You’ve probably already heard this famous replica from the mouth of actor Paul Giamatti who was answering his colleague Thomas Hayden Church in the now classic movie « Sideways »: « I’m Not Drinking Any Fucking Merlot » ! Believe it or not, this sentence has cost quite a lot to Merlot producers in California but also elsewhere in the world. Almost 20 years later, Merlot deserves its rehabilitation.
Merlot is not new since it appeared in the 18th century on the right bank in Bordeaux. Known for its velvety, rich, fruity and not too tannic style, this red grape has become iconic in Bordeaux, especially with the famous Château Pétrus or blended in the « St-Émilion Grand Cru Classé » such as the Château Cheval Blanc which, incidentally, was drunk, in his 1961 vintage, by Miles, the character of Sideways in a « greasy » restaurant to accompany a hamburger.
After the success of Merlot in France, this grape variety has spread in Italy, especially among Supertuscans alongside Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. In California, the winemakers began to vinify it in a single varietal, giving rather sturdy wines with a lot of fruit extraction, sometimes even overripe, leading to the production of rather heavy merlots lacking in acidity and typicity. It was enough for the all-powerful Hollywood with the release of the Sideways movie in 2004. (to review here in excerpt)
The effect on Merlot sales was even analyzed (see here) and demonstrated an erosion of sales and increased revenues in favor of pinot noir, the grape variety adored by Miles (Paul Giamatti) in the US . However, it appears that the positive effect has been greater on Pinot Noir than the one negative on Merlot. It remains that, even if Merlot sales have not collapsed, the impact on the worldwide collective mind about Merlot is still present in 2019. To have spoken with winegrowers from all over the world who cultivate the grape, few of them carry the movie in their hearts.
If the movie hurt the Merlot’s reputation, it also allowed the Merlot producers to pull themselves together and to refine the vinification of the a grape that was defined in a little caricatural or nonchalant style. Today, Merlot deserves more than ever its place in dining rooms around the world. The velvety, very « plum, cherry and blackcurrant » side of the grape is still sought after among the cooler climate regions (Bordeaux and Italy) with more tannins and earthy side than those made in the warmer regions (California) where the very ripe fruit tends to keep the top of the bill. But that is changing little by little with our friends on the West Coast. For the best of all…
Five Merlot to be seduced again
Château Bujan, 2020, Côtes de Bourg, Bordeaux, France
One of my favorite Bordeaux wines for a long time and produced in reasoned agriculture. Merlot dominates but is accompanied by Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. With its modern style, this Côtes de Bourg charms by its oaky frame and rather roundness in the mouth. Delicious.
Château Garraud, 2018, Lalande-de-Pomerol, Bordeaux, France
Here is a round, plump, medium-bodied Lalande de Pomerol focused on ripe cherry and a spicy seduction. Rather refined, we take advantage of the richness of Merlot from the Right Bank of Bordeaux. Crafted in a very good vintage, you can cellar it for a few years without any problem. Beautiful example of elegance.
Decoy, Merlot, 2020, Sonoma County, United States
The label is quite obvious with the duck’s presence, it is indeed the entry-level brand of the Californian house Duckhorn. With 96% Merlot, this wine is the perfect example of a Sonoma County Merlot with its refreshing acidity. Blueberries, raspberry and blackcurrant are dancing in your glass. The tannins are silky and the woody does not impinge too much on the fruitiness. Charming.
Do Ut Carpineta, Fontalpino, 2018, Tuscany, Italy
Since we are talking about Supertuscans, here is a typical one. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese are present in equal parts and offer a wine with lots of cherry, scents of blond tobacco and cigar box. It is very long in the mouth with a delicious freshness. Nice work.
Château Belle Prise, 2018, Pomerol, Bordeaux, France
To taste one of the best of the best, there’s nothing like this Pomerol produced only at 800 cases per year! Made by a Bordelais, doctor in law who left everything to buy the 2 hectares vineyard of Château Belle Prize in 1991. Old vines, no enzymes, no filtration, no fining, almost a natural wine. With a little cabernet franc, this merlot spent a year in oak and 4 months in bottle. The nose is rich, pure and mineral. Beautiful fruits, lots of freshness with a nice grip. Silky and hints of truffle. Will go a long way.