Merlot—is it an over-hyped, overcropped pretender? Or a misunderstood, mismanaged masterwork? We asked three of our editors to discuss the past, present and future of what has become many Americans’ red wine of choice.
True story: A well-dressed, sophisticated gentleman steps into a chic Washington, D.C. restaurant and sits down to enjoy a refined meal. However, when offered the wine list, this seemingly savvy individual brusquely demands, “Bring me a glass of whatever you’ve got that’s red and tastes like Merlot.”
It didn’t matter one bit to this gentleman that the restaurant wine list served up a cornucopia of fine wines from around the world at reasonable prices. The man was smitten by Merlot madness, a condition that achieved prominence in the 1990s.
Merlot’s popularity remains strong today. In 1990, Americans drank only 800,000 cases of California Merlot, but by 2000, that figure jumped to 20.3 million cases, according to MKF Research Wine Trends Database. Christian Miller, Napa Valley-based director of research for MKF, says that sales of California Merlot surpassed Cabernet by about 1 million cases last year—a first for the grape variety. Consumption of Merlot from other regions, such as Washington state, southern France and Chile, has also increased significantly.
Recent statistics from the Wine Institute confirm that Merlot, with 11 percent of total U.S. varietal wine sales, trails only white Zinfandel (13 percent) and Chardonnay (19 percent) in popularity. Cabernet Sauvignon (9 percent) rounds out the top four. In the past decade, red wine sales have increased by 124%, while white wine sales have declined by 16% and blush wine sales by 38%.
Is Merlot the grape pretender? Is its phenomenal popularity merely the result of marketing and hype? Or is Merlot in fact a trend-setting superstar that deserves a place of honor alongside Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Nebbiolo as the best of the best?
We recently asked three of our editors, European Editor Roger Voss and Contributing Editors Paul Gregutt and Jeff Morgan, to discuss the state of Merlot.
|A STAFF ROUNDTABLE|
WHAT HAS MADE MERLOT SO POPULAR?
Jeff Morgan: More slick marketing than anything else. Back in 1990, Long Island winemakers were desperately looking for a marketing hook. They reasoned they couldn’t compete with California’s popular Chardonnays and Cabernets. But Merlot was still relatively unknown among the general public, and the New Yorkers bet that they could profit by association with a number of world-famous Merlot winemakers.
They held a Merlot symposium and invited respected Pomerol wine- makers Michel Rolland (from Château Le Bon Pasteur) and Pascal Delbeck (at the time, winemaker for Château Au- sone). Also invited were a number of well-known California winemakers such as Tom Rinaldi, who had made his reputation at Duckhorn by crafting a series of outstanding Merlots.
The media, hungry for a story, flocked to Long Island’s three-day conference. The event proved to be so successful for Long Island winemakers that Washington State vintners emulated it a year later at their World Vinifera Conference. The Washington event also proved to be a hit, and Merlot has been Washington’s premier red grape ever since. (Full disclosure: In 1990, I was working at a Long Island winery that produced both Cabernet and Merlot. I was also on the planning committee that dreamed up the Long Island Merlot conference.)
Paul Gregutt: The reasons are simple enough. When the now-famous broadcast explaining the so-called “French Paradox” forged the connection between regular consumption of red wine and a healthier heart, tens of millions of wine drinkers rejoiced, and a revolution was born. Red wine sales rose sharply, and that trend has continued.
Consumers wanted red wine, and lots of it, but there really wasn’t much to choose from domestically. Cabernet had (and still has) the cachet of being the main ingredient in most classified-growth Bordeaux, still the standard-bearer for red wine. What else could American winemakers offer?
The answer was Merlot—the “other” Bordeaux grape. Winemakers and wine marketers jumped on the Merlot bandwagon, and consumers responded by making Merlot their red wine of choice. To suggest that Merlot’s overwhelming popularity is simply a marketing ploy, is cynical in the extreme. It discredits the judgment of the consumer palate, and it also implies that somehow the industry can just direct consumer fancy at will.
At the most simplistic level, people find it easy to remember the name Merlot, just as it’s easy to recall (and pronounce) Chardonnay. In that sense, the popularity of these wines is indeed a marketing phenomenon. But lasting popularity comes down to flavor, and if these wines didn’t taste good, it would not matter what they were named.
Roger Voss: I first realized I was tasting Merlot a quarter of a century ago. I was drinking a Pomerol—Château La Fleur Pétrus. I recall contrasting its rich, luscious style with the hard, tannic wines I was familiar with from the Médoc. Here was wine that was immediately attractive. Of course, there was no sign this was a Merlot—I had to ask.
But once I realized that this was Merlot, I started looking for Merlot in other regions of Bordeaux. It didn’t take me long to find out that there is more Merlot planted in the Médoc than Cabernet Sauvignon, and that Merlot dominates the lesser wines of Bordeaux. Unlike Cabernet, it ripens pretty much every year in Bordeaux. Put together with austere Cabernet, it rounds out the wine and softens it.
DOES MERLOT DESERVE THIS POPULARITY?
Jeff Morgan: Merlot is not, as is often stated, softer and more generous on the palate than Cabernet Sauvignon. And with a few noteworthy exceptions, it doesn’t usually have the intensity or complexity of Cabernet, either. It’s no wonder that in the above-$15 price bracket, Cabernet outsells Merlot by 30 to 40 percent.
Ironically, the interest in Merlot has led to overplanting and overcropping, cardinal sins for high-end viticulture. Since 1988, California Merlot acreage has skyrocketed from 3,330 acres to 47,500 acres. With such an increase, the watchword is often volume at the expense of finesse and character.
More than half of California’s newest Merlot plantings are in the Central Valley. Not surprisingly, this is where much of the nondescript, inexpensive Merlot currently on the market today comes from. More often than not, these Merlots show lackluster flavors, ungainly tannins and somewhat vegetal flavors.
Paul Gregutt: Young Merlot is a far more approachable, food-friendly red wine than young Cabernet. In classic descriptions of Merlot, it is consistently referred to as fragrant, plummy, soft and forward. It is fruitier than Cabernet, with softer tannins, and it seems eager to share its virtues upon release. The tight, tannic, densely layered structure of Cabernet has traditionally been leavened with Merlot as a blending grape, but if we are discussing the merits of each on their own, there really is no basis for saying Cabernet is more “serious,” other than the fact that it will age longer. That used to be desirable, but for the vast majority of wine drinkers today, quite the opposite is true. Consumers want wines to enjoy today, and Merlots will let them.
Young Merlot is also quite adaptable to a wide variety of foods. To cite one example, the red-wine-with-fish concept, which has gained momentum in recent years, is tailor-made for Merlot. Whereas Pinot Noir is flighty, difficult and expensive, and Cabernet, Syrah and even Zinfandel are just too tannic for most fish, Merlot hits the sweet spot. Young, fruit-laden Merlot with freshly grilled King salmon is a match made in heaven.
Critics of Merlot often say that California Merlots in particular are not very good, and that even many French Merlots are inferior, especially when compared to Cabernet. But what does that actually mean? It is misleading to speak of “California” Merlots without acknowledging the vast differences between the overcropped, generic wines that are simply cashing in on the cachet, and the many serious Merlots. As for the French, any French wine varietally labeled is by definition going to be low-cost vin de pays. The serious Merlots from France are blended wines and are labeled Pomerol and Saint-Emilion.
Critics also claim that overproduction and greed have rendered most of the Merlot crop inferior. But can’t the same be said of Chardonnay, or of any popular grape? Wine is a fashion-driven product, but it takes years for the industry to respond to increased demand. So what you get initially is overcropped fruit from less-desirable vineyards, or lightweight juice from young vineyards that need another decade to really establish themselves. That’s not a criticism of Merlot as much as a criticism of the entire industry.
Finally, the cognoscenti who like to rise above whatever has become too popular in the wine world are fond of saying that Merlot, no matter where it comes from, is inherently inferior to Cabernet Sauvignon. This is simply unsupportable. The truth is that rarely is any 100-percent varietal Cabernet or Merlot as good as a blended red that uses both grapes (and in many cases even more).
Roger Voss: The problem with so much of the Merlot drunk in the United States is that inexpensive Merlot cannot be made as easily or as successfully as inexpensive Chardonnay. So while both grape varieties have become brand names, Chardonnay’s reputation has not suffered such a severe collapse. Merlot has become a brand, but it cannot maintain appearances as easily as Chardonnay.
Merlot’s reputation for being amenable and easy to handle comes from its home territory of Bordeaux. But it is a false reputation. Because it produces grapes under most conditions, it’s all too easy to make indifferent Merlot. This is the reason why there is so much poor Merlot coming from Bordeaux itself, from northern Italy and from the Central Valley of California.
After my early brush with Merlot, I became a fan of the grape. I love the lusciousness, the opulence, the hint of spice that a fine Pomerol or Saint-Emilion can offer. Yet this easy approachability is misleading. There is a lot more going on than meets the eye. There is structure, there are tannins, there is acidity. A good Merlot can mature just as well as a good Cabernet. Consider the Masseto of Ornellaia in Tuscany, the Oakridge Reserve from the Yarra Valley in Australia, the Merlots of the Marquès de Griñon in Spain, or—of course—Château Pétrus itself.
There is nothing wrong with Merlot, provided it is treated right. Because it has become the flavor of the moment, it is the inevitable target of abuse and ridicule. But to me Merlot is one of the great grapes of the world. And if there is something wrong with the Merlot you are drinking—if it’s thin, dilute or too soft—don’t blame the grape, blame the producer.
IS IT REALLY HARD TO MAKE GOOD MERLOT?
Jeff Morgan: Merlot requires exceptional care to yield exceptional results. The grape’s large, tightly packed clusters are prone to rot and irregular ripening, while the vine tends to produce large yields, which can dilute quality in the bottle. Merlot vines are also extremely droopy, which means they can easily flop over and shade clusters, which inhibits ripening unless the vines are meticulously trained to permit light to reach the fruit. And while Merlot often begins to ripen earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, the grape may not finish first at harvest time. The window for picking ripe—but not overripe—fruit can also be small. Even worse, underripe Merlot grapes typically make a distinctly weedy, astringent wine, qualities apparent in many Merlots today.
Longtime Pétrus winemaker Jean-Claude Berrouet has had the opportunity to work with Merlot in both France and California. “It’s easier to grow Merlot in France than in California,” Berrouet says. He believes that with the exception of certain microclimates, Merlot just doesn’t thrive in what he refers to as “California’s excessive heat.”
Despite this dubious endorsement, high- quality Merlot can be found on both the East and West Coasts. A growing number of winemakers understand how to harness the potential of this often-fickle variety. Among them is Pride Mountain winemaker Bob Foley, who makes Merlot from grapes grown on Spring Mountain, which straddles Napa and Sonoma Counties.
“Merlot is not an inferior variety,” Foley states with the assurance of someone intimately familiar with the grape. He believes the current crop of bland Merlots pervading the marketplace is simply the result of growers’ greed. “It’s not the variety,” he says. “It’s the industry. They’ve grown too much Merlot.”
Roger Voss: As Jorge Coderich Mitjans, owner of Valdivieso in Chile, says: “If you treat Merlot as a normal variety, you are lost.” It is, as Bordeaux-based enologist Michel Rolland explains, “a grape that needs terroir.” Rolland contrasts the wine he makes at his two family properties, one in Pomerol, one in Fronsac, maybe five miles away: “I would like to make the same wine at Fontenil in Fronsac as I do at Le Bon Pasteur in Pomerol. But although both wines are vinified with the same care, terroir shows through.”
In terms of quality, in what direction is Merlot going?
Jeff Morgan: Winemaker Foley believes low-quality Merlots are a normal part of the wine’s evolution. “The lesser wines will weed themselves out, while the serious wines will carve their own niche among consumers,” Foley states.
That evolution appears to be on the horizon, with an increasing number of high-end producers courting the market. Most recently, wine giant Jess Jackson has released a $150 Merlot called Verité. Made from 90 percent Merlot (and 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon), this blockbuster of a wine is leading Jackson’s new pack of ultra-Merlots. They include two other wines under the Atalon label, as well as long-time Sonoma County Merlot benchmark Matanzas Creek, which Jackson purchased last year.
Retailers and other wine professionals have noticed the rise in quality among select producers. “We feel Merlot has reached a higher level in the last few years,” says Los Angeles retailer David Breitstein, of The Duke of Bourbon. “The dew is off the lily as far as the newness of the varietal goes. That means consumers are less likely to blindly buy the varietal. There are two kinds of Merlot: serious and not serious. I like to treat Merlot with respect, so we carry serious ones.”
Roger Voss: I live close to Saint-Emilion and Pomerol, so I can appreciate why Merlot works so well in those two Bordeaux regions. The heavy clay soil provides the perfect planting conditions, while the slighter shorter growing season compared with the Médoc and the colder winters are just what the grape needs. So the Bordelais have discovered, after many centuries, that this is where Merlot works and where Cabernet Sauvignon doesn’t. This is something producers in other regions are slowly discovering. Expect better site selection and better wines down the road.
Paul Gregutt: What the American wine industry has created in consumers’ minds is a fixation on varietal labeling, which impacts all wines, not just Merlot. There are many sound reasons for varietal labeling, but the main one is this: We don’t have the cachet of place (or “terroir,”) in this country that they do in France and Italy. We haven’t had 2,000 years to microdefine each hectare of dirt and match it to a particular grape or blend of grapes. So we began labeling wines by the name of the principal grape, rather than the place, and it made sense to the consumer. Going forward, we’re going to see more and more place names, particularly in Washington, associated with great Merlot.
SO WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITES?
Paul Gregutt: If anyone does 100-percent Merlot really well, it is Washington State, and great Washington Merlot is every bit as big, as powerful, as packed with flavor as any domestic Cabernet.
Washington Merlots tend to be forward, muscular, dense, and dark—sweet blackberry jam embellished with spicy oak. Historically, the very best Washington Merlots have come from Leonetti Cellars, Andrew Will and Chateau Ste. Michelle. Andrew Will makes up to four different Merlots each year, while Chateau Ste. Michelle pioneered single-vineyard Merlots in Washington. Other excellent Merlots abound—from new producers such as Reininger and Wineglass Cellars; old friends such as L’Ecole No. 41 and Columbia; and specialists such as Northstar, which is a project of California winemaker Jed Steele.
Jeff Morgan: Although I love Jackson’s Verité, fortunately not all Merlots come with a stratos- pheric price tags to match. At $38, Pride Mountain seems quite reasonable. From Washington, Columbia Crest offers exceptional value with its Grand Estates Merlot from the Columbia Valley. Small Long Island vintners like Bedell Cellars have traditionally made fine Merlots that cost far less than most of their West Coast counterparts.
Just remember to choose carefully among your options. The sorry ones still outnumber the best of the lot.
|A CASE OF OUR PANELISTS’ FAVORITES|