The reputation Miles gave Merlot from his famous line in Sideways is not without merit. Sometime in the mid-1990’s American Merlot plantings boomed: In 1985 there were less than 2,000 acres in California, but by 2003 (just around the time Sideways released), there were over 50,000 acres planted. As a result, Merlot became the go-to red wine of choice or, as WinePros.org says, “the generic red wine flavor of fashion.” Winemakers were virtually mass-producing the varietal to keep up with popular demand. So Merlot became known for its lack of flavor, texture, and structure — an “easy drinker” that didn’t need to be understood. But with Miles’ line, the wine-drinking masses, along with the winemakers, seemed to have woken up. What is this red wine we’ve been drinking without a thought?
Merlot is actually a tricky grape to grow — its nuances so subtle and only noticeable when harvested at the proper time. There are good Merlots in the world — with depth, complexity, and uniqueness. So let’s take a look at what makes Merlot…Merlot.
Merlot — from the French merlau (meaning “little blackbird” after the birds that like to eat the grapes) — is the most widely planted wine grape in France’s Bordeaux region and the second most planted wine grape in the world. It is the step-brother to Cabernet Sauvignon, sharing the same father (Cabernet Franc) but whose mother is Magdeleine Noire des Charentes. Thus, it doesn’t share the same vegetative, bell pepper, or dried tobacco/herb notes associated with Cab’s mother (Sauvignon Blanc).
The Merlot grape is thin-skinned and quite susceptible to environmental influences, often prone to rot. Its sensitive to extremes in temperature, with a tendency to shatter when exposed to frost or heat waves. But a benefit to that sensitivity is that they’re early ripeners — ready to harvest one to two weeks before Cabernet Sauvignon and act as, what some vintners call, “vineyard insurance.” However picking at the peak ripeness is important: Merlot is naturally low in acidity and its fruit flavors are innately subtle, seeming to all but disappear if picked either too early or too late.
While Merlot does well in a variety of soils, those that produce wines with the structure and texture desired by most wine drinkers grow in rocky, well-drained soils. In Bordeaux, where the grape originates, most plantings are found on the outside of the Médoc along the Right Bank in the Pomerol and St. Emillon appellations. California, though no Bordeaux, has its own unique Merlot expression and, undoubtedly, some of the most refined come from Napa and Sonoma Counties. Here, there are a smattering of mountain peaks and ridges accompanied by volcanic soils, as well as modest temperatures and cooling winds to keep the thin-skinned grape healthy.
And it is when grape growers and wine makers take the care to utilize the proper environment, pick at the peak of harvest, and create wines that speak of the fruit instead of over-producing and blending away its delicacy, that one can truly enjoy a F*(kin’ Merlot.
Some of my favorite California wine producers reviewed on this site thus far:
Freemark Abbey: An affordable find available at most grocery stores that still expresses refinement.
Flanagan Wines: Comparable to a top Bordeaux expression of the varietal, top somms even ask how much Cab is blended into this 100% offering.
Y.Rousseau: Showcases how Sonoma’s mountain ridges and volcanic soils can produce an Old World-style Merlot worthy enough to be named after his grandfather, Pépé.
Gun Bun: Because these guys just make Merlot fun…
Some of my favorite (new-world) Merlot-based red blends:
Passaggio Wines 2015 Connect Red Blend: No need to decant, aerate, or let this baby breathe. Cindy’s style is ready-to-drink reds and this Bordeaux-inspired red blend is no exception.
Ammunition Wine 2014 Equilizer Red Blend: Not quite Bordeaux and not quite Rhone-styled either — this easy drinking red blend bridges the gap between the two old-world styles for something completely different.
Corner 103 2014 Cuvée: After walking past the appropriately situated corner storefront of Corner 103 tasting room in downtown Sonoma, I finally decided to give it a go. Their flagship cuvée, a Merlot-based blend, is absolutely the best way to jump into what this innovative winery has to offer.
Three Arches 2013 Meritage: Fun wine fact — Meritage is the word Californians can use to describe a Bordeaux-inspired blend because you can’t call something a Bordeaux or a Bordeaux blend unless its actually from Bordeaux. Though winemakers must create register with the California-based Meritage Alliance for a “Meritage license, there aren’t any hard, fast rules regarding winemaking or winegrowing, as in Bordeaux. But a red Meritage must contain at least two of the following varietals: Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cab Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, St. Macaire, Gros Verdot, and Camenére. (White Meritage has its own list).
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