Many people, including myself, have blamed the movie Sideways for the demise of Merlot. In that movie, Miles Raymond, played by Paul Giamatti said outside a restaurant “No, if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any f’ing Merlot!” That was a strong statement that many viewers took seriously. Yes, in 2004 after the movie came out, Merlot sales dropped. Also in that movie, Miles Raymond waxed poetic about Pinot Noir and sales for that varietal went through the roof. Like it or not, Hollywood has a lot of influence on the public.

To be fair, the movie wasn’t the only reason Merlot sales suffered. In the 1980’s Merlot was a hot ticket. Many wineries located in the central coast of California started pumping out large quantities of Merlot to take advantage of its popularity. However, due to the low quality of the Merlot they were putting out, interest in this varietal started to wane. In the mid to late 90s, Merlot sales started to drop. The movie didn’t help the situation. When I say low quality, I mean a lot of the Merlot was soft, fruity and lacked structure… Flabby comes to mind. There are places in the world where Merlot should not be produced and the Central Coast in one of those areas. I came to this conclusion after talking with a friend of mine who is also a winemaker for a well-known winery in Napa, CA. He was very adamant in his opinion about where Merlot shouldn’t be grown and produced. The central coast of California was one of the areas he mentioned. However, there are places in the world where Merlot thrives.

The Merlot grape is revered in Bordeaux, especially on the right bank, where many Chateaus produce wine made primarily from Merlot. Think Petrus, Cheval Blanc and Pomerol, all wines that demand a high price if you want to buy a bottle. I look to Fronsac myself, located on the right bank up in the Northern end. A majority of the reds from this region are predominantly Merlot, a lot of them one hundred percent. The wines from Fronsac are much more accessible for people of my humble income and they are very well made. If you recall, in the movie Sideways, Miles Raymond drank a Cheval Blanc (Merlot) while eating a hamburger at a fast-food restaurant. That bit of irony was missed by most who watched the movie.

Washington State is also known for producing high-quality Merlot. L’Ecole was one of the first wineries to put Merlot on Washington State’s map. Today, Merlot from Washington State is considered some of the best in the world. In Napa California, Duckhorn spear-headed the production of top-quality Merlot. Producers such as Gundlach Bundschu, Peju and others also put out top-notch Merlots. Believe it or not, Italy also produces some of the best Merlot in the world. Masseto, hailing from Tuscany is an outstanding Merlot that goes for close to a thousand dollars a bottle. Super-Tuscans as these reds are called, many times rely heavily on the Merlot grape and are simply fantastic and not all are expensive. Northern Italy is well-known for producing Merlot which is complex and structured. You can also find some very nice Merlots at reasonable prices from Chile as well.

The problem is that people feel hating Merlot is the right thing to do. Mainly because of not only the movie, but because there are still affordable, flabby, fruity Merlots that are abundant on the shelves of many grocery stores. A person who may decide to give Merlot a chance only has to buy one of these and BOOM! Their feelings about Merlot are solidified. I’m here to tell you that these people are missing out.

The word Merlot is French for “the little blackbird.” It is the second largest planting of grapes in the world behind Cabernet Sauvignon. It partners well with the latter as it is used to round out and soften Cab, which has more acidity and tannic structure. Bordeaux has been blending Cab and Merlot for centuries (along with Cabernet Franc). Merlot ripens about two weeks earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon which allows it to be grown successfully in cooler climates like Northern Italy and Chile. Although known to be softer than Cabernet Sauvignon, it can have great depth, power and structure when coming out of areas like Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, Washington State and Italy. I was fortunate enough to have a chance to taste Masseto (usually 100% Merlot) from Tuscany, Italy. It was as structured as any Cabernet Sauvignon I’ve tasted. However, you don’t have to taste an expensive wine like that, to find the potential in this grape varietal. Because of the type of grape it is, it will never have the tannic structure or acidity of a Cab. However, it can reach levels that a lot of people don’t realize until they try a good one. Again, you don’t have to fork out a lot of cash to experience what a well-made Merlot is like.

Look for Merlot from the right bank of Bordeaux, particularly Fronsac and you will find some excellent examples at very affordable prices. There are a host of examples from Washington State under thirty bucks that will literally knock your socks off! This, coming from a guy who loves well-built, structured, complex wines. The point is, that Merlot is a great varietal, and no one should let a movie or bottom-shelf wines dictate how they feel about a certain type of wine. Hell, I can find you poor examples of any varietal if you give me a chance.

All that being said, even some of the cheaper versions of Merlot can have a place when eating certain types of food. For example, if you are buying a wine to match with a spicy dish, a fruity, softer Merlot will work nicely with that. These types of Merlots are also an option with perhaps BBQ sauces and chargrilled meats. However, if you are having a hearty stew or prime rib, a more structured Merlot from Bordeaux, Italy or Washington State will work nicely. If you have made up your mind that Merlot is out of the question, I would only ask you to give it another chance. Seek out Merlot from areas that have the right growing conditions for this grape. I believe you will be pleasantly surprised and who knows, you may become an advocate as I am of this noble grape.


Stan The Wine Man

About Stan The Wine Man

I am a blue collar wine guy who has been in the biz for over twenty years. I work at a store in a tourist destination stop. I work hard at finding the best wine for the money. I love the challenge of learning my customer's palate so I can find the best wine for them, whether it is Petrus or white zinfandel. Cheers!
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