Of all red wine grapes, Merlot seems to have become the most controversial.
A number of years ago, it became the “fashionable” red wine to drink…leading to many people campaigning against it (similar to what happened to Chardonnay). Then there came the movie Sideways, and lead character Myles’ absolute reversion to the grape (and the wine). After that film, Merlot consumption dropped significantly in the United States! And then, in our local paper last week here in Vancouver, there was a wine critic extolling Merlot’s virtues!
But, like any other kind of wine, it isn’t really about “good or bad”…it is all about style and, in particular, knowing – or finding out – the style that you like. So here is a bit of a “Merlot primer”!
Until Merlot started to be made as a stand-alone wine in California, it was primarily a blending grape in Bordeaux. There, it could be a relatively small component of Cabernet-based wines or – in regions like Pomerol – the main attraction, including in Chateau Petrus, which is almost 100% Merlot, and considered by many one of the greatest wines in the world (as well as one of the most expensive).
Now, I have never been rich enough to taste Petrus or even some of the other Merlot-based Pomerols. So I can’t comment personally on their style profile.
But I have tried many Bordeaux that have Merlot as a smaller component – which is probably what most people will get a chance to experience – and those flavours are usually a mix of wood (cedar/oak), herbs and (if you are lucky) cherry/plum fruits. The overall impression is not “fruit forward”. That flavour profile is consistent with Bordeaux-style Merlots in other countries, including in my home province of BC, as well as Chile and Italy.
The opposite end of the style spectrum comes from California. There, possibly because of the ripeness (and no doubt the winemaking style), fruit is more important. Cherries and plums, laced with vanilla (from oak aging) are what you get in the best wines, with wood, herbs and tannins in the background. Shafer Vineyards makes a couple of great (but now very expensive) Merlots that are – for my taste – pure heaven! And I am proud to say that La Frenz in my home province makes a wonderfully fruity, but complex Merlot, with bits of mint and licorice mixed in.
An in between flavour in some Merlots is mocha or coffee. For me, this doesn’t work very well – takes away from the fruit, adding to the herbalness. You see that in many wines from Italy, Chile, Washington State and BC. But some people love it.
So next time you see – or want to taste – Merlot, just remember the different styles of that wine. Go with what you like, or at least go in knowing what you are probably going to experience!