Sunday, March 30, 2008

Big Red Merlot

It seems impossible to talk about the red wine made from merlot grapes without quoting Miles’ line from the film Sideways. “If anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving. I’m not drinking any fucking merlot.” Since the film was released in 2004, the consumption of merlot has declined some and the price has definitely plummeted. One irony of the price drop is that we may all be drinking more merlot than ever but without knowing it. An American wine labeled simply by grape, say cabernet, can actually contain up to 25% of a different variety. The production of merlot grapes has not declined as much as the consumption of merlot wine, a pattern which, when combined with the lower price for merlot, suggests that it may have become a filler for other varietals. It would be a splendid irony if Miles’ beloved pinot noirs are now made of 25% merlot – and given the increased flow of undistinguished pinot since the movie, there could well be a lot of things lurking in these bottles. Anyway, while I was boring Big Red’s wine manager, Bobby Wallace with such thoughts, he decided to organize a tasting of merlots. So he pulled out six different bottles of fairly recent merlot from Australia, California, Washington and France. To these I added two older Europeans from my cellar, we bothered Dave Tallent for a few delicious appetizers and sat down with wine manager Bobby DerOhanian to see what we thought.

I found three wines to like. We all liked a wine from Washington, the 2003 Northstar for $28. This was a fresh, spicy wine with a bold blackberry flavor and hints of mocha. It seems to be common in recent tastings around the country for Washington merlots to outclass those from California. Merlot ripens easily and things (grapes, plots, politics) that ripen easily anywhere else can quickly become overripe in California. The Northstar kept its freshness well. I also liked the Chateau Bon Pasteur 2000, from my cellar. This large, complex Bordeaux wine from Pomerol has a thick texture and rich fruit – but it would clearly have been better if it had stayed in the cellar for another few years. My third pick, and a real bargain at $20, was the Chateau Suau 2005 – a nicely balanced lighter Bordeaux, suggesting plums and cherries.

I was put off by the one Australian example, the 2006 Mollydooker “Scooter” for $20. It smelled like candied fruit, felt a little like syrup and tasted too much like vodka for me. A true Mollydooker – strong feelings, positive or negative, pretty much guaranteed. The two Californians, Shafer 2005 for $55 and 2004 Jarvis for $75, were well-made, suave and polished wines – but I found them a bit dull. They lacked the depth of the Pomerol on the one hand while also falling to bring the uplifting freshness of the Northstar or the Suau to the table. My Italian contribution, the 1998 Montiano, was weedy and uninteresting. This wine has a considerable following but I’d never had it before. It may just have been a bad bottle. Another French wine, Chateau L’Ecuyer for $43, was a little funky in the nose and somewhat brambly in the mouth. Perhaps it will settle down in a few years and repay cellaring but with a tasty Chateau Suau for less than half the price, I won’t be the one to find out.

What do I think about Miles’ dictum now? Merlot is easy to make, and usually turns out OK. It happened to be just coming into visibility in California in 1991, the year the CBS documentary on the “French Paradox” was pushing the idea that red wine will save your heart. A lot of folks in America decided to replace their ubiquitous cheap bar glasses of chardonnay with something red – merlot was easy to grow, easy to drink, easy to pronounce, and good for you besides. Too much was planted, too much drunk, too much of it dull and sweet, as befits a cheap bar drink. It was already losing its appeal when Miles dispatched it. But good merlot remains a fine wine indeed, and I will be looking for mine in the State of Washington and from Pomerol, on the right bank of the river by Bordeaux.


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