Merlot shared its glory days with the flashy 1990s, the Clinton years, and a strong economy. People loved it because it was generous, bold, dark- albeit the style at the time was somewhat obvious. It became the darling of the casual wine drinkers and took over grocery store shelves. Merlot plantings, easier to grow than finicky Cabernet or Pinot Noir, were on the rise and all was right and gulpable in the world.
That is, until the iconic film Sideways ripped the tiara off Merlot, ugly step-sister style with one line, “We are not drinking F*%$ing Merlot!!” This was 2004 after all and the consumer was savvier, smarter, and ready to welcome the dense and complex Cabernet Sauvignon on the market during this time. In other words, Merlot got a bad rep. The easy-drinking and fruity style of 1990s Merlot that brought it to the limelight was ultimately the style that destroyed its reputation. Secretly, however, wine lovers had not given up.
Where to Find Great Merlot
Washington state has taken it on as somewhat of a signature grape. California producers have continued to grow the grape for its niche market and have been sneaking it in to the beloved Cabernet blends to add a softer tannin and rounder fruit. Bordeaux, of course, less influenced by the trends of Hollywood, has continued to promote the grape as its flagship varietal in the same fashion that it has for centuries (indeed, the prized bottle of the protagonist in Sideways was none other than the Merlot-heavy Cheval Blanc!).
We know that this grape can offer all of the richness and charm that the everyday drinker is looking for. As a matter of fact, we’ve already chosen three in the same price point for the Palate Club portfolio! A noble grape with an unfavorable image, Merlot has the capacity to take on a broad range of styles that each require a special place in our portfolio.
Right Bank Bordeaux
Long before Merlot flaunted the fields in Napa Valley, it was grown in the clay soils on the Right Bank of the Dordogne River in Bordeaux, France- its spiritual home. Here, the weather is maritime, with warm Atlantic breezes and the mitigating forces of the Dordogne to keep the vines temperate in the winter months. While Cabernet Sauvignon performs best on the well-drained, gravel soils on the Left Bank in the Medoc, the heavier limestone and clay soils (which is just compressed limestone) around St. Emilion and Pomerol retain less heat than gravel, which is needed for the later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon. Instead, winegrowers have universally accepted that Merlot is the best grape for the Right Bank. Oak ageing is common, as is blending with Cabernet Franc.
The wines tend to be less tannic and earlier drinking than the right bank, but not without earthy complexity, minerality, tobacco-scented intensity and age-ability. There is a reasonable amount of rain in summer and during harvest, which decreases the sunshine hours in Bordeaux overall. The grape therefore does not reach the ripeness levels that one finds in California, for example. Instead, the wines need to be firmer and even austere at times. We loved the Rochou-Lalon from Montagne St. Emilion. Here, the wine shows bay leaf, iron, tobacco, and plum, with a dusty tannin and long finish.
California Merlot is like the movie pageant queen- pretty, charming, lush and a little easy. But we love her anyway. One should note, however, that California’s winegrowing region is nearly half the size of France and holds an array of microclimates. Therefore, Merlot is not homogenous, even in the Golden state. Nonetheless, anywhere in California’s sprawl of vineyards will have more sunshine hours than Bordeaux. The rainfall is much lower here, especially during the growing season.
Thankfully, California has massive diurnal shifts in its coastal-influenced regions (i.e. the majority of the premium wine market). This means that the grapes ripen to full-on fruit flavors during the day, but are cooled by Pacific air in the evening, which supports the retention of acidity and structure of the grapes. The soils vary, even within Napa Valley. Due to the long, dry season, winemakers are not rushed to pick the grapes before a rainy harvest.
Some winemakers take advantage by leaving the grapes on the vine for additional hang time, which further emphasizes the rich, fruity, dense texture that the grape can achieve. New French or American oak complements the plummy flavors. While barrel aging lends vanilla and mocha aromas to the wine. While this rich, luxurious style is common, other winemakers, such as Nicole Walsh from Bonny Doon, choose to lean less on heavy oak or hang time in order to showcase the bright fruits. In Bonny Doon’s “I am Not Drinking $%&#! Merlot” from Monterey County, the wine has medium weight with plum, black cherry, cinnamon and Christmas spice notes. It’s a fun and friendly wine with the classic Merlot velvet tannin.
Have you had Washington Merlot? It’s my jam, and not because it’s jammy. Washington is the second largest state in the US for wine production. Although it’s still a long stretch from the amount of wine made in California. Most of the wine in the state is produced East of the Cascade Mountains. They act as a rain shadow over the entire Valley. This explains why rainy Seattle can have up to 80 inches of rain a year. Whereas the sprawling Columbia Valley AVA typically has less than 12. Moreover, the precipitation is concentrated in the winter months. While in other regions, produers try to reduce vigor with poor soils, Merlot benefits from being planted on Washington’s fertile soils to provide nutrition in the desert. Whether from the mixed soils or from the low vigor, the Merlot here tends to have an ashy, smoky quality.
Most vines are planted at higher elevation to protect the vines from frost on the valley floors. In the summer, the long days beat UV light onto the grapes at high hills and mountainsides. With over 17 hours of sunshine, this extracts deep color. Long hours of sun are followed by intensely cold nights. Consequently, this benefits the structure of the grapes in a similar fashion to those grown in California. Oak is used here, as are occasional blending grapes. The typical example of Washington Merlot is mono-varietal. Kiona, one of the first two wineries in the densely-planted Red Mountain AVA, was neither obvious nor austere. Rather, it showed rich purple and blue fruits, mocha, sage, and fern with a round palate and smoky finish. Jennifer and I drank a whole bottle in Yakima after visiting. 🙂
Final Notes on Merlot
Merlot shows us the influence of terroir, taking on a unique form in its most famous growing regions. This is a grape to be drinking now, with any mood. We love to discover weird and new varietals and regions. Yet we also find it rewarding to rediscover the familiar and forgotten grapes which may have fallen from fashion. The world of wine, just like any trends, is subject to the swing of the pendulum. Be ahead of the curve- drink Merlot. -AT