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Merlot Fights Back

Robert Whitley on

October is Merlot Month. Before you yawn, consider this. Merlot was ascendant in the domestic wine market prior to the 2004 movie "Sideways." The movie, filmed in California's Santa Barbara wine region, glorified (rightly) pinot noir and dissed (wrongly) merlot.

The widespread popularity of "Sideways," nominated for an Academy Award, had a profound influence on what ordinary folks thought about the two wines. Pinot noir sales soared, while merlot sales plummeted.

Merlot Month has been a way for merlot producers to fight back. Yes, it's a gimmick. But as these things go, it's a useful gimmick because it serves to remind wine enthusiasts that merlot is indeed a noble wine that deserves our respect and admiration.

How do we know this? For one thing, arguably the most sought-after (and expensive) red wine in the world is the iconic Bordeaux, Chateau Petrus. The chateau is situated in Pomerol, on the Right Bank of the Bordeaux region, meaning east of the Gironde estuary and the Dordogne River and Garonne River. The money grape on the Right Bank is merlot.

It would be an understatement of many magnitudes to suggest the wines of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion aren't among the finest red wines anywhere in the world. The money grape on the Bordeaux Left Bank is cabernet sauvignon. Both grapes produce incredible wines. But cabernet sauvignon historically has not done well when planted in the soils, particularly clay, found on the Right Bank. It doesn't ripen evenly, whereas the merlot (and cabernet franc) is glorious.

Both grapes were planted widely in California during the winery boom of the 1970s. California vintners tended to favor cabernet sauvignon because the grape could take the heat of the California summers, always got ripe and was sold to the American public through ambitious promotion by the likes of Robert Mondavi.

 

It took longer for merlot to get its footing. It was often planted in the warm spots, when it does better in cooler coastal climates. Hence, the southern sector of the Napa Valley, near the San Pablo Bay, became a favored site for merlot producers. It also does well in the Pacific Northwest and on the eastern end of Long Island. In those early years of winery growth in the 1970s, merlot was generally thought of as a blending grape. It supposedly softened the tannic cabernet sauvignons of that era.

In California, Duckhorn Vineyards and Matanzas Creek, in Napa and Sonoma, respectively, began to turn heads with the merlot they made in the early 1980s. As their success caught on and spread, others began to turn to merlot as a primary grape. Sterling, St. Supery and Markham in the Napa Valley regularly produced dazzling merlot.

At the same time, more merlot vineyards were planted, and in the rush to cash in on the growing popularity of merlot, there came to be a glut of what some would describe as "wimpy" merlot on the market. It wasn't all Duckhorn, not even close.

Thus, the diss on merlot in "Sideways" took hold, and there became a growing consensus that the merlot craze was over. And for a time, that was true. Today, there are many examples of outstanding merlot to be tasted and enjoyed, and that even improve with cellar age.

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