Merlot, everyone's favorite red wine in the '90s, reached its trendoid apotheosis when it was name-checked not once but twice on Seinfeld ("The Rye," in January 1996, and "The Yada Yada," in April 1997, in which Kramer memorably uttered: "I live for merlot."). Yep, merlot was hot, it was happening, it was what we all wanted to drink—or what we all wanted to talk about drinking.
But, oh, how grape expectations pop. Due to massive overexposure, merlot, a perfectly respectable and delicious wine, has hit the skids in recent years. Usually, I don't feel bad about toppling food trends. In fact, I worked on a story in the January 1997 issue of Food & Wine that put merlot on a "tired trend" list. But I did get upset when I heard the following from a friend: Just the other day, my buddy was dining at Lupa, a restaurant owned by Food Network superstar Mario Batali. He asked for a glass of merlot. "We don't have merlot," the waiter sniffed, rolling his eyes.
Why the 'tude? How did a wine become a symbol of the passé? As someone who prefers '80s culture to '90s culture, I didn't jump on the merlot bandwagon when the stuff was hot; I was deep in unhip Chardonnay country, and I didn't care what anyone had to say about it. But after hearing my friend's story about the dissing of merlot, what I wanted to know was this: Does merlot really suck? Is it possible to get a good one? And, most important given these lean times, is it possible to get a good bottle of it for $10 or less?
But first, what is merlot? It's a red grape; in fact, it's the dominant grape grown in most of France's Bordeaux region. Merlot is often blended with other grapes to make wine, but sometimes it's left all alone. The most famous producer of French merlot wines is Chateau Petrus, whose 1990 bottling earned a perfect 100 score from Wine Spectator (it sells for about $1,700 a bottle).
Merlot grapes are also grown all over the world—with varying success—from California to Croatia, Argentina to Australia. The grape contains little of the astringent substance known as tannin that comes mostly from grape skins and, besides adding bitterness, helps preserve wine. Classic merlot has a fairly big body; its full taste generally needs strong food to stand up to it—lasagna, say, instead of sushi. Its taste should remind you of ripe red fruit.
Sometimes merlot has hints of smooth, chocolate flavor—usually what people refer to when they call it "velvety." Merlot is also often described as a "safe" wine, because its fruit is easy to taste and it goes well with many foods.
The setting: March, a restaurant awarded three stars by the New York Times, on Manhattan's Upper East Side. March is home to one of the city's most vaunted wine cellars, with more than 4,500 bottles.
The characters: Generously leading the tasting was Chuck Mason, general manager and assistant wine director of March. Mason looks a little like John McEnroe in a twinkle-eyed, spry way. Second was me. Third was my out-of-work friend Max, a comedy writer who never turns down the chance to drink. So, I had someone who knows nearly everything about wine (Chuck), someone who knows something about wine (me), and someone who knows nothing about wine (Max).
The method: Ten glasses per person, each labeled with a letter. Of those ten, two were from the United States (California and Washington), while the rest were international, hailing from Bulgaria, Argentina, Croatia, Chile, Italy, Romania, Australia, and France. Rose, the restaurant manager, hid corresponding letters underneath the bottles and then decanted for us. We tasters had no idea which wine was which as we sipped. First, we analyzed a merlot's color; next we swirled the wine in its glass to get an idea about its body; finally, we tasted … and then spat (well, most of the time). We didn't find out what the wines were until after we'd tasted and ranked them, at which point we discussed their relative merits some more.
Wine: Balkan Crest Merlot, 1996
Country of Origin: Bulgaria
Comments: Chuck: "Good nose; I like the musty quality, but the color is not as blood-red as I'd like, and it's very dry."
Kelly: "This is as dry as dried paint. This is so dry I can't believe I just drank something."
Max: "Smells all right, but that's about it."
Not the Holy Grail of cheap Merlot. On to the next:
Wine: Gallo of Sonoma Merlot, 1999
Country of Origin: Unites States (California)
Comments: Chuck: "Can you write 'manure'? It's trying for chocolate, but not succeeding."
Kelly: "Essence of athlete's foot."
Max: "People who crushed this with their feet didn't wash their feet."
A rightful casualty of anti-merlot sentiment.
Wine: Bodega Norton Merlot, 1999
Country of Origin: Argentina
Comments: Chuck: "Almost a candy-apple nose … would pair well with food."
Kelly: "Smells like tart berries."
Max: "Tastes like every wine I order out at restaurants."
One to resurrect, especially considering the price.
Wine: Istria Merlot, 1997
Country of Origin: Croatia
Comments: Chuck: "One word: maderized" (Maderized is when a wine has undergone the process considered favorable in dessert wines wherein grapes rot and turn caramel-hued)
Kelly: "Looks like prune juice."
Max: "Next … "
Throw this on the pyre.
Wine: Santa Rita Merlot Reserva, 2000.
Country of Origin: Chile
Comments: Chuck: "Real bright color, horse blanket nose; but great fruit flavor."
Kelly: No comment. (I was too busy swallowing this one; I liked it.)
Max: "Hit me baby one more time."
This could be a contender.
Wine: Famiglia Boscaini Dirada Merlot, 2000
Country of Origin: Italy
Comments: Chuck: "Color's a little lighter than the one we just tried; nose is almost pine forest—but this more a quaffing wine."
Kelly: "Tastes like Beaujolais nouveau, not merlot."
Max: "This is some sissy wine masquerading as a merlot."
More fodder for the anti-Merlotists
Wine: Premiat, 1998.
Country of Origin: Romania
Comments: Chuck: "Finally, the elusive chocolate scent, but the nose isn't backed up in the taste."
Kelly: "Tastes so light it's like water."
Max: "Now I see why how those Romanian gymnasts stay so thin."
A tragic waste of $3.49.
Wine: Salmon Harbor Merlot, 2000
Country of Origin: United States (Washington)
Comments: Chuck: "Very specific nose, but I'm just not sure what it is. Lots of smooth, balanced fruit in the mouth."
Kelly: "Would be good with food or by itself; rich, dark color, too."
Max: "Would that be velvety? Indeed."
Potential, potential, potential …
Wine: Rosemount Estate Merlot, 2000
Country of Origin: Australia
Comments: Chuck: "Jammy nose, but dry finish."
Kelly: "The nose promises more than the wine delivers."
Max: "Who cares what it smells like when it's this dry?"
Solidly middle of the road. Definitely maybe.
Wine: Divin Merlot, 2000
Country of Origin: France
Comments: Chuck: "I love the dark color, and the fruit on the nose."
Kelly: "I wish it had more fruit."
Just acceptable enough to advance to the next round.
The result: For the final round, we were left with four players. We threw out France and Australia, which proved nearly identical and, though pleasant, unexceptional. In the end we went with the Washington. Chuck said that if he were selling the Chilean to customers he'd have to explain its distinct nose, but the Washington wine would be just what the customer was expecting. The top four, Divin Merlot, 2000; Rosemount Estate Merlot, 2000; Salmon Harbor Merlot, 2000; and Santa Rita Merlot Riserva, 2000 were all solid wines and excellent bargains to boot. But more important than these specific winners was the metaphysical victory that was mine: I proved that you can get a good merlot—and for ten clams. I imagine Kramer would approve.