|Cheers! -In praise of Merlot|
Jim Coode, Crushed Grapes Wine Shop
In the movie Sideways, the character Miles Raymond exclaims, "... if anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any ... Merlot!" Throughout the film, Miles speaks fondly of the red wine varietal Pinot Noir, while denigrating Merlot. Sales of Merlot dropped after the film's release possibly due to Miles' disparaging remarks about the varietal in the film.
Merlot (pronounced Mare-LOW) has long been one of my favorite varietals. The earliest recorded mention of Merlot was in the notes of a local Bordeaux official who in 1784 labeled wine made from the grape as one of the best. The name means "young blackbird." The naming came either because of the grape's beautiful dark-blue color or due to blackbirds' fondness for grapes.
France is home to nearly two thirds of the world's total plantings of Merlot. In addition to the U.S., countries in South America, such as Chile and Argentina, are also leading producers of Merlot.
A thin-skinned variety, Merlot ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon and is less hardy, prone to a variety of ailments from the loss of potential fruit during flowering to rot and mildew. It is more adaptable to cool climates than Cabernet Sauvignon, but like Cabernet prefers a relatively warm growing environment.
Merlot’s popularity is due to the fact that it is softer and fruitier than Cabernet Sauvignon, while displaying many of the same aromas and flavors – black cherry, currant and cedar – along with mint, tobacco and tea-leaf tones.
In food and wine pairings, the diversity of Merlot can lend itself to a wide array of matching options. Some Merlots pair well with many of the same things that Cabernet Sauvignon would pair well with such as grilled and charred meats. Softer, fruitier Merlots (particularly those with higher acidity from cooler climate regions like Washington State) share many of the same food pairing affinities with Pinot Noir and go well with dishes like salmon, mushroom based dishes and greens like chard and radicchio. Light bodied Merlots can go well with shellfish like prawns or scallops, especially if wrapped in a protein-rich food such as bacon or prosciutto. Merlot tends not to go well with strong and blue veined cheeses that can overwhelm the fruit flavors of the wine. Spicy foods can accentuate the perception of alcohol in Merlot and make it taste more tannic and bitter.
So with all due respect to the character Miles Raymond, I like Merlot. Pick up a bottle soon and fall in love with one of the world's great wines.