Merlot is not lying low anymore. If the #MerlotMe movement has anything to do with it, the much-maligned variety will rise like a phoenix.
October’s month-long ode to Merlot is now in its eighth year. Napa Valley’s Duckhorn Vineyards, known for its high-end luxury Merlot, launched the movement that has now evolved into a phenomenon.
The whole thing goes back to a single line delivered by actor Paul Giamatti, as the character of Miles in the 2004 multi-award winning roadie film, “Sideways,” that altered the landscape for the varietal: “I am NOT drinking any f***ing Merlot!” Thus, a fictional character inadvertently began an era of Merlot bashing, elevating the pleasures of pinot noir while relegating Merlot to “No, thanks” in tasting rooms nearly everywhere.
And yet … Merlot is still the third leading wine purchased by Americans after Cabernet Sauvignon and red blends, according to The Wine Institute.
This popularity could prove what P.J. Alviso calls the “airport bar test.”
The vineyard manager at Duckhorn has done his personal survey that reveals the three most popular wines among transit consumers — Merlot, Pinot Noir and a red blend, in that order.
However, looking back at the situation at the time of the movie’s release, Marty Clubb, managing winemaker and co-owner of L’Ecole No. 41 in Washington States’ Walla Walla Valley, sees the slight as a blessing.
Clubb, responding in an email, pointed to the overproduction and overcropping of Merlot which led to mediocre quality. The backlash from “Sideways” actually helped to clean up Merlot that should not have been in the market, in his opinion.
L’Ecole, which began its vineyard planting with Merlot in 1989, has continued its loyal following so the winery did not slow down its production post-“Sideways.”
To get a grip on Merlot’s current status, I reached out to industry professionals in Napa and Washington State over the phone and gathered a few winemakers in Paso Robles to sample some 20 wines from these regions.
The wines were all impressive, revealing various expressions of red and black fruits nuanced with savory notes, hints of cedar and mint.
As this is a global event, I added a 2016 Les Cadrans de Lassègue, Saint-Émilion, Grand Cru in the tasting lineup, an earthy wine yet redolent with cranberries notes and fresh acidity.
I discovered there are many Merlot fans, Alviso among theme. “I truly believe it’s a good wine when done well, it’s supple and has structure, without overpowering,” he told me in a phone conversation.
And when not done well?
“There, are two aspects,” he answered, examining it from both viticulture and winemaking perspective. “It’s not particularly easy to grow; it’s finicky.” As for vinification, he added: “It can be easily overpowered by heavy-handed winemaking; it’s more malleable and loses its soul quickly.”
There is a brand concept beyond the varietal, Alviso noted. For example, the consumer will reach for the soft and seductive Duckhorn, not just a Merlot. Sampling the 2017 cellar-worthy Three Palms Vineyards, it was clear why this wine is a benchmark for Merlot fans. The 91-percent Merlot, blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot, is full-bodied and textural, luxuriates on the palate with lush red and black fruits, dusty tannins and a memorable finish.
Pahlmeyer is another wine that connects to the brand concept. Two years back, in one of my conversations with Cleo Pahlmeyer, the daughter of founder Jayson, told me that their brand never lost its following. High-end, hand-sold wines in general don’t fall victim to trends. Pahlmeyer (sold to Gallo Winery in 2019) continues its tradition of producing cellar-worthy wines.
We sampled the 2017 Merlot from Rancho Chimiles estate, a wine fragrant with rose petals on the nose, seamlessly evolving into a seductive bouquet of berries and spice, leading to a lengthy finish.
As the fourth Napa Valley winery to introduce a varietal Merlot label, Markham Vineyards released its first Merlot vintage in 1980. “I know there was pushback but when you make a premium product; we really didn’t see a dip,” commented winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls.
The veteran winemaker knows the pitfalls and viticulture challenges.
Granted it’s finicky, but you have to know the fruit, Nicholls explained. “As a trusted Merlot producer I wear that on my shoulder.” Her mantra: allow the cluster to fully ripen. “Otherwise, you get the pyrazines that turn people off.”
The two Markham 2017 vintages we sampled were velvety and lush, the Napa Valley Merlot, a riot of bright red fruits enhanced with traces of baking spices. Crafted on Bordeaux’s “right bank” style, the cellar-worthy The Altruist was opulent, rocking with lush cherries backed with smooth tannins.
Trefethen Family Vineyards Merlot was planted in the early 1960s, but wasn’t produced as a varietal wine until 1993, explained second-generation vigneron Hailey Trefethen, who wears many hats including representing the wine’s brand.
“It took us a while to dial that in for it to stand on its own,” she noted of the 24-acre Merlot planting that has been fine-tuned over the years. “Our Merlot tastes like Merlot, with wonderful lush mid-palate and soft velvety tannins.” In recent years, she added that the winery has seen a dramatic rise in sales.
Grown in Oak Knoll, a sweet spot between the warmer up-valley and cooler southern part, the variety expresses Trefethen’s signature brightness and lush red fruits character. The 2018 edition was vibrant with ripe raspberries with layers of spice and smooth tannins.
In homage to their parents (John and Janet) and knowing their passion for Merlot, Hailey and her brother Loren recently released a varietal Merlot called The Cowgirl and the Pilot, referencing their hobbies. The inaugural 2017 is a joyous ride of aromatic dark fruits, seductive floral notes, anchored by firm tannins.
Grgich Hills Estate planted Merlot in the late 1980s. “Mike [Grgich] had the idea to plant it in Carneros although it’s cool but similar to Bordeaux,” said Ivo Jeramaz, winemaker and vice-president of vineyards and production. Additional planting followed in American Canyon, another cool region. Of the total 24 acres, 70 percent comes from a cooler climate, the rest from the warmer Yountville region.
While Grgich Hills Estate practices organic farming, there are times when Jeramaz is pushed to irrigate during heat spikes in the Yountville area. “It’s sacrilegious to irrigate, but it has to be done when it’s too hot, otherwise grapes become raisiny.”
Some people like the ripe, warmer up-valley Merlot, Jeramaz noted.
“Our cool-climate delivers more structure,” he remarked. “People love our Merlot. They think it’s a Cab. It has firmness.” The 2016 showed depth and structure, layered with ripe berries, savory notes and tempered with firm tannins.
Among the other 2016 and 2017 current releases we sampled were the opulent La Jota Vineyard and the muscle-flexing Mt. Brave. Rutherford Hills’ two appellations expressed different personalities, a lush Merlot from Atlas Peak’s steep hillside vineyards and cassis and spice notes in the Oakville bottling. St. Supery, Charles Krug and Silverado’s Mt. George Vineyard were robust and berry-loaded while Ehlers Estate blended three clones into a delicious compote of red fruits.
From Hestan Vineyards, a hidden gem in Napa’s remote eastern slopes, the 2017 Stephanie showed an Old World restraint yet was vibrant with violet and cranberry flavors.
Monterey County’s cool region is usually identified with Burgundian varieties so I was surprised to see a 2016 Merlot from McIntyre Family Wines’ Kimberly Vineyard in Arroyo Seco. The vineyard located at the mouth of Arroyo Seco canyon is in a “Goldilocks” microclimate, warmer than neighboring areas, which helps the fruit’s ripening, resulting in a Merlot that is lavish with ripe fruit yet balanced with the structure of a cool climate.
There were some big rich wines from Sonoma’s Alexander Valley, Merlots from Chelsea Goldschmidt, Trig Point and Embankment and a couple of deliciously approachable representations from Folie à Deux and Sebastiani.
Among the Washington State wines, the two 2017 vintages of L’Ecole No. 41, were Merlot-driven, one richly textured, layered with dark Walla Walla Valley fruit and the other a full-bodied Columbia Valley redolent of plums and cocoa.
Januik’s 2017 Klipsun Vineyards was a spark of raspberries and spice on the palate while Novelty Hill’s 2016 from Stillwater Creek showed beguiling berry notes and smooth tannins.
With such a large selection of superb Merlots in the market place, now’s the time to re-introduce yourself to the joys of this comeback kid. One thing though — a Merlot begs for air. So remember to decant the bottle a few hours before sipping and let your palate take a journey onto the wine’s evolution of nuanced flavors and textures.
Watch now: The wines of Hestan Vineyards