The Wine Whisperer: What you need to know about Merlot

I wonder why there is still some misunderstanding about the wonderful red wine grape Merlot. I think that this worldly and elegant wine was so bashed by Paul Giamatti that it might take a generation for Merlot to get "up to speed" and grab its rightful place, once again, in winedom.

Here is what we know about wine made from Merlot:

First, let me give you a very brief history of red and white wine production in California. Many of the "big oak" Cabernet Sauvignon produced in California in the late 1960s until the middle 1980s suffered from being way overdone and the wine production message in the state was "more is better" in just about all of the winemaking during these 25 years.

Oak, skin contact and pressing was dominant in the minds and cellars of many winemakers at that time. Even the Chardonnays were suffering from over extraction and hideous amounts of oak. It got so bad in the middle 1970s that I remember a "blind" tasting of white wine (all of which turned out to be Chardonnay) where none of the judges could tell what the wines were because the heavy-handed use of oak in the production masked the varietal!

These years were a strange era for California red and whites because this "more" attitude permeated the industry. Ironically, I was working in various wineries in France and Italy at the time and had attended many industry sponsored tastings, especially in Bordeaux, and I was able to taste the difference between what was happening in the Old World versus the New World. In Bordeaux at the time I tasted this wonderful blending of Cabernet Sauvignon with (among others) Merlot. In Bordeaux the red wines were about balance, not bigness or power, and one of the ways this was achieved was the judicious use of Merlot as a blending grape.

Merlot has the ability to age well like Cabernet Sauvignon, when the winemaker produces the wine to do so. The difference between the grapes are very complex but the main difference remains that the tannins in Cabernet Sauvignon are more apparent on the palate than those of Merlot. Merlot is, therefore, softer but can age as well as its almost twin brother. A winemaker, if skilled enough, can blend the two wines and create a powerful yet approachable red wine fit for the table or the cellar depending on what the winemaker intends. Merlot simply takes the harshness away from many wines when used as a blending agent.

The downside for Merlot, because of its softness and approachability, is that it can be planted in areas where the wine might do marginally well and where the land is cheap and large quantities of subpar to average red wine can be made very quickly and inexpensively. Merlot then becomes the catalyst for its own downfall simply because it can be made on the cheap and be inoffensive by virtue of its easygoing nature. Merlot is like the good-natured guy who, through good and bad times, is always being taken advantage of because he is so forgiving. The result is that there is a lot of marginal Merlot being produced out there, especially in the Central Valley of California, and in the Southern Hemisphere.

The good news is that winemakers in Napa Valley, Calf., and Walla Walla, Wash., are making world-class Merlot, as are (of course) some of the old, venerable wineries in Bordeaux. We are also seeing nice Merlot in our own backyard coming out of the Applegate Valley as well as the Rogue Valley. The guy who started it all out as a main, stand-alone varietal in the United States was Louis Martini in Napa Valley. His 1970 Merlot was the belle of the ball and introduced to the drinking public a very elegant, well-rounded wine with finesse and lovely flavors. He was the one who took this varietal and made it into a household word in the American wine scene.

More about Merlot next week!

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