If they ever make a TV police procedural themed around wine, merlot will be the good cop to cabernet sauvignon’s bad cop.
The cab will storm in and pound on the table with its brash, in-your-face tannins and acids. Then merlot will enter, smiling, showing its softer, smoother, friendlier flavors.
A word I like for describing merlot is “zaftig,” which the dictionary says means “plump ... having a full, rounded figure.” It comes from the Yiddish word “zaftik,” meaning “juicy.”
Zaftig, in merlot, means rich, round, hedonistic, decadent, fleshy and opulent, with flavors of black cherries, black raspberries, blueberries, licorice, black pepper, chocolate and cloves.
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If cabernet sauvignon, a marvelous wine, is the wine to tame a well-marbled N.Y. strip, merlot can handle richly sauced meat dishes, beef stews, casseroles, roast chicken, even grilled vegetables, from onions to carrots to mushrooms.
In California, merlot does well all by itself and in blends with everything from cabernet sauvignon to malbec to syrah. Even small percentages of merlot work to make smoother blended reds.
In France, merlot long has been a part of the required blend for the fabulous reds of Bordeaux, along with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec. In some parts of Bordeaux such as Pomerol, it is the main grape in such blends.
Many wine fans assumed merlot was doomed by the 2004 film “Sideways,” in which wine snob Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, angrily refuses even a sip of merlot, instead praising pinot noir.
True, merlot at that time was justly criticized for falling victim to its own popularity due to mass-production fermenting methods and too many vines planted in too many wrong places.
In fact, back in those days I tasted 150 merlots in a week at a wine judging competition. Fifty were tooth-gritting cabernet wannabes, 50 were thin battery acid and 50 were pretty good. One out of three is not good.
Still, the death reports were premature.
In the end, pinot noir got a boost from the film, growing by 87 percent by 2012, with nearly 250,000 tons of grapes crushed that year.
But merlot, buoyed by smarter planting and better production methods, soared as well, growing by 78 percent by 2012, with nearly 335,000 tons crushed — well ahead of pinot noir.
It proved the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, as long as they spell your name right.
Sorry, Miles. America is falling in love again with merlot.
Fred’s Wine List
2012 Freemark Abbey Merlot, Napa Valley (85 percent merlot, 10 percent cabernet sauvignon, 3 percent petit verdot, 1 percent cabernet franc, 1 percent malbec): hint of oak, flavors of black raspberries and bittersweet chocolate, hearty and smooth, long finish; $34.
2011 Clos du Val Merlot, Napa Valley (76 percent merlot, 16 percent cabernet sauvignon, 5 percent petit verdot, 3 percent cabernet Franc): big and bold, with aromas and flavors of black plums, bittersweet chocolate and herbs, smooth finish; $35.
2012 Benziger Family Winery Merlot, Sonoma County: aromas and flavors of back plums, licorice and cinnamon, smooth, medium body; $19
2010 Baron de Luze Bordeaux (80 percent merlot, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon): hint of oak, powerful black cherry, herb and mineral flavors, firm tannins; $14.
2012 Kendall-Jackson “Avant” Red Blend, California (61 percent merlot, 15 percent syrah, 10 percent malbec, 7 percent cabernet sauvignon, 3 percent carignane, 4 percent other): hint of oak, aromas and flavors of red raspberries, bittersweet chocolate and cloves, smooth finish; $17.
2012 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve “Summation,” California (34 percent zinfandel, 31 percent syrah, 23 percent merlot, 6 percent petite sirah, 3 percent grenache, 3 percent others): fruity, with aromas and flavors of black cherries and milk chocolate, rich and smooth; $17.
2013 McManis Family Vineyards Merlot, California: aromas and flavors of black cherries and black pepper, medium body, soft tannins; $19.
Pedroncelli “Bench Vineyards” Merlot, Dry Creek Valley: aromas and flavors of black plums and black pepper, full body, smooth finish; $16.
2011 Rodney Strong Merlot, Sonoma County (100 percent merlot): vanilla aromas, flavors of black cherries and herbs, long finish; $20.
2012 Pedroncelli Sonoma County Friends Red Blend (merlot, zinfandel, syrah, petite sirah): medium body, aromas and flavors of black cherries and cinnamon; $12.