacking. Instead we should consider it on the merits listed above, and choose more carefully from regions where it is more suited for growing. After all, there is surely more to this grape’s popularity than “It grows well on the right bank of the Gironde estuary.”
What’s your favorite thing about Merlot? Leave a comment below.
Whether Merlot is your favorite or you are not drinking any f—ing Merlot, read more about wine and travel here at Wine and Travel Life. And of course watch our wine vlog, Warren and Will’s Wild Wine Reviews, where we’ll cover a lot of wine ground in every video.