Merlot is one of the world's most noble grapes and one of my longtime favorites, but over the last few decades it has had its ups and downs in the domestic market, press and public opinion. While that's a sad commentary, its recent resurgence has been an exciting, long overdue accomplishment achieved by the commitment of several skilled producers.
Merlot has long been a part of California's wine scene primarily as a blending grape. But it was not until 1971 that it appeared as a labeled varietal (about 30 years after varietally labeled Cabernet Sauvignon debuted) in a multi-vintage blend of 1968 and 1970 released as Louis M. Martini Merlot California Mountain Edge Hill Selection. Following this release, a new cadre of "Merlot Devotees" appeared including Sterling with its 1972 and later in the decade, Duckhorn, Rutherford Hill and others.
In 1991, Morley Safer and 60 Minutes introduced the "French Paradox" where red wine was recognized as a beneficial part of the diet. Its widespread consumption in France was considered as a major contributor behind France's far lower rate of coronary disease despite a high-fat diet, as opposed to what we were experiencing in the U.S.
This was a time when white wines (and blush White Zinfandel) drove the market but the French Paradox airing quickly demonstrated its impact with an abrupt switch to reds. Given Merlot's easy drinkability with forward bright red fruit, lighter tannins and early enjoyment, it instantly became the favorite and an easy transition for the white wine lover.
Seemingly overnight, vineyards in the Central Valley were pulled and replanted with this new market star even though this was, at best, a marginal area for quality Merlot given its heavy soils, intense heat and extremely high yields. Acreage in California grew exponentially, and Merlots flooded the market to satisfy the thirst of a growing fan base.
At the same time, Merlot plantings in the most hospitable areas of Napa and Sonoma continued with high-quality fruit resulting in world-class wines as foil to the mostly insipid and far less expensive counterparts from the Central Valley.
A world of two truly radically different Merlot expressions emerged causing some confusion in the market as the average consumer did not always know what to expect in the bottle they had just purchased. However, the Merlot rage continued for both the premium and mass-produced categories through the 1990s and into the 21st century until Sideways hit the big screen in 2004.
It seemed like everything "60 Minutes" did for Merlot was undone with a single line uttered by the character Miles (the "wine maven") in Sideways when he announced "I will not be drinking any [blank] Merlot."
He also had a similar comment earlier in the movie regarding Cabernet Franc even though his most treasured wine back home (that he mentioned often throughout the movie and ended up drinking in a final scene) was Chateau Cheval Blanc.
Cheval Blanc is a highly collectable wine from Bordeaux's St. Emilion appellation that is a blend of almost equal parts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Nevertheless, Pinot Noir became Miles' favorite and the Pinot boom took center stage as Merlot's slide began.
Merlot's planted acreage hit a high in California during the peak time at about 60,000 acres and has now settled a bit above 40,000 acres. The vast majority of the reduction occurred in the Central Valley while plantings in the prime growing areas of Napa, Sonoma and select others remain strong where stellar examples of Merlot and its blends continue to occupy center stage.
My appreciation for Merlot was again peaked when earlier this month I attended a trade event at Napa's CIA at Copia presented by the "Masters of Merlot." The seminar was artfully lead by wine writer and educator Anthony Giglio, also known as "Wine Wise Guy." Following a humorous introductory message, he conducted a most interesting in-depth panel discussion and tasting featuring four immensely qualified Merlot "pros."
Ted Edwards, winemaker for Freemark Abby, bottled his first varietally labeled Merlot in 1985 despite initial objections from management. P.J. Alviso, Duckhorn's vice president of winegrowing who lent valuable insight into the vineyard side of Merlot. Cleo Pahlmeyer, president of Pahlmeyer, a well established producer of world-class Merlots and Bordeaux-style red blends. And Chris Carpenter, winemaker for Mt. Brave and La Jota where he has created exemplary Merlots and an extensive portfolio of wines from other Bordeaux varietals for many years.
Each panelist presented a selection of their Merlots from the highly acclaimed but low yielding 2015 vintage while engaging the audience with their insights into all facets of growing, producing and marketing wines from this noble varietal.
The 2015 Freemark Abby Merlot Bosché was simply a stunning wine produced only in select vintages from a vineyard better known for classic Cabernets. Duckhorn's 2015 Three Palms Merlot continues a virtually unbroken streak of outstanding wines since its first vintage of 1978. Palhmeyer's 2015 Napa Valley offering exhibited unwavering balance, structure and power with a robe of elegance I've learned to expect over the years. Chris Carpenter presented examples from Mt. Brave on Mt. Veeder and La Jota on Howell Mountain, each true to its growing area and his deft hand.
Following the seminar/tasting, we adjourned to an upstairs venue to sample the Merlots of 20 highly respected producers from Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles and Washington where Merlot flourishes to great acclaim.
Judging from the increasing consumer demand for quality Merlot over the last decade or so, I would have to agree Merlot is back. But, for all of us countless ardent fans who've continued to relish classic Merlot from pristine growing areas and talented winemakers through the rough period, I must say it was never really gone.