February 09, 2005

The Trouble with Merlot

"If anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving," Miles yells in the most memorable line of "Sideways," last year's wine-infused hit and current Oscar contender. The audience roars with laughter at this line, and I have to confess it struck a chord with me, too. It's not that merlot is inherently bad. It's just that all too often, most of it fails.

It’s not all the grape’s fault, of course. The wines that inspired growers around the world to plant merlot are those of Bordeaux’s Right Bank appellations St. Emilion and Pomerol, where the grape ripens to the point of velvet plumminess but retains a measure of restraint and grace. Granted, some of that restraint comes from the leaner, more tannic cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc that’s typically blended in. But grace is also inherent in the region’s merlot, which rarely gets too ripe under the area’s often gray skies and in its cold clay soils. Even the few Right Bank wines made almost 100 percent from merlot, like Le Bon Pasteur, Pétrus and Le Pin have elegance. They also cost a bundle.

When merlot goes wrong is when it’s pushed too fast, too hard, too much. Plant it in a warm area and it’ll gorge itself on sun and warmth, producing sugar at a pace that far outweighs its acidity or tannin, two elements it’s already weak in. Pick it too soon, and it might be sweet, but it’ll also have a vicious green streak that can make it taste like it was aged in bell peppers, or mixed with grass clippings. Push the vines to produce too much, and they’ll give lackluster fruit, purple but dull.

But merlot was hot in the 90s, when people were trying to acquire wine knowledge as quickly as they were making money. Merlot is easy to say, it’s got French cachet, and it’s easy to understand: sweet, soft, plummy—yum! It rocketed to the top of the charts in terms of popularity, competing only with cabernet sauvignon for Favorite Wine of the Decade.

So vintners planted it everywhere, without regard to the fact that the best examples came from the continental climate of Bordeaux. It took off in California, often planted in places more suited to artichokes; it doubled its coverage in the vineyards of France’s Languedoc. It picked up currency in Tuscany, where it had formerly taken backstage to the native grapes, and it established footholds in China and Japan. Chile had a field day with it, until they figured out that many of their acres of merlot were actually another grape called carmenère. Winemakers were bumming, until they figured out that carmenère generally makes more interesting wine.

We bought it all—the good, the bad, the truly ugly merlots, thinking they’d be soft, supple, juicy and delicious, but all too often we’d get thin, vegetal, dull red juice. No wonder why so many people cheered when Miles denounced merlot: We’ve been burned by the grape. But before we get too puff-chested about it, remember that we, in our want for simplicity, pleasure, immediacy and low prices, were part of the grape’s downfall. Great wine doesn’t come so easy. You have to learn how to say Pinot Noir, or cut the check for St-Emilion.

This story first appeared in the story at the Denver Post.

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