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Merlot Madness
By Robert Whitley
Aug 31, 2016
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 October is International Merlot Month. Think about that for a moment. Merlot is the wine everyone loves to loathe. So it gets an entire month to call its own? Something must be wrong with this picture.

Everyone from vintners to consumers has been dismissing merlot for as far back as the memory goes. During the emergence of California wine in the 1960s and 1970s merlot always played second fiddle to King Cab, though it often found itself playing a crucial supporting role in cabernet sauvignon-dominant blends.

“Why should I drink the blending grape when I can drink the blend,” a devout wine enthusiast once told me when I asked about his disdain for merlot. It was the prevailing wisdom of the time, and perception surely is reality.

Then along came a clever marketing meme that merlot was “softer” than King Cab and thus more appealing to women. Grape growers were encouraged to plant more merlot, and they did, quite often in the wrong places. That precipitated a wave of very mediocre merlot that seemed to support the conventional wisdom surrounding merlot.

The winemaker Chuck Ortman, who founded Meridian Vineyards in Paso Robles, loved merlot, especially his merlot. I’ve forgotten how many times Chuck proudly poured his merlot for me side-by-side with King Cab, noting the merlot was “bigger.” His word. Chuck was sailing a rickety wooden boat into a hurricane, but he persevered.

There were others. Duckhorn Vineyards built an iconic brand around merlot. Chappellet Vineyards has a long history of exceptional merlot. Ed Sbragia, while he was winemaker at Beringer Vineyards, crafted perhaps California’s finest merlot from the Bancroft Ranch vineyard atop Howell Mountain.

All three, located in the Napa Valley, swam against the powerful current generated by King Cab.

The renowned winemaker, Cathy Corison, once told me, “I’ve never believed merlot was a good fit for the Napa Valley. It’s quite good in some years, but in other years it isn’t.”

The greatest indignity, however, was delivered by the hit movie “Sideways,” which was seen by millions. At the same time Sideways elevated pinot noir and sent sales soaring off the charts, it dissed merlot in such a way that it became a hard sell even to diehard red-wine drinkers.
Or did it? It’s quite possible the reality is quite different than the perception.

The “MerlotMe Movement,” which is behind the International Merlot Month campaign, begs to differ. As evidence, it cites this:

•    Merlot is the No. 1 choice of red wine in a 2015 Sonoma State University study of 1,000 wine consumers.

•    Merlot is the most chosen red wine in a 2015 and 2016 study by Wine Intelligence of more than 3,800 wine consumers.

•    Merlot priced above $20 is up 6% in sales over the past 52 weeks.

•    Merlot is one of the three most important red wines in restaurants along with cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir.

•    Merlot is approximately 10 percent of all fine-dining restaurant placements.

Those are fairly impressive stats, suggesting that merlot is in fact more popular than we thought and that the trend is upward.

Truth be told, merlot has always enjoyed a prominent role in fine wine circles. To think otherwise was willful ignorance.

It is not only a blending grape used in many fabled wines from the Left Bank of Bordeaux, it is the money grape of the Right Bank. Cabernet sauvignon is a lost cause for the Right Bank because it doesn’t get ripe enough in most vintages to make fine wine. Thus merlot and to a lesser extent cabernet franc are the principal grapes of Saint-Emilion.

The other important district on the Right Bank, Pomerol, is entirely dependent upon merlot. When one considers that the world’s most sought after and not coincidentally the world's most expensive wine is the celebrated Chateau Petrus, a Pomerol, the significance of merlot in the world of fine wine becomes clear.

To believe otherwise is simply merlot madness.