Merlot: The Best Red You're Not Drinking
Even Merlot has to respect the Law of Wine Gravity. Riding high through the 1990s, it emerged from somewhere back in the pack to pass Cabernet Sauvignon as the top-selling red varietal wine in the United States by the turn of the millennium. "I'll have a glass of Merlot" became the reflexive counterpart to "I'll have a glass of Chardonnay." In the glory years, wine industry analyst Jon Fredrikson dubbed Merlot "the Silicon Valley grape" because it grew 20% or 30% year after year, just like the dot-com stocks.
So it should come as no surprise that in more recent times, Merlot has taken some hits, both in reputation and in sales. Granted, Merlot has lost some of its magic, but it remains a very big deal, and a grape quite capable of making stellar wine.
More than any other variety, Merlot rode the "French Paradox" wave, the growing perception that wine might be good for you as well as fun to drink. It became the quintessential entry-level red: soft, easy-drinking and rarely challenging. The numbers from Merlot's run-up were truly staggering. In 1995, Merlot accounted for 3% of the California winegrape crush; in 2005, nearly 10%. In the same decade, Merlot went from 3% of supermarket wine sales to almost 12%.
A widespread urban legend says that Merlot was whacked sideways off its pedestal in 2004 by a certain movie set in Santa Barbara's Pinot Noir country. In fact, according to industry insiders, the leveling off started two or three years earlier. Mark Pucylowski, buying director for Sam's Wines & Spirits in Chicago, noticed that some of his California producers were grafting over to Syrah well before Merlot became a cinematic expletive. "High-end Merlot," says Fredrikson, "has been in decline for half a dozen years, the natural evolution of wine drinkers toward more flavorful varietals."
In rapid expansion mode, a lot of California Merlot was planted on marginal sites and/or asked to bring in too large a crop. Growers in Washington State and on Long Island were more careful, but produced much less wine. The result, according to John Houlihan, wine director for the Lark Creek Restaurant Group in the San Francisco Bay Area, was wines that were either green and herbaceous (too cool a climate) or thin and simple (too warm). The problems didn't just show up with $10 and $15 wines; they crept into $30 and $50 bottles as well. Retailers, sommeliers and wine drinkers noticed.
Top-tier Merlot has been most affected because that's where consumer standards are highest. For the nationwide Morton's steak house chain, Merlot remains second only to Cabernet Sauvignon in popularity. But "if someone is spending $150, it will be for a Cab," says Tyler Field, vice president of wine and spirits for Morton's.
Jon Genderson, owner of Schneider's wine shop in Washington, DC, goes further: "Expensive California Merlots are dead in the water"—though Merlot-based Bordeaux bottles from Pomerol and St. Emilion are selling like crazy. Some very high-priced Merlot grapes were left hanging on the vines in Napa and Sonoma in 2006.
Merlot is also now competing with a long list of tantalizing alternative wines from around the world—Australia, New Zealand, Spain and Argentina included. Michelle Pae, director of beverage strategy for the wine-friendly Olive Garden restaurants, says that it's not so much that Merlot is down with her guests as that other wines in their substantial taste-before-you-buy program are up.
Despite the deflation, nearly everyone agrees that the best Merlots are very good indeed, and that brands with established reputations continue to command a following. Merlot remains a much bigger category than either Pinot Noir or Syrah, despite their better press. The take-home lesson from Merlot's shifting fortunes applies to any wine: go for the good ones.
Here are recommendations by members of the Wine Enthusiast Tasting Panel for some of the best Merlots available today, at various price points.
—By the Editors of Wine Enthusiast