Not Afraid of Merlot

It’s been more than 10 years since during the movie Sideways Paul Giamatti uttered, in a line likely thrown in as an afterthought, his profane screed about Merlot:

WARNING: he really hates Merlot, and he uses language to prove it.

Nevermind that his prized possession in that movie, a 1961 Cheval Blanc, is a wine blended with plenty of Merlot.  Nevermind that he waxed poetic about the delicate and fickle nature of Pinot Noir, that it only does well in very particular areas, but when it does, it makes something amazing (which is all entirely true, by the way).  The market demand for that wine, likely in part because of this movie, caused people to plant Pinot everywhere, even where they really shouldn’t (which is a story for another day).  The damage was done in that one line about Merlot.

I’m asking you to rethink Merlot, and consider how perhaps, if you’re truly a fan of the grape as I am, its fall from grace can actually be seen as a good thing.  

You see, people who didn’t care about making good wine but were merely looking to make a buck ripped the Merlot vines from their mediocre vineyard sites and planted them instead with something more popular (such as Pinot; but again, another day).  However, the people who loved this grape, the way a grape responsible for making some of the world’s most revered wines deserves to be loved?  Do you think they were going to turn their back on established vineyards, situated in areas where the grape produces delicious and profound wines?  Of course not.  And they’ve been quietly making great wines this whole time, patiently waiting for all of us to get over our silly hang-up and start enjoying Merlot again.

Now if you’d allow me to back up a bit, I should admit that we can’t entirely lay Merlot’s fall on that movie alone.  They didn’t, after all, just pick some wine at random and say bad things about it.  No, mass produced Merlot had certainly earned the bad rap it was getting.  We were awash in an ocean of innocuous, vaguely-pleasant-I-guess-but-entirely-forgettable Merlot.  Quite likely because the grape is pretty easy to grow and is pretty easy to make a largely inoffensive wine out of, even if you don’t try very hard.  That’s just what people did, and they made lots of it.  So, perhaps the wine drinking public would have turned their back on it eventually, even had it not been for that movie.  Then again, what other grape has been called out in a movie?

I digress. Other than Bordeaux, where Merlot stands side-by-side with Cabernet Sauvignon as the two most important grapes in what may be the world’s most famous wine growing region, there are a number of places where it makes amazing wine.  Washington State, where it makes a bold, ripe, and extracted wine that often overshadows the Cabernet Sauvignon from the same area, is one.  Another is Napa Valley, of course, where it often blends in a bit of softness to the more tannic Cabernets or, on its own, yields a nuanced and supple wine that often shows better young than the more heralded Cabs.  Look to the southern end of the Valley where the weather is slightly cooler to give those who are chasing after Bordeaux’s subtlety the fruit they need to do so.  And, finally, there’s Sonoma, my favorite section being Bennett Valley, that takes advantage of some of the same, cooler weather that those in southern Napa cherish.

Now that I’ve defended Merlot from its naysaying cinematic critics, let me say one more thing:  right now, Merlot is still a total bargain!  You can find deep, profound, spiced wines that are showing great out-of-gate and yet still develop with time for what a good but not remarkable Cab or Pinot costs.  Oftentimes, you’re talking single-vineyard or reserve level wines, and for one of the world’s most noble varietals.  

Here’s a couple I’m digging right now and are available at either Juju or Jujube:

Seven Falls Cellars Wahluke Slope, Columbia Valley, WA, 2012
All kinds of cocoa and black fruit.  Not a complicated wine, but loaded for bear and something you’ll dig if you’re a fan of new world Malbec.

Matanzas Creek, Sonoma County 2012
Sourced from Bennett Valley, Knights Valley, and Alexander Valley, more plums and herbs and more a classic expression of Merlot’s refinement.  I was fortunate enough to be there recently and try some of their smaller production wines, and they’re simply stunning.

Palazzo Napa Valley Red Wine 2010
From a man whose journey into wine was inspired by his love of the classic, Merlot-dominant “Right Bank” Bordeaux, comes a powerful, yet elegant expression of Merlot, with just a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc blended in.  As a restaurant, I’m looking to sell wine that tastes good tonight, so for higher-end offerings, a wine like this is perfect.  It certainly has structure, but it is laced with such finesse and beautiful black currant and spice notes.

Chateau Le Pape, Pessac-Leognan Bordeaux 2010
2010 was such a great vintage and this wine is showing so well right now.  Still youthful, showing the nuance, secondary notes, and acidity that makes you instantly think you’re drinking Bordeaux.  Yet with ripe plum fruits that seems almost new world.

Seriously, it’s time to rethink Merlot.  Heck, justify it out of some counter-cultural defiance against what the “cool kids” are supposed to be drinking.  Just give it another shot.