Sticking up for merlot.

May 4 2005 4:39 PM

Defending Merlot

It's not always bad.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel.
Click image to expand.

Successful as it was at the box office, the film Sideways has had an even bigger impact at the checkout counter. Even though it is no longer in theaters, the Oscar-winning movie about two buddies on a calamitous wine-tasting tour through California's central coast continues to make its influence felt at wine shops. Miles, the discriminating lush played by Paul Giamatti, is so passionate about the virtues of pinot noir that the film's release sparked a nationwide surge in pinot noir sales. Meanwhile, his now-immortal rant against merlot—"No, if anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any fucking merlot."—has stigmatized the wildly popular grape varietal in the eyes of millions of casual wine drinkers. And suddenly, I'm feeling a little sorry for merlot.

To be sure, merlot is a tough grape to defend. In most cases, it produces soft, fleshy, and utterly forgettable wines. Cheap California merlot—which is to say, most California merlot—is matched in its insipidness only by cheap California chardonnay. Even pricey California merlots are pretty grim—overripe, over-oaked, and ridiculously overpriced. Generally speaking, merlot works best in a supporting role. In wines that are composed mainly of cabernet sauvignon, blending in a little merlot adds some sweetness and charm to what would otherwise be, initially at least, a fairly austere drink. Nearly every wine produced on the left bank of Bordeaux, which is Cab country, includes a sizable percentage of merlot.

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However, in the right place and with the right winemaker, merlot is more than capable of playing the lead. The famed Chateau Petrus, one of the world's priciest red wines (in a good vintage, such as 2000, a bottle will fetch around $1,500 on release), is composed almost entirely of merlot. (A bit of cabernet franc is also thrown in.) Petrus comes from the Pomerol appellation in Bordeaux, which is merlot's holiest site (its only sacred ground, actually). Pomerol's gravel-clay soil, which is rich in iron content, seems to bring out an unusual complexity in merlot and routinely yields lush, profound, and amazingly decadent wines. Robert Parker's well-documented affinity for wines like Petrus, Chateau Lafleur, and Chateau Le Pin has helped make Pomerol the most celebrated of all Bordeaux appellations, much to the chagrin of the big players on the other side of the Gironde River.

Interestingly, the producers of Sideways apparently recognized the flaw in Miles' blanket condemnation of merlot and had hoped to call attention to it in the film. A few months ago, W. Blake Gray of the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the producers had originally wanted to use a bottle of Petrus as the treasured wine gathering dust in Miles' apartment. But Christian Moueix, the chateau's owner, read the script and decided to pass. (Petrus doesn't exactly need the publicity.) So, instead it was a bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc—another venerable right-bank Bordeaux, but one from the St. Emilion appellation that is composed principally of cabernet franc—that a despondent Miles ends up uncorking in a San Diego burger joint.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel.
Click image to expand.

Although I adore Petrus and would like to have included it in this tasting, it was a smidge out of our price range. I did, however, try three other wines from the Moueix stable, including Chateau Trotanoy, which can in good years come close to matching Petrus. I included a few California merlots, as well as some wines from Washington state, where the warm days and cool nights produce what I believe are probably the finest American merlots—in large part because overripeness is less of an issue. In addition, I sampled several merlots from the North Fork of Long Island. Winemakers there have long pointed out that the North Fork, with its temperate maritime climate and sandy soil, bears some important similarities to Pomerol. I tend to think they are overstating the case just a bit, but they're certainly worth including here.

The French Merlots

La Grave à Pomerol 1999 (Pomerol)  $30
Aromas of ripe plums, cocoa, coffee grinds, tobacco, and vanilla. Mouth-filling at first, but seems to thin out across the palate. A very pleasant wine, but not one for the long haul. Now is the time to drink it.

Latour à Pomerol 1998 (Pomerol)  $95
Sensational bouquet of kirsch, truffles, graphite, smoke, and mocha. Cool, ripe, black fruit in the mouth and excellent structure, but the wine is slumbering a bit at the moment. Give it a few more years to come out of its shell, at which point it should be drinking beautifully. A superb vintage for the winery and for Pomerol.

Trotanoy 1999  (Pomerol)   $90
A mellow, inviting nose showing plums, tobacco, and a vaguely Asiatic spice. Silky and poised in the mouth, with terrific balance. Doesn't have much heft, but that's a function of the vintage; 1999 was an unremarkable year for Bordeaux.

The California Merlots

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