I have never really understood Merlot. For me, it is a bit of a “tweener” variety–it is neither as bold as Cabernet Sauvignon, nor as expressive as Pinot Noir or Syrah. I have always had trouble deciding when to drink it. When I am having a big juicy steak, the choice is clearly Cabernet (or perhaps an earthy Zinfandel). When I am having some pork, or a more delicate dish, I grab a Pinot (or two). A before dinner red? Although a rare occurrence, I will reach for a Syrah, Zin, or a Pinot. After dinner? Cab, Zin, dessert wine.
You get the idea.
There is generally never a moment when I think: “Boy, a Merlot would be perfect right now,” and my cellar reflects that: I have a total of eight bottles of Merlot (less than one half of one percent of my wine), and one of those was a gift, and another I “won” at my son’s school’s auction.
Yeah. Not a huge fan.
Last week, I was once again visiting my good friend, Donald Goodkin, a grape grower in Dry Creek Valley (he grows both Merlot and Cabernet). Until last fall, he had sold off all his fruit, never making his own wine. This last harvest, however, he kept a little over a ton of Merlot and handed it over to Erik Miller, the winemaker at Kokomo Winery.
Shortly after I showed up, Donald, took me to over to Kokomo to taste his Merlot, which was still in barrel. Even though I was looking forward to seeing Erik again, I was, shall we say, a bit trepidatious. The last thing I wanted to do was taste Donald’s Merlot and have to tell him that well, it kinda sucked.
When we found Erik at the winery, he told us that he actually had three different Merlots in barrel that we should try. Donald wanted to try the three blind–he did not want to know which came from his fruit until we had tasted all three.
In other words, a little blind barrel tasting.
Yeah, I have it pretty rough.
Erik gave us each a splash of the first wine. I pulled a little in, swished it around. Spat. Then I repeated the same exercise.
While the wine did not “suck” it was not really all that interesting, either. There was a bunch of fruit, but not much of anything else. I was already trying to formulate what I was going to say to Donald. I tried to think of any number of ways to say something that he would not hear as “well, it kinda sucked.” The best I could come up with was “more time in the barrel will (probably) help.”
Yeah. Some friend I am.
At this point, I feel the need to add that my blasé attitude toward Merlot was rather well-established before the movie Sideways came out. As most know by now, the variety was disparaged in the movie in a particularly poignant scene, which caused (at least in part, according to some¹) an ebb in the popularity of the grape and a rise in the demand of Pinot Noir, the varietal wine championed in the movie.
If it is indeed true, that Sideways caused the Merlot sales to dip, well, then the movie did Merlot a favor. (Although as any half-way decent researcher would tell you: “Correlation does not imply causation”–just because Merlot sales decreased after the movie, it does not necessarily mean that the movie caused the decrease. In fact, Merlot sales had actually started to decline before the release of the movie.¹)
Regardless, it is true Merlot had become so popular in the 80’s and 90’s that there was far too much of it being produced, and much of it was planted in the wrong areas, all of which resulted in a slew of Merlot that was frankly not very good.
After the first wine that Erik gave us, I thought “Here we go again.”
But the Merlot “story” does not end there. Clearly, Merlot producers and growers had to adapt, or risk even further declines in sales.
The result? Since the movie, many of the vines that were planted in the wrong areas have either been ripped out or re-grafted and replaced with more appropriate varieties.²
Today, more of the Merlot that is grown is planted in appropriate vineyards, the vineyards are better maintained and farmed, resulting in higher quality fruit, which is leading to the production of better wines.
Now, it seems, a higher percentage of the Merlot being produced is actually pretty good and certainly worth further exploration.
Which brings us to the second wine.
A completely different ball game. While there was certainly fruit, this time it was accompanied by some serious structure–acidity, depth, and backbone. At this point, it was still a bit of a tannic beast, but this time my quip of “more time in the barrel will help” would actually be true–the tannins would smooth out some and this would be a wonderful wine.
Clearly, this second wine was a lot better. So much better that I started to pray:
“Please let this wine be Donald’s, please….”
The third wine was similar to the second, with perhaps a bit more fruit. Another very nice wine, but in all honesty, I thought that there was a bit too much going on, that some of the earthy qualities that I enjoyed in the second wine were being pushed out by the fruit. So what did I think?
“More time in the barrel will help.”
Yeah. (See? Barrel tastings are not all that difficult to manage….)
This time, though, I thought that the barrel would help both round out the tannins (which were equally present here as with wine number two), but also I hoped the fruit would mellow out a bit (as I hoped for wine number one, although if the fruit mellowed too much with that first one, well, there would not be a lot left).
After the third, I hesitantly waited for Erik to reveal the identities of each of the wines.
The first one was…
It was a wine that he was making for another friend from grapes that came from a vineyard that was farmed to produce a lot of fruit. I believe Erik said it yielded something crazy–over five tons an acre (most higher quality wines come from vineyards that produce less than half that (or even less)–lowering crop yields helps to concentrate the flavors in the fruit).
Although honestly, I really was not listening all that intently, I was just trying to contain my joy that the first wine was not Donald’s–the other two were vastly better, well on their respective ways to being Outstanding wines, and I knew Donald would be happy with either one being his.
The second wine ended up being from Donald’s fruit, which was honestly my favorite. The third would probably rate higher with the critics due to the additional fruit component, but I thought the second was more refined, more European, which is certainly the way I lean.
The rest of my visit, I paid a lot more attention to Merlots where ever I found them. And while I doubt it will ever surpass Sparkling Wine or Pinot Noir in my echelon of preferred wine styles, I do think more and more bottles of Merlot will find their way into my cellar.
Particularly if I can pry a couple bottles away from Donald….
¹Cuellar, S., Karnowsky, D., and Acosta, F. (2008) The Sideways Effect: A test for changes in the demand for Merlot and Pinot Noir wines. (Working paper). Retrieved from http://www.wine-economics.org/workingpapers/AAWE_WP25.pdf
²Ecker, B. (2012, February 15). Merlot on the Rebound. Retrieved from http://napavalleyregister.com/inv/lifestyles/food-and-cooking/wine/merlot-on-the-rebound/article_a656ccec-5831-11e1-b25f-001871e3ce6c.html