Much Maligned Merlot

I feel sorry for Merlot.  Here’s a grape that is one of the most widely planted in the world which you’ll find in some of the best wine made and yet it’s completely dissed.  You would think this grape the French call the “little blackbird” would get more respect.  Those of you of a certain age can insert your favorite  Rodney Dangerfield saying here (mine, by the way is “Come on. While we’re young!” from Caddyshack, but I digress).

Merlot had turned into a bar pour as in “I’ll have the Merlot” since people viewed it as a step up from “I’ll have a glass of red.”  To be sure, there was a lot of very average, grapey, flabby merlot out there on the shelves – then the movie Sideways came out in 2004 and really trashed it.  Merlot’s reputation and sales plummeted and, worse yet, it became very uncool.  Ironically, the star wine of the movie was not the Pinot Noir that the characters gushed about, but the long-saved and much anticipated bottle that the lead, Miles, was just waiting for the right moment to drink.  It was mostly Merlot!  The wine, Cheval Blanc, from the right bank of Bordeaux between the villages of Pomerol and St. Emilion is comprised of a blend that is half Merlot.

But, hey folks, that was eleven years ago!  Its time to get past it and rediscover Merlot.  It’s time to R-E-S-P-E-C-T (insert your favorite Aretha song here) Merlot.  And it’s ready to drink now.  Merlot is usually soft and approachable, with no bitterness or sharpness.

Merlot is the most planted grape in France, but usually you have to know the village or region to know what you are buying.  The home of Merlot is the so-called Right Bank of Bordeaux, which is to the east of that city. Look for the names Pomerol, St. Emilion, Fronsac, Blaye, Cotes de Bourg, Castillon and their combinations on the label.  These wines are typically blends that are mostly Merlot. They tend to be less fruit in your face dominant than American Merlot and a little more astringent or tannic (which people describe as tight).  American and other new world Merlot usually are very fruit driven, meaning that you’ll find lush flavors of dark cherry, blueberry or plum and often some chocolate mocha when you take a sip.

You can enjoy Merlot with lots of foods.  My personal favorites are a cheddar cheeseburger or some thick pork chops right off the grill.  And it’s out there in all price ranges.  If you want to buy the Cheval Blanc (the latest vintage is about $500 per bottle), let me know and I’ll be right over – but there’s lots to choose from between $10 and $25, with some truly exceptional wines up to about $60.

Everyday Sip:  2012 Columbia Crest “H3” Horse Heaven Hills Merlot, Columbia Valley $12
A lot of wine for this price. Horse Haven Hills is a subregion of the Columbia Valley putting out some outstanding wines. Black cherries and cocoa.  Easy to drink and versatile.

Guest Sip:  2012 Ferrari Carano Merlot, Sonoma County $25
Dark fruit with a little vanilla accent. Lush wine that’s very food friendly.

Splurge Sip:  2012 Pride Mountain Vineyards  Merlot $60
With apologies to Emeril – BAM!  This is a big juicy Merlot that shows off what this grape can be.  Bold plummy fruitiness with a dash of mocha.  Ripe and full bodied.

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