Merlot is a wine that to some people is bland and uninteresting and to others is their absolute favorite. Now if, for example, you want to drink a red wine that is soft, fruity, is easily affordable, and that doesn’t make you pucker with bitter tannins, then Merlot is for you.
Similarly, if you are a white wine drinker you may like a fresh, fruity and simple wine that is easily affordable. In that case then Pinot Grigio is the wine for you.
As I have said in many of my blogs, wine appreciation is all about individual perception and that those perceptions are influenced by a host of things like age, sex, ethnicity and education. All this to the point that what you perceive in the glass may be as much a function of who and what you are than the actual wine in the glass.
I remember a lesson I learned a few years ago when Patricia and I went to a very fancy restaurant in the Outer Banks called the Rive Gauche (The Left bank). It was our wedding anniversary and we were ready to splurge, so I ordered the chef’s tasting menu paired with wine. If you know anything about fancy restaurants, getting the chef’s tasting menu is a big challenge for your palate as well as for your wallet.
We were set, looking out over the Intracoastal Waterway, full of love and high expectations for our anniversary celebration.
The first course was a delicacy paired with Pinot Grigio. I was incensed. It was beyond my comprehension how anyone could pair anything with Pinot Grigio in this setting. However this was not a Pinot Grigio from Kroger; this was an expression of Pinot Grigio that I had never experienced before, having only really tasted Pinot Grigio from Kroger.
The wine was exceptional. I had no idea that Pinot Grigio could taste so good.
The lesson here is don’t let your previous perceptions of a wine interfere with what’s in your glass. If in the example above they had served me a Merlot with the main course I would have been similarly mortified.
The origin of Merlot seems relatively recent, as its name is only seen in the literature for the first time at the end of the 18th century, just before the French Revolution. Merlot was not an important cultivar until the last decades, when it saw a large expansion not only in Bordeaux, but worldwide. Today, Merlot is, along with Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the two most important red varieties in the world. In Bordeaux, as in the rest of the world, there are more acres of planted Merlot than there are acres of Cabernet Sauvignon. Similarly, in world sales Merlot is showing modest gains in consumption whereas Cabernet Sauvignon is losing market share.
Merlot is a wine that for all its blandness is quite divisive among wine drinkers. You either love it or you dismiss it as merely a blending grape. By its very nature the grape grows everywhere in the world from the old world – France, Italy and Spain, to the new world – Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and South America. The universality of the grape and its popular appeal make some people dismiss the wine out of hand.
Yet in the right circumstances Merlot can produce wines that have all the qualities of complexity, intensity and concentration of the best of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.
Why is Merlot considered as a relatively bland, blending wine? Well the truth is, mass produced “good value” Merlot is just that – a relatively bland, non-offensive, “easy drinking” wine.
The grape is easy to grow, ripens early, and lends itself to mass production. Typically the wines are full to medium bodied with more red fruits like cherry, red currant and plum than black fruits like blackberry and mulberry. With aging, more complex flavors emerge like chocolate, forest floor and spice. The tannins and acids are moderate without much in the way of fruit intensity or finish.
Quite simply, Merlot has no characteristic flavor signature. It neither offends nor delights; it is neither good nor bad, depending of course on the way it is made; and that is of course why it is such a great blending wine.
If you have not heard of Petrus, Petrus is one of those wines that is on many people’s bucket list and guess what, it is pure Merlot. If you can get a bottle it will cost upwards of $3,000.00. When I was doing wine tours, I used to like to tell people that we grow Merlot in similar soil to the Petrus soil in France. With not that much difference in climate, how can wines be that different? What justifies that enormous price gap?
Well you know what the French would say without a blink of the eye –”c’est le terroir.” Wines in general, and French wines in particular, are considered to be a function of their terroir. A term that encompasses factors that include soil, climate, vineyard, wine making techniques and French wine regulations. Those factors, according to the French, make a wine like Petrus unique.
That may have some validity but what is probably more important is the yearly production. Petrus only produces approximately 800 cases a year. When demand is high and supply is limited – (Economics 101) – the price goes up. In this case, astronomically.
It has been estimated, especially in the Chinese market, that there are more bottles of Petrus being sold than have ever been produced from the vineyard in its entire history.
The whole concept of terroir is questioned in Mark Matthews book, “Terroir and Other Myths of Winemaking.” His contention is that terroir is fake to scientific methodology, therefore the term was coined as a mere marketing ploy by those seeking to distinguish their wines in a fiercely competitive world. Actually the best way to put it is that terroir is real in the mind of experienced wine drinkers. One cannot apply scientific methodology to what is essentially an abstract concept entrenched in the wine savvy world. .
You’ll find a pro-terroir point of view, if you will, fiercely defended in this Wine Spectator review of Matthews’ book.
Be that as it may, one of the driving forces for the French was making sure that the wine from Bordeaux actually came from Bordeaux. The concept of “wine in its place” is also a wonderful way to prevent fraud and keep up the price.
Enough of France. What about Merlot from the rest of the world?
In the list of the world’s 10 Most Wanted Merlots there are: two French wines, Petrus and Le Pin; five super Tuscans; and three American wines, Marilyn Merlot, Duckhorn, and Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot, all from Napa Valley. I doubt there is a grape growing state in the whole of the US that does not grow Merlot.
In 2002 Luca Pascina invited Tom Stevenson, a British wine critic best known for his editorship of the Encyclopedia of Sparkling Wine, to come over and take a look at Virginia wines with a view to assessing overall quality and marketability of Virginia wines.
He wrote an article entitled “Virginia Dares,” a slightly ambiguous title that implied that Virginia dares to make wine. Virginia Dare, according to history, was the first English child born to the early settlers in the U.S. colonies.
The upshot of his article was that although most Virginians considered Cabernet Franc to be the best of the Virginia red grapes, in his opinion Merlot stood out as the most consistent and highest quality Virginia red wine.
Veritas Merlot has been one of our most consistent wines though not, perhaps, as sexy as Petit Verdot. Our winemaker Emily likes to blend in a small percentage of either Cabernet Franc and sometimes even a touch of Petit Verdot to maintain the complexity of the Merlot. In the same way, she adds a small percentage of Merlot to our Cabernet Franc to boost complexity.
Typically, our best Merlot grapes go into our Reserve Red wine because there is a bigger market for red blends in Virginia than there is for single varietal Merlot. A single varietal Merlot has never won the Virginia Governor’s Cup in my lifetime, but Bordeaux Blends that all contain Merlot have won more Governor’s Cups than any other category.
So there we have it, Merlot in two guises: your friendly old red or your upscale collectors piece, each good in their own way and the way you perceive them.
Andrew Hodson, Dilettante and Raconteur