Ahhh Merlot….once the love child of wine drinkers and then, as fate would have it, it became the ugly, red-headed, step child, unacknowledged and thought of as sub par. I often think that wine teaches us so many lessons, and Merlot might just be the best example of the fickle ignorance of humanity and why it’s rarely good advice to the follow crowd.
Merlot is considered a noble variety grape, with regal beginnings in Bordeaux. It’s Daddy is Cabernet Franc and it’s Mother is an obscure varietal called Magdeleine Noire des Charentes. It is grown worldwide — in fact, it is the 2nd most planted grape in the world and is the most planted grape in Bordeaux.
The name Merlot means blackbird in French, thought to be called that because of it’s dark, nearly black skin. A well made Merlot is a beautiful wine with plum, dark cherry, tobacco, spice and chocolate being all common flavor profiles with a downright velvety texture.
In 2004, a little movie called Sideways was released. The main character was a Pinot Noir loving, Merlot hating man named Miles Mind mindbogglingly, Merlot declined for nearly a decade following the release of the movie. The good news is that California Pinot Noir sales exploded.
The thing that makes this “Sideways effect” so unbelievable to me, is that I really have no love for the Miles character. Honestly, he doesn’t have single quality that someone would want to aspire to. There is backstory to his despise of Merlot – his ex-wife loved it – so nothing to do with the actual grape or wine itself. And yet, the wine buying public apparently hung their hat on it.
There is also the theory that, prior to the movie, Merlot was already declining due to the over planting of the grape, ironically in response to its popularity. With the increased demand, came bulk wine production and some less than quality examples were being put on shelves everywhere. I am sure there is some truth to this, but you can’t discount the fact that sales began to decline following the release of the Sideways movie.
But enough of the past! Let’s talk about how awesome Merlot is and how, in 2015, Merlot sales started to increase for the first time in a decade.
In the U.S. the undisputed pioneer of Merlot is Duckhorn Vineyards. In 1978, founders Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, harvested their first grapes, producing 800 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon and 800 cases of Merlot from their now famous Three Palms vineyard. Duckhorn has championed Merlot since before Napa Valley even had AVA designation. When Merlot lost favor, many California wineries actually pulled up Merlot vines and re-planted with different varieties, but Duckhorn never wavered. It makes sense that they would also be one of the pioneers the #MerlotMe movement.
The #MerlotMe campaign began a few years ago to help bring Merlot back into a positive spot light. It is intended to celebrate Merlot for the entire month of October. A simple search on social media is evidence it has been embraced, not only by the public but the industry as well.
As luck would have it, #MerlotMe month for me began with the Masters of Merlot class at the Wine Bloggers Conference. This class was hosted by none other than Duckhorn Vineyards and L’Ecole No. 41, one of the oldest wineries in the Walla Walla Valley. If you are not familiar with L’Ecole, let me tell you, they are outstanding. I guess you might surmise that since they were willing to put their Merlot wines next to Duckhorn’s. The class comprised of tasting through multiple vintages – 2008, 2012, 2015 – of Merlot from both wineries, with the bonus being a sample of the Duckhorn 2015 Three Palms Vineyard Merlot. All of these wines were excellent and both of these wineries have rich a history of championing Merlot!
As incredible as both the Duckhorn and L’Ecole Merlots are, they range from $30+ to $100 a bottle. And while they are most assuredly worth the splurge, I need to have some less costly options at the ready.
I tried two moderately price wines that, honestly, when you factor in that they were less than $20, they fall into the outstanding category. The first one is this Markham Merlot. I bought it at Costco for $17 – wow was this a good find. Great QPR as it tastes much more expensive than it is in my opinion. Plus, look at that color. It has wonderful aromas and a lush, smooth feel on the palate. I tasted plum, dark cherry, and a hint of spice.
Another great selection was this Decoy Merlot – Decoy is a Duckhorn label that produces Sonoma Valley wines at an incredible price point, this one was $18 at Total Wine. This wine is lush and velvety with black fruit, a hint of tobacco and vanilla. It’s an incredible wine for the price.
Merlot is beautiful enough to drink alone, but it pairs well with so many things! Nibbles like cheese, bread or even popcorn, to rustic dishes and grilled meats.
So, if you’ve shied away from Merlot in the past decade or so, I am urging you to seek out a nice quality, beautiful Merlot. You’ll ask yourself “why is this not in my regular rotation?” We probably know why, but forgive yourself for being influenced by a fictional character with nary a redeeming quality. Repent with a nice bottle of Merlot.