Like Sally Field, the red grape called merlot can stand up and say, “You like me. You really like me.”
It’s true. Americans drink more merlot than any other red wine except cabernet sauvignon, according to The Wine Institute. It’s the most widely planted grape in France. And there are 600,000 acres of it worldwide.
At its best, it can be fleshy and succulent, softer than cabernet; juicy, with flavors of black cherries, raspberries and plums, plus undertones from espresso to cloves to mocha and even tobacco.
It can be powerful enough for big cuts of beef, soft enough for roast chicken, grilled salmon or creamy pastas.
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Merlot can be complete enough to stand on its own in single-varietal wines and distinct enough to be blended with other grapes for greater complexity.
In France’s famous red Bordeaux region, it is often blended with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec and/or petit verdot for wines of tremendous power.
California and Washington winemakers are somewhat more likely to vinify it by itself, using its early ripening characteristics to make it powerful and full-bodied, with the heft achieved from 14 percent alcohol or even higher.
In America, merlot’s history has been troubled. It grew so popular in the 1990s that growers tore out other varieties to plant it, sometimes in the wrong places and with the wrong methods.
True story: As a judge in a California wine competition in those days, I tasted more than 100 merlots in a week. One-third were hard as rocks, cabernet wannabes; one-third were thin and harsh, simple battery acid; and only the final third were wonderful.
The trouble was picked up in the 2004 Hollywood film “Sideways,” in which Paul Giamatti’s character, the wine snob Miles, says, “If anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving. I’m not drinking (expletive) merlot.”
The phrase went viral. Demand slumped. Growers pulled out 13,000 acres of the grape. The lush red wine market was invaded by syrah, pinot noir.
But it turned out to be a good thing. The acres that remained and new acres that were planted were mostly of better quality.
As you can see from the tasting notes below, merlot’s reputation is returning.
▪ 2012 Kennedy Shah Merlot, by the Woodhouse Wine Estates, Columbia Valley, Washington (85 percent merlot, 15 percent cabernet franc): aromas and flavors of black plums, mocha and anise, soft and ripe and smooth; $14.
▪ 2011 Swanson Vineyards Merlot, Napa Valley, California (76 percent merlot, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon, 4 percent petit verdot): hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black cherries and black coffee, big and rich and ripe; $38.
▪ 2013 Chelsea Goldschmidt Merlot, Alexander Valley, California (100 percent merlot): dark purple hue, aromas and flavors of black cherries and cloves, rich and full-bodied, ripe tannins, smooth finish; $17.
▪ 2013 Sonoma Collection District 3 “Growers Reserve” Red Blend, Sonoma Valley, California (merlot, malbec): hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black cherries and spice, soft and ripe; $19.
▪ 2010 Cenyth Red Wine, Sonoma County (54 percent merlot, 34 percent cabernet franc, 12 percent cabernet sauvignon): dark ruby hue, aromas and flavors of cassis and spice, soft tannins, smooth finish; $60.
▪ “JMC” J. McClelland Merlot, Napa Valley (100 percent merlot): hint of oak, floral aromas, flavors of black cherries and pumpkin pie spices, full-bodied and complex, long, smooth finish; $40.
▪ 2012 Pahlmeyer Merlot, Napa Valley (91 percent merlot, 7 percent petit verdot, 2 percent cabernet sauvignon): aromas and flavors of black cherries, blueberries and bittersweet chocolate, lush and smooth, long finish; $85.
▪ 2011 Northstar Merlot, Columbia Valley (78 percent merlot, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon, 2 percent petit verdot): hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black raspberries, mocha and spice, full-bodied, smooth; $40.
▪ 2014 Liberty School Merlot, Central Coast, California (100 percent merlot): deep ruby hue, hint of oak, floral aromas, flavors of black cherries and spice, big, ripe tannins, smooth finish; $16.
▪ 2013 J. Lohr Estates “Los Osos” Merlot, Paso Robles, California (86 percent merlot, 14 percent malbec): aromas and flavors of black plums, chocolate and cinnamon, ripe and smooth, long finish; $15.
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