In France, the birds take to the vines as enthusiastically, if not more so, than those who earn their living by harvesting the fruit. The French refer to a young blackbird as a Merle, a type of thrush and perhaps the name source for the third most planted grape in the world – Merlot.
Countries such as France and Italy have grown Merlot as both a primary and blending grape variety for almost two hundred years. On its own, Merlot creates beautifully soft and flavourful wines that reflect plum and black cherry along with herbal tones such as tea leaf, mint, and cedar.
Those in search of a bolder wine such as that of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Malbec, or Nebbiolo are usually left somewhat bewildered by Merlot’s softer texture and style. This softness and blending potential have earned the early ripening grape the label ‘Vineyard Insurance’ as winemakers will often use Merlot to smooth the hard edges of the thicker-skinned red grapes in cooler years. The most famous of these blended styles is that of Bordeaux where Merlot is used in large concentrations to mask the aggressive tannin structure of the complex Cabernet Sauvignon.
In the new world, Merlot has fallen in and out of popularity for decades though it does hold the unofficial title of North America’s first popular grape. In 1991, the television show 60-Minutes aired a feature on a phenomenon they coined ‘The French Paradox’. The show explored the health benefits of drinking red wine in moderation due to the presence of the antioxidant resveratrol in the grape’s skin. Overnight the red wine consumption in North American increased by almost 44% and the wine of choice was… you guessed it – Merlot.
If Merlot has one disadvantage over many of the other red varieties, it is the grape’s thin skin. Like Pinot Noir, Merlot is highly susceptible to early frost damage and after a string of disastrous vintages in the 1950s and 60s, the French ordered much of the delicate vines to be ripped from the ground and replaced with more hardy varieties. By the mid-70s, a law was passed on Bordeaux’ Left Bank that prohibited any new planting of the grape. Few wine enthusiasts are aware of Merlot’s dotted past though most are familiar with the distinction between the left and right banks of Bordeaux; the right side being predominately Merlot based wines while the left now highly favours Cabernet Sauvignon.
Not long ago, much of California and Washington State’s vineyards were planted with Merlot and the wine produced in these regions dominated the North American market. While Merlot may remain a superpower in France, a combination of events has led to the grapes’ demise in the western world. Let’s begin with the all-mighty dollar: volume sales equate to a greater profit but unlike soft drinks, wine is not an ‘industrial liquid’, it is the product of nature. Left alone, grape vines will bear fruit and plenty of it, but without selective crop thinning to reduce yields, the juice will be thin and uninspiring. For decades large corporations responsible for the production of millions of bottles of Merlot have shunned the idea of pruning back fruit, opting instead for quantity over quality.
When managed correctly, Merlot will produce world-class wines, but stretch the varietal beyond its unique set of characteristics and it will fall prey to mediocrity. Now, enter the media and the power of suggestion: In 2004, the movie Sideways allegedly shattered Merlot’s already fragile image as Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) boldly stated: “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any Merlot!” This quote is perceived by the wine industry as the ‘nail-in-the-coffin’ for the American Merlot producers who widely claim that the movie railroaded their sales. The harsh reality is that by continually flooding the market with cheap plonk wine, American winemakers have orchestrated their own downfall; Hollywood’s portrayal of one man’s opinion was simply the catalyst that society needed. Ironically however, two of the most sought after wines in the world are heavily Merlot based: Château Pètrus and Château Le Pin, both from Bordeaux are only two examples. Many critics feel that by eliminating the inferior wines, serious US West Coast producers will now be able to recapture Merlot`s true elegance.
I encourage you to try a few better bottles of Merlot. See for yourself if Miles was correct or if the director of Sideways was indirectly taking a shot at wine snobs throughout the world. Incidentally, at the very end of the movie, Miles, the opinionated self-proclaimed wine expert with an outspoken distaste for Merlot sits by himself in a run-down café drinking his most cherished bottle of wine from a Styrofoam cup. That bottle is the legendary 1961 Cheval Blanc, a dominate Merlot blend.
2009 CONCHA Y TORO, MARQUES DE CASA CONCHA MERLOT
VINTAGES #939827 | Chile | 750 mL bottle | $19.95
2010 THORN-CLARKE, TERRA BAROSSA MERLOT
LCBO #218826 | Australia | 750 mL bottle | $15.95