By Michael Austin, Chicago Tribune (TNS)
Merlot was doing just fine for decades until science and the silver screen weighed in.
The consistently annoying Miles, a Class A wine snob and pedant in the 2004 movie Sideways, had a problem with merlot and made his prejudices known throughout the film, which, if this were a review, would receive four stars from me, merlot-bashing notwithstanding. You could say that Miles delivered the knockout punch to merlot, and you could also argue that merlot had suffered years of self-inflicted abuse before the character of Miles was even conceived.
Since we’re talking about a movie, consider this twist. Years before Sideways came out, a scientific study focusing on the so-called “French paradox” famously hypothesized that while French people ate much more saturated fat than everyone else, they suffered from heart disease much less because they also drank a steady flow of red wine.
It is believed that the results of the study, broadcast on 60 Minutes, caused a spike in red wine consumption in the United States — and it is not a stretch to say that, at the time, merlot was often the closest wine within arm’s reach. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, beginning wine drinkers who had moved past the basics did not even have to think when it was time to order red wine.
Merlot went well with red-sauce pastas, steak, pizza, cheese and happy hour chit-chat about the Nasdaq. The word merlot implied a knowingness every time it was spoken. Anyone who ordered California merlot in a restaurant, or clonked a bottle down at a register, silently said, “I am now, I am cultivated, I lease a foreign car with heated front seats.”
I hesitate to say that the joke was on them because almost all who dive into something with genuine interest look back at their early exploits as charming if they are well adjusted and kind to themselves, and cringe-worthy if they are not. But we simply cannot skirt the facts on this one. A good portion of that ’80s and ’90s merlot was lame. The grape, loosely translated to “little blackbird,” had been overplanted in California, and the wine it was making lacked everything that evolved wine drinkers love.
Merlot had long been thought of as the sidekick to cabernet sauvignon, a blending grape, the younger sibling who resembled the older one in many ways but just wasn’t there yet, and maybe never would be. Together they were legendary, and still are, and cabernet sauvignon continues to do astonishing things on its own, time after time. But for the sidekick to stand on its own would take some doing. It’s been done, and we’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about why so many wine rookies with nice cars loved merlot in the Reagan-through-Clinton era.
Merlot often gives aromas and flavors of plum, black cherry, blackberry and chocolate. In general, it has higher sugar, lower acidity and softer tannins than cabernet, and this — more than any aroma or flavor — is probably what those early-transitioning wine drinkers were drawn to. Merlot was what a lot of casual wine drinkers would call “smooth,” and it caught on in a big way. Remember: Those pre-Sideways merlot drinkers of the ’80s and ’90s were going to wine straight from vodka, light beer and fuzzy navels.
California merlot plantings spread like the flu in a grammar school, and the overproduction took its toll on the wines’ quality. According to my trusted Wine Lover’s Companion, California’s merlot plantings “grew from several thousand acres in the mid-1980s to almost 50,000 by the end of the twentieth century.” In this case, more was less. Merlot got dumbed-down and boring. People started avoiding it and talking trash. Finally Miles picked a fight, and it took a dive.
But here’s the big surprise ending! The grape had been, and remains, a superstar in its home region of Bordeaux in France. No grape is grown more there — not even cabernet sauvignon — and merlot is the reason that Chateau Petrus makes one of the world’s most famous, prestigious, expensive wines. Petrus always has a high percentage of merlot in it, and some years it is 100 percent. The golden ticket for our flawed hero Miles, a bottle of 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc, which he worships and has been holding for just the right situation, is awash in merlot (a beautiful, ironic wink from the filmmaker).
Just because merlot makes great wines in the Pomerol and Saint-Emilion regions of Bordeaux (including Petrus and Cheval Blanc), doesn’t mean it can do that everywhere. Besides France, California turns out some good merlots, as do Washington, Chile and Italy. There are still plenty of merlots out there that, to be kind, probably will not grab your attention. But at its best, merlot offers velvety texture, lush dark fruit and even some earthier elements, none of which will sock you in the mouth like some cabernets. Think of merlot as a kinder, gentler version of cabernet sauvignon.
Just like any other wine style, merlot deserves your objective attention. Dismissing a grape based on its reputation is lazy. Merlot is no longer an absent-minded buzzword, and it is fading as a cussword. Drink it with focus, and enjoy its best qualities. Talk to your wine seller, find the good ones, and while you’re doing all of that, save your pennies for a bottle of Petrus or Cheval Blanc.
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Photo: Davide Restivo via Wikimedia Commons