Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Get to Know your Grapes Series - F*in Merlot

Merlot Grapes
For those of you who have seen the movie Sideways once, or fifty times like me - please don’t judge Merlot wine based on Miles’ legendary statement “I’m not drinking any f*ing Merlot!” This statement from Sideways (whether your a wine geek or not I recommend it - a great flick!) did have a fairly dramatic impact on Merlot sales in the U.S., which before the release of the movie were surpassing Cabernet Sauvignon sales in the U.S (around the year 2000).  In a bit of wine geek irony, during the movie Miles slams both Merlot and Cabernet Franc - yet his prized bottle of Chateau Cheval Blanc that he sips from a styrofoam cup at the end of the movie is in fact a blend of both of these grape varieties from Bordeaux, France.  It has been a few years since Sideways, and it looks like Merlot is recovering.
Regardless of the impact of an offhanded comment in a (really great) movie, Merlot is a grape capable of making some really great wine.  Personally, my bucket list includes imbibing in a bottle of Chateau Petrus - which will only be feasible with a very big lottery win - but hey, you never know. (Writer’s note - I seldom buy lottery tickets, as the chances of winning are about the same if you play or not - chances are about the same that someone will walk up me on the street and hand me $100 Million!!).  Merlot can make big and powerful wines just like Cabernet Sauvignon, but Merlot wines tend to be less tannic, have lower alcohol, and more of a bright fruit aroma and taste.

If you are already a fan of Merlot, and maybe looking for something different to try - I recommend you look for a bottle of Carmenère from Chile. For many years the Carmenère grape was mistaken for Merlot and sold as such. Carmenère is not exactly like Merlot, actually having some of the complexity of Cabernet Sauvignon, but still quite similar.  If you’ve ever seen a bottle of Oops Carmenère in your local shop (Target carries them in our ‘hood) - the name is an ode to this wine growing “oops."  Wines from South America can provide you with tremendous values - so whether Merlot or Carmenère, give South American wines a try!

Typical Aromas of Merlot.  Dark fruits like plum, black cherries, blueberries along with dark chocolate, coffee, and occasionally something herbal like mint.  Wine from winemakers who use new oak barrels for aging may also have vanilla and toffee aromas.

Typical Styles of Merlot Wine.  Merlot is often used as a blending wine to mellow out some of the more aggressive and tannic characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon. Even if your wine labels says Cabernet Sauvignon, your wine may still contain up to 25% of other, blending wines, which could definitely include Merlot.  When Merlot is the main grape variety, it is typically but now always blended with other wines, most often the other four Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet France, Petite Verdot, and Malbec.  The impact of blending can produce Merlot wines with a variety of characteristics, and a wine that is a good option if you find Cabernet Sauvignon wines too big and bold.

Let's Eat! What Food Pairs with Merlot Wines?.  Merlot wines typically have a lower level of acidity than Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as a good amount of acid.  These two factors make for a very food friendly wine.
  • Meat! Lighter meats like veal and pork, plus duck and roasted chicken. Plus, don't overpower a beef tenderloin with a big Cabernet - try Merlot to accentuate the delicate flavor of that cut of beef.
  • Pasta! Merlot has enough acidity to stand up to tomato based pasta sauces just like a Chianti.
  • Burgers! Throw some cheese on that burger and Merlot will pair nicely with the meaty and cheesy components.
  • Cheese!  Stick to medium to mild flavored aged/hard cheeses to go best with your Merlot.
Who Makes Merlot Wines? Most wine producing countries will make Merlot wines, but here are just a few examples: 
  • Bordeaux, France.  On the right bank of Bordeaux, Merlot is the star grape - especially in Pomerol and St. Emilion. 
  • Napa, Sonoma, Washington State. In the U.S., Merlot thrives in the same locations as we find great Cabernet Sauvignon - often made by the very same producers.
  • Italy. In the Tuscany region that brings us Chianti also produces Super Tuscans that may contain Cabernet Sauvignon.
  • Chile. Along with very good value Cabernet Sauvignon, you can also find some good value Merlot. One of my all time favorites is Santa Ema Reserve Merlot.   
Words of Advice. Some things to keep in mind to make sure you get the most out of your Merlot Purchase:
  • Try the Familiar.  If you have a Cabernet Sauvignon that you like - see if they make any Merlot wines as well.  There is a good chance that the care and techniques that they put into their Cabs will translate into great Merlot as well.
  • South America.  South American wines can provide some great value. You may not find as much Merlot as some other varieties, but still something to keep in mind.  Also, try a Carmenère which may have more examples available.
  • Try a Blend. Some wines that get categorized as "Red Blends" because they don't contain 75% of one grape variety, could still have a significant amount of Merlot, with other varieties to add depth, taste, and aroma - to give you a more interesting wine. Ask your local wine shop.
Looking for some good brands to try? Here are a few - let me know what other recommendations you need:
    • California - Keenan (one of my all time favs!), Darioush, Stag’s Leap, Neyers, Murphy Goode, Twomey.
    • Washington State - L'Ecole #41, Columbia Crest H3
    • Chile - Santa Ema

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