Maybe it’s the falling leaves, or the pumpkins on every stoop, but suddenly I’ve got red wine on the brain. Nothing too dark and chewy quite yet, just something easy, but satisfying enough to transition into the cold days ahead. Something like Merlot. That’s right, I’m singing the praises of America’s most maligned grape.
Of course, one must be riding pretty high to have such a precipitous fall from grace, and indeed, for years, Merlot was THE red wine of choice. Catapulted into stardom by the 1991 Sixty Minutes piece called the French Paradox, Merlot answered the prayers of America’s health-crazed hedonists, AKA Yuppies, and fast became a household name. If a daily glass of red wine could allow the French to eat steak and cheese without heart disease, what could it do for the high-powered, baby-booming, masters of the universe? Easy to drink and suave to pronounce, it fit the bill for marketers, trend-setters, slaves to fashion, and wine neophytes alike, making everyone look good in the process.
Not that it was an overnight success. In fact, the long-standing, fine reputation of Bordeaux’s right bank rests almost entirely on Merlot. Still, for generations, outside that trendy bank, despite many wonderful characteristics, Merlot existed only to blend, soften, and support the premiere Bordelaise superstar, Cabernet Sauvignon. And it does make a fine supporting player. Not only does the grape’s plump, soft texture round out the tannic king, it ripens faster and thrives on the cooler edges of the growing regions. When the weather is a little iffy, Merlot is the go-to grape to save the vintage.
Even better, it shows food beautifully. When it comes to pairing, Merlot can do anything Cabernet Sauvignon does, plus a whole lot more. More restrained styles even work well with hearty fish dishes, while pretty much any version can take on a steak. And when looking for a wine to pour with a variety of cheeses, its soft fruit, medium body and velvet tannins harmonize rather than compete. Unlike most other reds when it comes to the cheese board, Merlot is a lover not a fighter.
So why, after all this, does our fair Merlot suffer the wrath of discriminating oenophiles everywhere? Is it guilty as charged or innocent and wrongly accused? Well, maybe it should cop a plea. On the one hand, well-crafted examples offer jammy, smooth textures with an intriguing herbaceousness. In regions such as Long Island, Bordeaux, Washington State, and Northern Italy, with low yields and well-timed harvests, Merlot’s complex tobacco notes and luscious fruit feel like a big juicy kiss after a complicated speech — brains and beauty all in one glass. On the other hand, it did flow unchecked for an awfully long time. When transformed into a workhorse designed only to quench the thirst of an anonymous public, Merlot’s acidity becomes flabby, its fruit dull, and the tobacco notes turn weedy and off-putting. Over-production is definitely Merlot’s greatest crime. Ironically, Pinot Noir’s ascendance improved the quality by demanding restraint and focused attention on the part of producers. Sideways just might be its unwitting savior.