A customer recently walked into the wine store where I work. She was looking to pick up a few bottles to take to a dinner party and to stock up for the holidays. As we perused the white wines, I asked what she normally liked to drink. Her responses made it clear that she was a knowledgeable and thoughtful consumer. "Sauvignon blanc," she replied, "but generally from Sancerre, not the grassy New Zealand type." When I asked about reds, her voice dropped almost to a whisper, "I know this may be a little controversial, but I really love...merlot."
Poor, maligned merlot. Despite its long history as one of the great noble grape varieties of Bordeaux, merlot's reputation has taken a significant hit in recent decades. The 2004 film Sideways certainly didn't help. In it, the protagonist, Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, voraciously eschews all merlot in preference of pinot noir. Nearly 20 years after the movie's debut I still hear folks quote one of his most memorable lines: "If anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any f***ing merlot!" Indeed, after the movie came out there was a significant increase in domestic sales of pinot noir and a notable decrease in sales of merlot, according to a 2009 case study by Steven Cuellar, an economics professor at Sonoma State University. (https://winebusinessanalytics.com/sections/printout_article.cfm?content=61265&article=feature)
To a certain extent, the criticism of merlot is understandable. The California wine industry boomed after what became known as the Judgment of Paris in 1976. California winemakers submitted their wines in a blind tasting to be judged by a panel of French experts. The California wines ranked the highest in both red and white categories, shocking wine lovers around the world and precipitating a surge in California wine production. By the late 1990s, merlot was the most widely planted red grape variety in California, with much of it being made into cheap, high-volume wines. Delicious, well-made examples had always been produced but were often lost in the crush of poorly made bottles and boxes that many came to associate with the variety.
It may come as a surprise to many diehard lovers of cabernet sauvignon that they've likely been drinking merlot all along. According to U.S. labeling laws, a wine can be labeled as a single varietal if that variety makes up at least 75 percent of the blend. So, unless the label states that wine is made of 100% of one variety, it's possible and even likely to contain up to 25 percent of other varieties to round out and balance the finished wine. Dry Creek Vineyards 2019 cabernet sauvignon from Sonoma County in California, for example, is a blend of 77 percent cabernet sauvignon with the remainder consisting of merlot, malbec, petit verdot and cabernet franc (the traditional quintet of grapes used in red Bordeaux wines).
Alone, cabernet sauvignon can be relatively acidic and high in tannin, a crucial structural component in red wine that's extracted from grape skins during fermentation. Tannins bind to saliva, resulting in a drying sensation and a rough or fuzzy texture in your mouth. Merlot, a classic blending partner to cabernet sauvignon, is lower in tannin and contributes velvety softness along with ripe blackberry and plum flavors, complimenting and taming cabernet sauvignon's typically lean character. New-world styles of merlot, such as those often produced in California and Washington, are generally allowed to fully ripen and are matured in new oak to add toasty rich vanilla flavors, resulting in deep, amethyst-hued wines with lush black fruit aromas. Merlot is the most widely planted grape in Bordeaux, its old-world ancestral home, and makes up most of the blend in the highly regarded appellations of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol. Situated on the right bank of the Dordogne River, with cool clay and limestone soils, these areas are well suited for production of merlot, which ripens earlier than cabernet sauvignon. Wines from these historic regions tend to have more refreshing acidity, bright red fruit flavors and herbal notes compared to similar blends produced in the new world.
Merlot can also be incredibly food-friendly and pairs well with a range of dishes. Its softer tannic structure and fruit-forward flavors make it a natural partner to dishes that have a touch of sweetness, such as grilled vegetables, caramelized onions, roasted squash and lean, gamey meats like duck, pheasant and lamb. Savory meals with a hint of spice, like chipotle-rubbed pork tenderloin or even take-out style beef fried rice, can be perfect companions to this versatile shapeshifter of a wine.
The most important consideration of all when choosing a wine is what YOU like, not what some movie or wine writer says is correct. Leave preconceived notions at the door and experiment with foods you love and wines that pique your interest. For the merlot curious, here are some of my favorite quaffs of the moment.
Chateau Ste Michelle Indian Wells Merlot, $17
Jammy and fruit-forward with medium acidity and lush mouthfeel, this wine from Columbia Valley in Washington is perfect with pot roast and honey-glazed carrots or roasted squash quesadillas with chipotle crema.
Goose Ridge g3 Merlot $20
Also from Columbia Valley, the g3 Merlot has soft, dusty tannins with rich cranberry, black cherry and cocoa aromas. A nice choice alongside roast turkey with cranberry chutney.
Pride Mountain Vineyards Merlot, $75
Sourced from vineyards that straddle both Napa and Sonoma counties, the 2018 Pride Mountain Merlot is a stunning example of this variety. Seamless and delightfully dense, the wine displays intense aromas of boysenberry, dark chocolate, cedar and baking spice. It's drinking incredibly well now and will continue to improve over the next 10 years. A worthy companion for beef Wellington.
Ashley Meyer has been cooking as long as she has been walking. The daughter of beloved former Illinois Times food columnist, Julianne Glatz, Ashley offers a fresh, inspired take on her mother's culinary legacy. Ashley studied winemaking at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand, and recently achieved the Level III award from the Wine and Spirits Educational Trust. These days, when she's not cooking or writing, you can find Ashley at It's All About Wine, offering insightful recommendations and mouthwatering pours.