Along with creating a renewed interest in everything Pinot Noir, Sideways also took another
shot at the often maligned red grape, Merlot when wine connoisseur Miles proclaimed in a
drunken stupor, “I’m not drinking a _uckin’ Merlot”. In the 80s, Merlot was viewed as the new
“hot” wine to drink, kinda like a Cabernet but easier on the palate than a full bodied red wine.
Some even described it as being a feminine Cabernet. Because sales were up, many producers
made what they thought the public demanded, a light, easy to drink red wine that wasn’t too
complex, full bodied or tannic for the neophyte wine drinker. Because it was viewed as a
“popular” wine, many didn’t also view it as a “serious” wine and the wine industry didn’t help by
cranking out thin, simple red wine labeled as Merlot.
What is Merlot?
Merlot is a thin skinned red grape that produces wines with similar flavor sensations as Cabernet.
However it tends to be lower in acids and tannins – hence its easier drinking characteristics. I
find that Merlot has more fleshy ripe red fruit and less currant-flavor than Cabernet. At its best,
you can also detect a chocolate sensation not unlike a chocolate-raspberry dessert flavor quality
that I usually don’t find in Cabernet. However, at its worst it produces a thin wine with dried
fruit and old dried herb qualities that won’t even complement your Sangria recipe.
Where Does Merlot Come From?
Like most of the noble red grape varieties, Merlot hails from France, namely the Bordeaux region
along the Gironde River. In fact, Merlot is planted more than Cabernet in the region where it is
usually blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec to produce
those exquisite wines of Lafite Rothschild, Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild, Latour and Haut
Brion. The five First Growths of Bordeaux are based on Cabernet but Merlot also plays a major
role in creating these wines. However along the Dordogne River or Right Bank of the Bordeaux,
Merlot is king in St Emilion and Pomerol. Because Merlot grows better in clay soil than
Cabernet, the wines of Petrus (the Moueix family who own Chateau Petrus also produce
Dominus and Napanook in Napa Valley), Le Pin, Cheval Blanc and Ausone are Merlot based
without any Cabernet. These wines routinely fetch higher prices than the famed First Growths of
Other World Merlot
One of the greatest Merlot based wine does not come from Bordeaux or even France for that
matter. It hails from Tuscany and has often been compared to the best wines of Pomerol and St
Emilion. Masseto is produced by Lodovico Antinori of the famed Antinori clan of Italy and it
routinely sells for more than $250 per bottle – if you can find a purveyor that has an allocation
of wine. It has been compared to the wines of Chateau Petrus and Le Pin though I would have to
take those writer’s word as I have yet to taste Masseto… or Petrus… or Le Pin.
What to Eat With Merlot?
If you have full bodied rich Merlot, why not have it with steak or lamb. Since beef tends to be a
little lower in fat these days and most lamb is farm raised, Merlot can pair well with cuts of
tenderloin in either animal. What about barbecue using leaner cuts of meat with fruit based
sauces? Merlot can work. Richer pork or poultry dishes? Again, Merlot
may do the trick.
What’s the Secret Handshake to Buying Merlot?
This is the one grape varietal that just takes a lot of personal tasting to determine what you like
(remember again that the most important wine is one that YOU like, not one that I like). I’ve
attended the major fundraising wine tasting events in Hawaii for the Lupus Foundation,
Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific and Hawaii Diabetes Foundation for the past 10 plus years.
In the beginning, I would immediately go to the table pouring the limited reserve wines or
expensive wines just to experience what the “other half” drinks. Since I can’t procure these wines
(or even afford them) on a regular basis, I now try as many “bourgeois” wines as possible – wines
that I possibly may purchase and are available to the mass public, not just Wine Spectator or
Be aware that there is still a lot of non-descript Merlots on the market – wines that have a
generic red wine quality about them without much complexity. The market is expanding though
with many very good to excellent quality Merlots – Paloma Merlot recently was the top wine of
the year as determined by Wine Spectator (though its price did go from $40 to $60 plus
overnight). There still are very good Merlots at slightly higher than beer drinkers price but you
do have to do your homework and try these wines. I suggest finding 8 to 12 friends and having a
Merlot tasting – not necessarily a blind tasting – but have every guest bring a Merlot less than
$25 and determining on your own what you like. You may discover that even if Miles wouldn’t
drink a (bleep) Merlot, you can find one that you enjoy.
The Gochiso’s Short List of Merlot
Less than $25 Less than $50 Sky’s the Limit
Swanson Realm Tempest Twomey
Blackstone Napa Selene Blankiet
Whitehall Lane Madrigal Paloma
Marilyn Merlot Planeta Certan Marzelle