By Nick Adams, Master of Wine
So often the dancing partner with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot produces an array of wine styles at all prices. And to put this into context, paradoxically, it is the main grape behind the most expensive Bordeaux wines of the whole region. A grower’s favourite, but it has not always commanded the respect of critics in the past; these days offers arguably the single best all round red drinking style.
Probably the world’s most widely planted black grape, Merlot is at the forefront of many world wine regions and styles – adaptable to both growing conditions and market demands and is often the “Russian doll” in many blends, but it has had its detractors.
In the 2004 Oscar nominated film Sideways one of the lead characters – who comes across as a patronising wine snob – trashes Merlot in a scene when he says, “I am not drinking any ******* Merlot!” and then promotes the merits of Pinot Noir throughout the film.
Now this might not seem that clever or moving a scene but incredibly it had the most detrimental effect on sales of Merlot in America that it became known as the “Sideways Effect”. At the time, both Ralph Hertelendy of Hetelendy Vineyards and Alex Ryan (CEO of Duckhorn – a Merlot specialist) – both Napa Valley California producers of repute – recounted how the film has such an effect on consumers that sales plummeted, and growers grubbed up Merlot and started planting Pinot Noir. But there was also some merit in the critique as Alex Ryan said, “That movie was the best thing that ever happened to Merlot,” he said. The reason: “It brought attention to an unfortunate downturn that was occurring in quality”.
The truth was that in certain areas Merlot had turned into a cash cow crop and quality was slipping. Roll on 17 years and today it can be said that the variety is a healthy as ever and the wines better than ever across all spectrums.
Merlot is believed to have got its name from the French word for the blackbird – merle – as the grape colour was considered to be the same as the bird’s plumage. What makes it attractive to growers is that it is relatively early ripening (certainly much more so than Cabernet Sauvignon), is relatively disease resistant, and crops well (too well maybe for greedy producers). It produces a “fleshy”, juicy style of wine, with bright black and plum fruit and is not too acidic or tannic – so not unsurprisingly consumers take to it.
Several commentators refer to the “Merlot style” as being either “International” or “Bordeaux”. By that … international is often warmer climate, with a plush, juicy, black fruit style usually with oak and softer tannins. Bordeaux is a more moderate style with higher tannins and acidity and a mix of red and black fruits, sometimes with measured herbaceousness.
And the Bordeaux style is the most classical, not least as it is the spiritual home for the variety, where top examples from the “Right Bank” – most notably St. Émilion and Pomerol – are the finest expression of the variety in the world. In fact, Merlot (or merlau) was first noted in the region in 1784 and by the early 19th Century was being referred to as “Merlot”. As the fame of the right bank Bordeaux wines grew – particularly when fuelled by big Robert Parker points in Wine Advocate ® in the 1980s and 90s – America, especially, fell in love with the grape. Easy to pronounce, plush, fruity, and easy to drink and above all easy to grow producers couldn’t plant enough of it domestically. At the same time the University of California Davis confirmed that Merlot was related to Cabernet Franc (itself the father of Cabernet Sauvignon) and closely related to Carmenère too. So, no wonder all these varieties were interlinked in the general red wine landscape of Bordeaux. And the Carmenère link had ramifications too for Chile.
As mentioned in a previous blog on Chile its wine industry heritage had strong links to Bordeaux and even to this day most of the red wine produced revolves around Bordeaux varieties – either as individual varietal wines or in blends. And for a good part of the 20th century a lot of what was thought to be Merlot, was in fact Carmenère – and labelled as such. This was an understandable error given the close DNA relationship of the grapes and the style of wines they both produced. Today both varieties do very well for the country and Chile has become home to arguably the best value for money Merlots in the world – possibly only rivalled by the those from the vast Vin de Pays d’Oc swathe in the south of France.
Back to Bordeaux, Merlot remains important as the star lead line in the Right Bank and the most important support blend in the Right Bank – where its softer tannins and acidity, and plump fruit profile contrast and finesse the more assertive structure of Cabernet Sauvignon. It also ripens 2-3 weeks earlier than Cabernet so is an important variety in more marginal, cooler years when Cabernet may struggle. Merlot also likes the iron clay soils of Pomerol and St Émilion and with the slightly warmer inland climate the marriage just seems ideal. And the top wines of those regions are simply spectacular interpretations of the variety – but sadly many are at eye watering prices driven by the paucity of production and insatiable world demand. To put this into context the two most famous (often almost single varietal Merlot) estates are Le Pin and Pétrus, whose average bottle prices are between £2-3,000! This is way ahead of even the top First Growths of the Right Bank of Bordeaux.
Other important areas, producers, and wines
Large swathes of northeast Veneto vineyards are planted with Merlot which make in most cases solid, workhorse wines, although wines from the cooler lower Alps areas to the north can be more refined, even Bordeaux like. In the Tuscan coastal region of Bolgheri though the variety plays a particularly important part in the classic Italian take on Bordeaux blends, exemplified in top estates such as Sassicaia and Ornellaia. Here the support role contributes to wines which can easily challenge Cru Classé Bordeaux. And with a remarkable twist Ornellaia make a single vineyard 100% Merlot – called Masseto – with its singular, deep blue clay soil and reduced cropping it has in recent years – under the expert tuition of winemaker Axel Heinz – become arguably the single greatest challenger in the world to the top right bank Bordeaux.
Merlot is also grown quite widely in Washington State to the north, but it is California where the variety is most important and widely planted. Here you get the whole range of styles produced from the soft, juicy, and jammy wines of the hot Central Valley to the refined and structured, if still rich, styles of Napa, Sonoma, and Santa Cruz in particular. There are fewer pure 100% Merlot examples; it is most consistently used in Bordeaux blends (where Cabernet Sauvignon takes the lead) – these are sometimes referred to a “Meritage” wines or blends. One leading champion though of pure Merlot vineyards and releases is the renowned Napa estate of Duckhorn (as mentioned in the introduction). Their most famous vineyard release is probably the Three Palms – so named after its iconic vineyard layout (please see picture). Top “Meritage” blend Californian wines now comfortably match top Bordeaux for price, but good examples and/or second wines can be found at more affordable prices – but the style will always be very New World rather than Bordeaux.
Merlot is only important in Chile – as mentioned before, although plantings are increasing in Mendoza Argentina. The best examples are found in the Central Valley and especially in areas such as Curicó, Maipo and Colchagua. Here you can enjoy plenty of straight varietal examples (often as fair prices) as well as more sophisticated Bordeaux style blends.
The only area to grow Merlot on any scale in New Zealand is Hawke’s Bay in the North Island. In the sub district of Gimblett Gravels increasingly finer examples are appearing of Bordeaux blends as well as some straight 100% varietal Merlot. With its maritime climate New Zealand is climatically more akin to Bordeaux than any other New World origon.
In Australia as Shiraz dominates the red wine scene so much Merlot unsurprisingly takes a back seat. Again, it is used predominantly in supporting Cabernet in Bordeaux blends. Top areas and examples can be found in Coonwarra (South Australia) and Margaret River (Western Australia) and the Barossa (South Australia) to a lesser degree. As in California through it is an important blending component in more bulk-produced wines from the irrigation areas
As with many other New World areas the role of Merlot is in support of Bordeaux blends – most notably in the district of Stellenbosch and to a lesser degree Paarl. One interesting and quite Left Bank Bordeaux example though is the straight Merlot from the leading Constantia producer Eagles Nest, EAGLES NEST where the cooler climate influences really show through in this supple style.
Lighter bodied, lower tannin Merlots can be enjoyed on their own if you are looking for a juicy glass of red wine with more body than say a commensurate quality level Pinot Noir. With food it will come as no surprise that this variety works well with lighter red meat courses, but also chicken and pork especially if roasted. It is a particularly good style to enjoy mid-week with a Pizza or Pasta dishes (meat or vegetable topping/sauce) as Merlot does seem to work well with tomato-based dishes in general (an option too for your burger). So, anything “Mediterranean” should be included as a match too. It has also been recommended with Chinese style crispy duck pancakes and gently spices curries such as lamb or vegetable.
In summary, today’s Merlot based wines offer the drinker a really lovely juicy and supply style – easy drinking but still with some body, plenty of texture and character. And many also offer particularly good value for money. The very top, world class examples may indeed require an overdraft but there is much to admire in the mixture of offerings and styles which Merlot provides. Despite our friend’s misgivings in Sideways I do think Merlot is very much a grape for today’s red wine drinker.
So, onto some Wine Trust highlights:
The Los Boldos is a fine example of modern day Chilean Merlot, whilst the Fontenille offers very good value for money and real style as a Merlot based, entry level Bordeaux. The Poggio al Tesoro is a lovely example of a Merlot based Bolgheri Tuscan blend and finish with a classic Right Bank Grand Cru St. Émilion where Merlot makes up half the blend.
Chateau Los Boldos Tradition Reserve Merlot
The Chateau Los Boldos Tradition Reserve Merlot is bright ruby red in colour. On the nose, there are aromas of sour cherries, blackberries, blackcurrants with a hint of vanilla. On the palate, it is balanced with velvety tannins and a soft, elegant finish.
Château de Fontenille, Bordeaux Rouge
Vines have been grown at Fontenille since the 13th century. This wine has a youthful ruby colour. Produced in an approachable modern style, this is an elegant wine with lingering berry fruit notes. Well-structured, full bodied with characteristic smoky, cigar-box notes so typical of good red Bordeaux.
Poggio al Tesoro, ‘Il Seggio’ Bolgheri
Poggio al Tesoro, ‘Il Seggio’ Bolgheri is intense ruby red in colour with aromas of fresh crunchy red berries and dark fruit nuances enriched with layers of tobacco and spice. The fruit follows onto the complex palate that combines elegant silky tannins and a lively clean finish. ‘Seggio’ is the name of the creek that runs through Bolgheri.