Make Mine Merlot
July 24, 2008
Merlot with its soft juicy, blackcurrant, black cherry, plum, and minty flavors makes it a great choice for a red wine to enjoy as a cocktail wine or to accompany your lighter summer meals. Merlot became the hit of the 90s, partly due to its easy drink-ability and partly due to the news moderate consumption of red wine is a benefit to your health.Then Merlot suffered from bad press, deriving from the slurs in the movie Sideways and from wines from inferior and mass produced vineyards in many regions of California, that were really unsuitable for such a noble grape variety.It has become an often overlooked red wine by the wine trade, but not by the consumer. Merlot remains the most popular red wine in the United States. With data collected from supermarket scanner sales from May of 2007 to May of 2008, 8 million cases of Merlot were purchased, compared to 6.6 million cases of Cabernet. Chardonnay remained the leading varietal wine, followed by Merlot, White Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. Together these four varietals made up over half (55 percent) of the wine sales in food stores.Merlot grapes were first used to produce wine in the Bordeaux region of France, where it is the most widely planted grape. The name Merlot means little black bird in French, named so because the color of the grapes are similar to the blackbirds coloring, and these grapes are a favorite of birds, many a vineyard has suffered major damage from bird feeding frenzies.Today, they are also grown in Italy, where it is the fifth most planted grape, and in lesser quantities in Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. In the U.S., California, Washington and Long Island vineyards produce the majority of Merlot. The grape has been used as a blending grape to soften the tannins and give a fruitier essence to its most popular blending partner, Cabernet sauvignon.Merlot grapes have a blue-black hue and are thinner skinned than Cabernet, which is why the wines are less tannic and produce a softer mouth-feel. The grapes also mature sooner than Cabernet and have a higher sugar content and lower malic acid. The harvest time is crucial, because these early ripening grapes can quickly become over-ripe and flabby in flavors if left on the vine too long.Grapes grown in cooler climates and from older vines will show more complex flavors and aromas in the finished product. In California the Napa, Sonoma and Santa Barbara areas all produce good examples of this varietal. In Washington, Merlots from the Columbia and Yakima Valleys are a sure bet for a well-produced Merlot.
Merlots tend to be more approachable than a Cabernet at a younger age, with a higher alcohol content, softer tannins and a softer side. This lower acid and the softer characteristic of Merlot, coupled with its dark fruit flavors, and when lightly oaked, showing hints of vanilla and cedar, makes this a very approachable red wine. The soft tannins make it an easy match with a wide variety of foods including grilled seafoods, spicy dishes, barbecues, roasted and grilled meats, risottos and grilled Portobella mushrooms.Merlot will not compete with the flavors of most foods. Wines receiving more contact time with the grape skin during fermentation, and those having more time in oak, exhibit more complex characteristics, somewhat like a Cab. Trying different Merlots, or asking for recommendations from the staff at your favorite wine shop, will lead you to those Merlots to sip and enjoy this summer with your favorite foods.
2004 LEcole Merlot, Columbia Valley This Bordeaux style wine will pair well with most all foods. It displays red and black cherry, and berry flavors, with hints of tasty vanilla, and balanced tannins. 2004 Sawyer Cellars Merlot, Rutherford Well balanced, juicy black cherry and dark fruit flavors, with a long lingering finish. This wine will pair well with grilled meats, salmon and chicken.2005 Kunde Estate, Merlot, Sonoma Aromas of black currants and boysenberries, with black cherry and ripe plum and cedar flavors. This wine would pair well with a mushroom-parmesan risotto.2004 Ursa Vineyards, Merlot, El Dorado This Sierra Foothills wines has a soft supple mouth-feel, with juicy dark cherry and blackberry flavors. This is my choice to enjoy in the shade as a summer sipping wine.
Janice Jones is a Truckee resident and wine consultant. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.