davies wakefield | wine uncorked | april 2017
Is it time to finally retire that famous line from the movie “Sideways"? Twelve years ago this iconic comedy about two college buddies having a lost weekend before one of them gets married burst into our collective zeitgeist. The movie led to a dramatic shift in wine drinking habits of the American people. When Miles uttered those words decrying Merlot, the grape became persona non grata in California where acreage declined almost 50 percent from 7,200 acres in 2005 to 4,800 in 2015. There was also a dramatic increase in Pinot Noir sales after the movie. Sales were up 16 percent immediately after the movie's release and up 9 percent every year thereafter. If Pinot was a stock traded on the NASDAQ it would have rivaled Apple. There was an ironic joke in the movie, though: during the course of the movie, Miles kept bragging about a great bottle he was saving for a special occasion. At the end of the movie Miles, despondent about losing Maya, is sitting in a burger joint eating a hamburger and drinking his 1961 Cheval Blanc out of a Styrofoam cup. Wine connoisseurs familiar with Cheval Blanc know it is a blend that uses 40 percent Merlot. There are some wonderful age-worthy wines made from Merlot so maybe it is time to take a new look at this much-maligned varietal.
Despite the decline in plantings of Merlot in California, the rest of the world hasn't got the message yet. Today this rich, plummy grape is the second most planted variety in the world, surpassed only by Cabernet Sauvignon. According to a study done by the University of Adelaide, there were 257,169 hectares (617,205 acres) under cultivation worldwide. Ten years ago, Merlot was the fourth most planted. Even in the US, it is the third most planted grape (behind Chardonnay and Cabernet). Because of the decline in popularity of Merlot in California, the price of the grape has also gone down and represents a bargain for West Coast winemakers that are willing to try and tame this unruly variety that ripens quickly and tends to produce flabby overly alcoholic wines. I have one example from Napa Valley that represents the more judicious use of Merlot but more on that later.
There is definitely a case against Merlot. In Saint Emilion for some of the hotter vintages like 2003 and 2009, Merlot produced pumped up fruit bombs because of Merlot's ability in those long hot summers to hit high alcohol levels and acquire dried fruit flavors (prune immediately comes to mind) that masked its place of origin and the wines did not age well. Miles' line about the difficulty of growing Pinot Noir (“No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. And it can only grow in these really specific tucked away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing growers can do it.") could apply equally to Merlot. Merlot grown in the wrong place and not picked at the right time will provide vanilla-drenched, overly alcoholic wines as well.
The problem with Merlot is that it can be green and herbaceous (think green bell pepper flavors) if the climate isn't hot enough but it quickly turns simple and boring if the weather is too hot. The grape's rapid expansion worldwide has resulted in Merlot being planted in one of these two extremes. The famed winemaker and consultant Michel Rolland commenting about Merlot said, “There are not many places where a really good Merlot can be made. To make a good wine is possible anywhere but to make an amazing wine is not."
First mentioned in 1784 when it was referred to by an official in Bordeaux as “merlau," it is the offspring of Cabernet Franc and a little-known grape Magdeleine Noire des Charentes. The varietal was boosted to prominence during the phylloxera epidemic in France in the 1850s because it responded better than other varieties to grafting onto American rootstock. Merlot became the most planted variety in Bordeaux in the 1970s when growers realized that Merlot ripened 15 days earlier than Cabernet, making it less subject to the vagaries of autumn weather. Despite the edge that early ripening provided, there was one more important feature that separated good Merlot from exceptional Merlot and that evidence is in the soil.
The river Gironde that runs through the heart of Bordeaux from Atlantic Ocean southeast to Pomerol is the key to understanding where Merlot grows best. The banks of the Gironde are composed of a variety of soils. For example, the Graves Appellation AOC on the south side of the river is composed of gravel hence the word Graves. Gravels tend to be well-drained and the gravels or stones retain the heat from the sun. The heat helps the later ripening Cabernets achieve full ripeness. That is why the wines from the Graves area are primarily Cabernet based. Merlot easily over ripens in this area producing flabby wines. Graves is located on the left bank of the Gironde.
The Pomerol appellation as well as St. Emilion and Lalande de Pomerol are located on the right bank of the Gironde (the north side of the river) and the soils here are primarily clay. There are three types of clay soils in these Appellations (Appellation Origine de Controlee); clay-sand, clay sand shot through with gravel and dense clay known colloquially as molasses du Fronsadais. The latter is called molasses for a very good reason, it retains water and thus remains cool, which gives the vineyards a bit more control over the ripeness. In the famous Pomerol vineyard Petrus, 18 acres of its 26.4 acres are covered with iron-rich blue clay. The clay is so dense that the roots can only grow down between three and six feet and yet it provides an environment that boosts the power, aromatics, texture and aging potentials of wines made from the Merlot that is grown here. The Merlot wines from the right bank of the Gironde River are some of the greatest wines on the planet. But there are other wineries that are producing great Merlots in the USA. One in Napa Valley, California and another in Washington state's Columbia Valley.
The 2013 Markham Merlot from Napa is a special wine that I have been drinking since I was in my twenties. Markham has been in Napa Valley since 1879 when Jean Laurent founded the winery. The Yountville vineyards are where the unique Merlot wine grapes are grown. The Yountville vineyards are located on an ancient alluvial fan that consists of clay and loam and clay and gravel similar to the previously mentioned soils of the right bank in France. Nearby San Pablo Bay also supplies fog in the morning that keeps the grapes cool which gives the vintners a larger window for ripening. The grapes have a cherry/sour cherry characteristic that I have liked for some fifty odd years. At 14.2 percent alcohol, this wine has enough freshness and acidity to stand up to a good New York Strip steak, we had it with a couple of petite tenderloin steaks. The year 2013 was a great year in Napa and this wine was rated at 91 points by the Wine Spectator. The Markham Merlots will also age, so buy a half case, put it in the basement and drink over the next six years. You'll be pleasantly surprised at how the wine changes over time. The bottle is $19 at Woodman's, which is pretty reasonable for a bottle from one of the oldest vineyards in Napa Valley. This is the same Napa Valley where prime vineyards are now sold for $1 million per acre.
The 2014 Waterbrook Winery Merlot, $12 at Woodman's and 13.5 percent alcohol is from Washington state's Walla Walla region. This winery is relatively new, just planted in 1984. Over the last thirty years, Waterbrook has received over 100 awards for their “Best Buys" and 90+ wines. This vintage scored 87 points in the most recent Wine Spectator's ratings. The vineyard is located on the old wheat fields of Uriah Corkrum on clay-loam soils with little to no sand, thus mimicking the soils of the right bank in Bordeaux. This particular wine shows a fresh floral aroma of rose petals. The cherry fruit tilts toward ripe plums. We had this with a Sunday meatloaf generously flavored with Chipotle chiles in adobo sauce.
Both these wines demonstrate why Merlot, when grown in the right place and picked early can make some beautiful wines. I hope you give these a try.