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Insider’s guide to... Merlot

(menu)

Though a familiar and widely grown grape, Merlot has come in for some bad press recently. The best way to enjoy it, says Chris Losh, is as part of a blend...


Merlot wine Merlot must be feeling pretty under-appreciated at the moment. Despite being both a vital component in some of the best (and most expensive) wines on the planet and a great value-for-money option at the cheaper end of the wine list, it just doesn’t have the kudos of Cabernet Sauvignon or the poetry of Pinot Noir. 

There’s a whole sub-culture of Zinfandel lovers in California, but nowhere, as far as I know, is there a ‘Merlot Appreciation Society’. Indeed, in the States, it’s become ‘the grape that dare not speak its name’, following its trashing in the Pinot Noir love-in that was the wine road-movie Sideways.

But let’s get back to what Merlot does well. Its homeland is Bordeaux, where it is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. It’s one of those classic combinations, like steak-frites, where the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts. Why? Because although in flavour terms both Merlot and Cabernet major on plums, blackcurrants, cassis and chocolate, they perform quite differently in your mouth. 

Cabernet is a snooty aristocrat, elegant and austere, giving a hit of flavour then a whack of tannin. Merlot is softer, rounder and altogether friendlier. Put them together and you get a wine with great flavour, great mouth feel and a fine tannic structure.

They’re (mostly) grown in different places, too. While the grandiose châteaux of the Médoc are home to Cabernet, you need to head for the smaller estates of the Right Bank (St-Emilion and Pomerol) for Merlot central. The turbocharged wines from Château Pavie (a favourite of wine critic Robert Parker) and Château Le Pin are hugely concentrated examples, and go for huge sums. Yet even the most intense of them will be drinkable sooner than their Cabernet-based equivalents. 

This approachability is both a blessing and a curse. As the New World has found out, it’s quite easy to make a cheap, soft, fruity Merlot, but to make a really good or great wine is harder than you might think. 

In fact, outside France, Merlot has underperformed. The only places to have really done anything with it are Chile and California, where it has made millions of bottles of smooth, fruity, everyday wine, but not many that are stand-out A-list. 

This is Merlot’s problem. While it’s got the hang of ‘fleshy and approachable’, there aren’t many places where it can pull off ‘elegant and classy’, and too many wineries have replaced elegance with big fruit, big oak and big alcohol; hence its denigration by the lovers of that quintessentially elegant grape, Pinot Noir, in the film Sideways.

The solution, if you want a wine that’s more than cheap and cheerful, is probably to seek out wines where Merlot is part of a blend. As the French have long known, that’s when it’s at its best.

TOP MERLOT PRODUCERS

BORDEAUX NEW WORLD
Château Angélus  Casa Lapostolle (Chile)
Château L’Evangile Chateau St. Jean (California)
Château Pavie Cullen (Western Australia)
Château Pétrus Duckhorn (California)
Château Le Pin
Château Trotanoy

Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine - Autumn 2008


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