“If anyone is drinking Merlot, I’m leaving. I’m not drinking any (expletive) Merlot!” – Miles from Sideways
Merlot has a garnered a bad rap by the uninitiated, and often uninformed wine consumer. Why? Cheaply made merlot made en masse has besmirched the reputation of a once glorious varietal. Media (and movies such Sideways) has also mainly marred its merit (though, to be fair, the character Miles largely loathed Merlot because it was his ex-wife’s favorite varietal). Merlot had been reduced to an “entry level” wine that filled the glasses of neophyte oenophiles looking to cop a cheap buzz.
In the ruddy, experienced hand of a veteran winemaker (or even a mediocre one) a can Merlot exhibit some magnificent qualities. It has a relaxing, round and comforting essence not only to its name, but to its flavor profile as well. It’s typically compared (wrongfully) to its stately, patrician Bordeaux cousin the Cabernet Sauvignon (Merlot is one of the five vinted red Bordeaux varietals, with Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec). A Merlot is not as big or as tannic as a Cabernet, and it fares as a better counterpart to food (especially red meat) than its bombastic brethren. And because of its softer tannins and bigger fruit, it blends incredibly well, adding structure and backbone and softening tannins when blended with Cabernet and Cab Franc (two wines that are present in Meritage blends).
The name “Merlot” derives from the French “merle,” or “little blackbird” (in that the animal’s color likely described the hue of the dark grape). It accounts for 50% of the vines grown in Bordeaux, and became famous in the United States when 60 Minutes attributed it to the French paradox that wine promotes good health, which is proven to be scientifically true (thanks, Merlot!).
France, naturally, produces incredibly lean, elegant wines with Merlot. Merlots vinted in Italy and Australia are delicious, and those grown in Chile (where until recently were confused with the Carmenere grape), are some of the world’s most complex, flavorful, and inexpensive in the world. In California, the varietal’s sturdy resilience and adaptability allows it to grow just about anywhere, from the North Coast to the Central Valley and beyond. In the the Livermore Valley, Merlot thrives in the warm days and cool climes, and the local soils imbue a soft minerality (non-fruit flavors) that make them unusual and delicious – and definitely not the varietal to eschew on any of the local tasting lists (…Miles)!
Recommended local Merlots:
-Darcie Kent Winery's silky 2009 Picazo Merlot from the highlands of the Livermore Valley melts on the palate and leaves behind essences of various spices and spiciness. The alluvial plains in the Livermore Valley contribute to this Merlot's complexity. This wine exemplifies a classic, old school Merlot, lean and mean, and not the typical goofy, sloppy, fruity Merlots reminiscent of Gomer Pyle. Pair with game, poultry, pork or dark meats and Sideways.
-Treasure Island Wine's 2010 Chalk Hill Merlot is visceral, virile wine that forfeits excess for exquisiteness in the fruit bomb department. Incredibly restrained, this Merlot is one the best locally made Merlots outside of Napa and Sonoma. Momentary digression: a visit to this winery is a must - as it is the quintessential wine experience within the confines of San Francisco County (and...do not confuse it with its mediocre neighbor "The Winery SF).