The year 2004 was a bad one for Merlot. I'm not talking growing conditions, climate or vintage variation — no, I'm talking about Hollywood. It was the year Sideways hit the big screen — the film about two men who go on a road trip to California wine country and try to drink their way through their problems.
Miles (as played by Paul Giamatti) is a bit of a wine snob, and drinks plenty of Pinot Noir while pooh-poohing Merlot. He infamously states "(I)f anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any f---ing Merlot!"
The film was a smash hit, Pinot Noir sales skyrocketed and Merlot sales — at least in North America, where the film performed the best -- took a pretty big hit. But Merlot seems to be on the upswing again, both sales-wise and stylistically.
It was in large part because of the latter quality that Giamatti's character loathed Merlot. Over the past 20 years, the grape has often been made in a soft, plush style that many oenophiles would characterize as being one-dimensional, devoid of character and overly commercial.
There are (and always have been) examples of structured, dense Merlot with great character coming from all wine-producing regions around the world. British Columbia and Washington State do great work with the grape, Chile continues to produce Merlot that over-delivers for the price, and Bordeaux produces some of the world's finest (and priciest) wine from Merlot.
In fact, the subtle joke in the movie is that Miles's prize bottle is a 1961 Ch¢teau Cheval Blanc, which he drinks in a fast food restaurant from a disposable cup at one of his emotional low points. While the wine, from the St-Emilion region of France, contains some Cabernet Franc, it's a Merlot-based wine. To wine geeks, it's sort of an inside joke and a tip of the hat to the potential Merlot holds in the making of some of the world's great red wines.
Could it be that the punishing of Merlot producers for making overly jammy, fruit-forward, overripe wines was a good thing? Many winemakers have carefully revisited their Merlot wines, moving them toward becoming wines that balance ripe fruit, juicy acidity and grippy tannin, delivering structure and complexity. Many of the Merlots I tasted in California in January, for example, were among the most memorable of the trip.
Producers in relatively cooler climate regions have been increasingly successful in delivering Merlot with style and elegance. I'm sure there will be lots of interesting Merlot to try at the Winnipeg Wine Festival this year, what with Canada's two main winemaking areas as the theme regions. Merlot is a red grape British Columbia producers now make with impressive consistency. (I can't speak with as much certainty about Ontario Merlot — it's in shorter supply and those that we get vary in quality.)
Yes, there are some creamy, jammy, goopy Merlots out there — entry-level Australia and California examples come to mind here — but for a few extra bucks, even Merlot from these regions can be impressive.
Still not convinced Merlot deserves a second chance? At least check out a fantastic video made by California producer Gundlach Bundschu at http://tinyurl.com/merlotvid.
THE LITTLE PENGUIN 2010 MERLOT
(South Eastern Australia — $10.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)
Plum, cinnamon, spice, cocoa and vanilla aromas are ripe and wrapped in oak on this wildly popular Merlot. This medium-bodied red is smooth and soft, with creamy blueberry pie notes as well as cassis and dried cherry flavours. The Little Penguin is definitely a jammier, overripe style of Merlot. 85/100
ASTORIA 2010 MERLOT
(Piave, Italy — $14.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)
There's a distinct, pretty floral note to the nose of this Italian Merlot, with dried blueberry, blackcurrant and light chocolate aromas showing well. It's a medium-bodied, vibrant Merlot, bringing ripe fruit with bright acidity and pretty blueberry tea, black tea and cocoa notes. 86/100
BODEGA LA RURAL 2010 LA VUELTA MERLOT
(Mendoza, Argentina — around $11, private wine stores)
Earthy, spicy notes dominate on the nose here, with plum, blackberry and light gamey aromas bringing good complexity for the price. This medium-plus-bodied red delivers blackberry, blueberry jam, tart cherry, white pepper and light tannin on the medium finish. 87/100
CASA LAPOSTOLLE 2010 MERLOT
(Rapel Valley, Chile -- $16.79, Liquor Marts and beyond)
White pepper, vanilla, black licorice, espresso and black cherry aromas on the nose hint at great complexity and depth. There's certainly some substance to this wine, as it's full-bodied and boasts blueberry skin, plum, cocoa, slightly tart blackberry and a hint of black tea and white pepper with a slightly tannic finish. It's a very good Merlot for the price from a great producer. 89/100