Why drink merlot when most people agree cabernet sauvignon is the king of wines? Here’s why. When I throw a big dinner, it's surprising how many guests say cabs are too tannic and powerful, and politely ask for something softer.
Merlot is often that “something.” It has many of the characteristics of cabs — black cherry and mocha flavors, licorice and spice. But, especially when the wines are young, merlot just seems friendlier to many.
A cab is what you want when you’re grilling a big rib-eye with those succulent, guilty-pleasure lines of fat running through it. Cab’s acids and tannins strip your tongue of the steak’s fat and refresh your palate for that next savory bite.
Merlot seems softer, sweeter, friendlier, fleshier, more voluptuous — and more popular with many of my friends.
It’s a good match for roasted turkey and pork, lean wild game, grilled veggies, pasta with red sauces, hard cheeses, even salmon or tuna, especially on the grill. Merlot’s hint of sweetness goes well with spicy foods like chili or Szechuan red-meat dishes.
Merlot hit some hard times a decade or so ago — ironically, when it got too popular. Growers started planting it everywhere, including places for which it wasn’t suited, and harvesting too many tons of grapes per acre.
In a competition in the 1990s I tasted 150 merlots in a week and found one-third were marvelous, one-third were flavorless battery acid and one third were too-tannic cabernet wannabes.
To our good fortune, growers got the message and have learned where to plant it — often in areas with warm days to ripen the grapes and cool nights to preserve their refreshing fruit acids. Napa and Sonoma are popular for merlot these days. In Chile, merlot grows well in the Rapel Valley.
In France’s Bordeaux region, most famous red wines have cabernet sauvignon as their first grape, often blended for complexity with merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and/or malbec. But the region’s Saint-Emilion area is an exception, with merlot in the lead. Chateau Faizeau’s wine is 100 percent merlot. And Chateau Cantin’s red is 80 percent merlot, with 10 percent cabernet sauvignon and 10 percent cabernet franc.
Merlot is often used to soften muscular cabs. Waterstone Winery, for example, adds 17 percent merlot to its Napa Valley Reserve cab. Trione Vineyards, in Alexander Valley, adds 12 percent merlot.
For the opposite reason, cabernet sauvignon often is used to give more structure to merlot. Kendall-Jackson fine-tunes its Grand Reserve merlot with 6.4 percent cabernet sauvignon, 1.3 percent cabernet franc and 0.5 percent petit verdot, tannat and malbec.
So the next time you have a party, pour all the cabernet sauvignon you want. But keep a bottle of merlot in the kitchen. Chances are someone will ask you for it.