The Grape Escape: April 29
Sometimes it can be dangerous to say the word “Merlot” in a room crowded with wine snobs, which is why I avoid those rooms. But it’s sad to see this lovely grape associated only with generic table wine. The truth is that it can be so much more than a simple quaffer, but people tend to frown upon Merlot for reasons that are largely obsolete.
For the longest time, Merlot was so popular that growers were forced to squeeze their vines to the last drop just to keep up with production. Even though Merlot thrives only in key areas of California, high demand caused it to be planted everywhere. People ripped up good vineyards just to make room. Quality wasn’t a concern.
In America, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Merlot became more than a common blending grape. Like Citizen Kane, Merlot had a fairly nondescript upbringing, but a sudden rise to power forged the way for its inevitable decline. Alas, its delightful Rosebud days were lost and nearly forgotten.
As with many things, success led to failure. (And failure led to a Hollywood movie that brutally exploited all its shortcomings). When popularity increased, quality suffered. To make a distinction, bad Merlot tastes like unripe green beans, while the good tastes like some of best and most complex wine ever put in a bottle.
One of the things that makes Merlot so sought after is its approachability. It doesn’t have the unforgiving tannins of a Cabernet Sauvignon, and it doesn’t have to age in a bottle for 10 years to be at its most delectable. You’ll find, if made properly, Merlot has all the complexity of the finest wines but is still very fun and easy to drink. The problem is mass production versus quality. We just can’t have nice things (if we all want them at the same time).
Unexpectedly, the movie Sideways all but destroyed Merlot culture. Miles Raymond’s fabled line “I’m not drinking any f–ing Merlot” swept the nation with fiery vengeance as Merlot drinkers, one by one, poured out their glasses in shame. Miles had a point though. Merlot was growing thin.
When the “Sideways effect” flooded the minds of casual drinkers and connoisseurs alike, Merlot sales sank faster than a man in cement shoes. The movie was too convincing in its attack on the poor, defenseless grape. The market shifted toward Pinot Noir, which was previously in low demand, and the Merlot craze was suddenly over. It’s sad, I know, but sometimes things need to die in order to be reborn.
And rebirth is finally here, to some extent. Thankfully, with fallen sales figures, Merlot has lost a lot of its weedy, overproduced personality and is starting to embrace its more luxurious side.
However, that doesn’t mean Merlot has drifted back into the great unknown. Even though sales figures dropped, they never dropped off the map. Bigger brands still produce underwhelming Merlot because of the recognizable name, and because they can make it cheaply by the truckload. Sometimes we have to turn to the lesser known brands not only because they are “cooler”, but also because they often aren’t drained of quality like their consumer driven competitors. One such brand is Ken Volk’s Aqua Pumpkin. Don’t dog its silly name until you try it. This is the very bottle that made me realize what a Merlot can be. It is now among my favorite bottles of wine because it has a depth of flavor that hearkens back to the days when Merlot wasn’t pretending to be a lesser grape. This one is made with a special ingredient. Love.
Tasting Notes: Complex flavors of plum, cherry, cocoa, fig, and coffee. Super silky texture. Nice amount of spice. This is a serious Merlot. Rich!
Food Pairing: Merlot is kind of a jack-of-all-wines when it comes to food pairings. Softer tannins make it more versatile with meats. Too much tannin can overpower the food, but thankfully Merlot is somewhat restrained in that category. Try it with steak or poultry, but avoid high acid foods like fish. If you’re vegetarian, embrace the Portabella mushroom.
Retails for $13-$20