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Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009

Merlot - The Badly Bruised Grape

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Frequent readers of The Vine will know I'm a movie person. When I talk to people about wine writing, if I'd had a nickel for everyone who said, "You mean like in Sideways?" I'd be able to quit my day job.

 

Whatever a person's opinion of that movie, one fateful line stands out -- Miles' immortal rant just before his double date: "If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any f***ng Merlot!"

 

And thus began the decline of the merlot grape in the United States.

Merlot's been grown in France since the 1st Century, but was only cultivated as a major varietal starting in the 1800's. Some of the most famous Bordeaux in the world use merlot as a major grape. (For instance, the 1990 Chateau Petrus is largely merlot and currently goes for about $1700 a bottle). Merlot is also a very common blending grape. If you get a cabernet sauvignon from just about anywhere, chances are that there will be at least some merlot mixed in. Merlots are generally drunk fairly young, as they don't have as much tannin as many grapes.

 

Before Sideways, merlot was a major force in the U.S. wine boom in the early 1990's. This increase arguably stemmed from the research into the "French paradox." This "paradox" refers to the beneficial health effects of red wine on heart health -- and refers to France's relatively low rate of heart disease, considering the high level of fat in the French national diet. Consumption of red wine was posited to be a major factor. Between 1992 and 2002, merlot production in the United States jumped 500%. Then came the movie in 2004 -- and sales of merlot dropped by as much as 40%. (And pinot noir rose up to take its place.)

 

So what's the deal with merlot, anyway? Why the awful reaction of our buddy Miles?

 

Honestly, I have no idea. Merlot is a very "accessible" red wine. By this, I mean that it's a red wine that can go with most any food; has enough body and flavor to stand up on its own; is interesting enough for connoisseurs, but isn't so dense, dry, and complex that someone couldn't just pick up a glass and say, "Hey, that's yummy!" Merlots tend to be of medium body, not overly acidic or tannic, have a nice fruity taste, and go exceptionally well with chocolate. If a person is just getting started with red wine, merlot is another excellent place to start.

 

Merlot is finally starting to recover from "Sideways Shock" -- as people remember what great value and flexibility they can get from this wine. While it has not yet regained mid-90's popularity, when everyone under the sun was ordering merlot, it's again become a player in the market. If you've shied away from the merlot aisle in your local wine store because you hear Miles whispering in your ear, allow Mike to bring you back.

 

Our tastings for this week are three American merlots:

Three Blind Moose 2005 Merlot -- This California wine is very much what people would consider a "standard" merlot. Three Blind Moose is a perfect example of the "catchy label" wine -- since most wine buys are at least somewhat on impulse -- and merlot is a good "fallback" wine for people who just can't decide what they want. This cute label ("No sunglasses required!") wraps around a wine with a fairly strong nose of dark berries and wood. The body of the wine, though, isn't tremendously assertive. The Moose give you a soft, fruity, easy to drink merlot, with some smooth berry and plum flavors and very gentle tannins -- not very dry at all. The finish is very mild -- there's a touch of spice at first, but that quickly fades back into the berry flavor. If you were going to do basic pasta with red sauce, chicken with spicy rice, or a steak salad, you could get away with this easily at $7-9. It would also be a nice wine just to sit and sip at the end of the day with some dark chocolate.

Twin Fin 2006 Merlot -- If you'd like to see a nice contrast -- pour this side by side with the Three Blind Moose -- they're right at the same price point. This is another solid offering from California. Twin Fin is squarely in the "fun wine" category, but this straightforward wine has plenty of backbone. There's a light nose of blackberries and plums -- much less fruit forward than the Moose. Twin Fin has a strong medium body with just a hint of tannin at the first taste. This opens up into a big straightforward fruit -- black cherries -- as you drink it. There's much more tannin and earthiness in this wine than you'd expect from most merlots, and a little oak flavor comes through on the finish. Honestly, if I'd tried tasting this one blind, I'd have guessed that it was a light-styled zinfandel, not a merlot. The tannins and fruit would make this a winner with grilled foods (lamb chops would be fabulous), London broil, pastas with meat sauces or meat balls, or stews -- think earthy flavors. Of the two, if you pressed me to choose, I'd say I enjoyed the Twin Fin more, simply because I like a heartier wine.

 

Hogue "Genesis" 2005 Merlot -- Hogue has produced a very decent, inexpensive product for a number of years. When I saw they'd released a "reserve" merlot, I wanted to give it a go. They've named this wine "Genesis" in honor of the planting of their first vineyard over 30 years ago -- it's not a "Wrath of Khan" reference. Oftentimes, a "mass-market" winemaker will produce a reserve that honestly isn't all that different from their normal product. Hogue doesn't disappoint in that way. Genesis has a nose that could easily be mistaken for a cabernet sauvignon. It's almost smoky, with some raspberry notes to it. One would expect to get hit with a very dry, complex wine on the taste -- but Genesis throws you a bit of a curveball. The wine is peppery, like a zinfandel -- but without as much fruit as a zin, or most merlots for that matter. The berry flavor is much more subtle than the previous two wines. Instead, you get a flavor of dark chocolate -- and it would pair beautifully with anything containing chocolate or coffee. The finish is lasting and a little dry, with a return of the smoke you get on the nose. This one's a little more expensive -- probably more like $11-14, but what you'll get is a merlot that will almost certainly shock folks who think merlots aren't worth drinking anymore. Pair this up, as I've mentioned, with chocolate -- or even a good piece of grilled beef or pork, and you're going to get raves.

 

Finally, returning to our poor friend Miles -- one of the inside jokes of Sideways surrounds Miles' most prized bottle of wine -- his 1961 Cheval Blanc. This is the wine he ends up drinking at his local burger joint during his "moment of clarity." In reality, the '61 Cheval Blanc is comprised largely of two grapes. One is merlot. The other is cabernet franc -- the other varietal he mercilessly slams in the film.

 

Until next time, drink your f***in' merlot, and be happy about it…