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Merlot Isn't Just Kidding Around

Some Recommended Wines

Wallet-Watching:
Chateau Moulin des Laurets 1998, Puisseguin St. Emilion (a satellite commune to St. Emilion proper) ($15)

Ravenswood Sonoma County Merlot 2001 ($15)

Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot 2001, Columbia Valley, Washington ($11)

Armador Merlot 2003 Maipo Valley ($12)

Miguel Torres Merlot Curicó Santa Digna 2003 ($10)


Celebrating-But-Sane:

Chateau La Tour Figeac 2001, St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé ($40)

Chateau St. Jean Sonoma County Merlot 2000 ($25)

Havens Merlot Reserve 2000, Napa Valley ($32)

Cougar Crest Walla Walla Valley Estate-Grown Merlot 2002 ($32)

Casa Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandre Merlot 2003 Rapel Valley ($20)


Splurge-Worthy:

Chateau Angélus 2001, St. Emilion 1er Grand Cru Classé (B) ($120)

Chateau Clinet 2001, Pomerol ($95)

Paul Hobbs Michael Black Vineyard Merlot 2002, Napa Valley ($75)

Leonetti Cellars Merlot 2003 Columbia Valley, Washington ($80)

By Jim Clarke

Merlot can seem like the guy telling off-color jokes at a wedding reception: sometimes appreciated, but rarely respected. Post- Sideways, it’s doing even worse – and people are laughing at Merlot instead of with it. This despite the fact that lead character Miles’ treasured bottle, a 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc, is 50% Merlot; the other half is Cabernet Franc, a varietal Miles also slams in the film (Many wine industry types have shaken their heads at this apparent “mistake;” according to the movie’s wine consultant Brad Iwanaga, the irony was deliberate – even though it seems to have been lost on much of the film’s audience). Cheval Blanc is in the St. Emilion, on the border of Pomerol, wherein lies Chateau Petrús, oft-cited as the world’s most expensive red wine…and yes, it’s almost entirely Merlot as well.

These two appellations are Merlot’s homeland. They have in many ways always played second fiddle, not to Pinot Noir, but to Cabernet Sauvignon, which is the primary grape of the famous Left Bank wines that lie across the river in the Médoc, wines like Chateau Latour, Margaux, and Mouton-Rothschild. Many of the Left Bank wines do incorporate Merlot into their blend. It softens the sometimes angular Cabernet Sauvignon with its fruitiness and lower tannins. The Right Bank’s clay and sandy soils suit the earlier ripening Merlot, whereas Cabernet Sauvignon would be hard to ripen fully in the damper, cooler environment.

While the Left Bank’s reputation is centuries old, St. Emilion and Pomerol are 20th century upstarts. The former only instituted a classification system in 1959; the wines can be labeled Grand Cru, Grand Cru Classé – a big step up – and Premier Grand Cru Classé. This top level includes two divisions, “A” and “B;” “A” has so far been reserved for Cheval Blanc and Ausone exclusively, while “B” includes other august names like Canon La Gaffeliere, Haut-Corbin, and Figeac, with several of its hyphenated relations. Unlike the older system of “Growths” across the river, St. Emilion’s classifications are reviewed every decade or so, and authorities have not hesitated to elevate or cast down a wine according to its merit.

Pomerol apparently never felt the need to classify its wines; and indeed, many of them, like Petrus and Vieux Chateau Certan, speak for themselves. The Right Bank is also home to the so-called micro-chateaux and/or garagistes; tiny producers making expensive and intense wine, the ultimate in over-the-top wines and prices.

Under-the-top Merlots – the ones that have given the grape its unsavory reputation – are often the Californians. The 1991 60 Minutes report on the “French Paradox” told Americans that red wine played a large part in keeping the French healthy despite their fat and cholesterol-heavy diet; red wine sales in the U.S. rose dramatically after the show aired. In California, Merlot was over-planted to cash in on its popularity, and often grown in areas that didn’t suit it. It was then made into innocuous wines, perfect for White Zin drinkers who were converting to the “healthier” red wine.

There are nonetheless a number of California wineries who have kept their eyes on Bordeaux’s Right Bank as they thought about their own Merlot. A lot of their success has been based not on tracking consumer trends but on location, location, location. The Alexander Valley has proven friendly to the grape, as have portions of Carneros’ bay-breeze cooled vineyards. If other parts of Carneros are too cool to ripen Merlot fully, Napa Valley’s southern sub-appellations, Yountville and Stags Leap District, seem to strike the right balance, and have some of the clay-rich soils that echo Pomerol and St. Emilion. A long-term interest in making great Merlot and a respect for the grape’s virtues is also key; producers who see Merlot as more than a cash cow are seeking out the right vineyards and creating, a supple, Californian rendition of the varietal, with the softness and fruit you’d expect but supported by the body, richness, and spice that creates interest and complexity.

Washington’s rise in public perception coincided with that of Merlot, and the state’s soils and continental climate suit the grape. The wines typically lean heavily toward the French style. Many, however, are priced somewhat too highly to be great values. Perhaps if the rising star of Washington’s Syrahs takes the spotlight off the Merlot this will change. On the other hand, the Merlots continue to improve, so as long as the prices don’t skyrocket, the wines themselves naturally become better and better buys.

For value, look to the Southern Hemisphere – to Chile, specifically. Styles vary, although an identity is becoming clearer now that winegrowers are differentiating between true Merlot and Carmenere, another, rarer Bordeaux varietal that was mistaken for Merlot there for some time. Most producers make bottlings at several different price points. French companies, including Domaines Lafite Rothschild and Grand Marnier, have invested heavily in Chile, as have wine companies from California and elsewhere; large companies dominate.

Merlot is still searching out different corners of the New World; Long Island, New York, for example, has claimed the varietal to be their specialty, and the wines are improving each vintage in hopes of proving it. Now that Merlot is out of the spotlight perhaps the pressure will be off, and winegrowers can take the time to find it the right home. Don’t laugh at the Merlot drinkers out-of-hand; they may be on to something.

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       Published: April 2006
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