Merlot, revisited.

“If anybody orders Merlot, I’m leaving… I am not drinking any <blanking> Merlot!” -Miles from Sideways

It’s nearly a decade since Paul Giamatti dropped the f-bomb heard round the wine world, and Merlot sales plummeted. We’ve had plenty of time for the market to readjust, but Merlot has never come back to its pre-Sideways numbers. Perhaps a lot of people became reacquainted with Pinot Noir (Miles’ varietal of choice) and so didn’t revisit Merlot. The great irony of the movie is that Miles’ pinnacle wine, the one he drank alone in a burger shop out of a Styrofoam cup, was Cheval Blanc 1961. This St. Emilion Bordeaux, is Merlot, well mainly Merlot with some Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. How can he be such a Merlot hater? As we can see, it’s not all Merlot, just the ubiquitous fruity plonk that was very prevalent out of California in the last two decades. What’s the difference?

Personally I am not as big of a Merlot lover as a Cabernet and Shiraz lover, but there are certainly Merlots I do adore, and they happen to be Right Bank wines from Bordeaux like St. Emilion and Pomerol or Napa Valley Merlots. In both cases these are not your typical Merlots, finding a deeper and more complex representation in these two locales due to the distinctive terroir. Something magical happens in certain soils and in certain vintages where the weather is perfect. This is the essence of terroir and the reason why most French wines are named for the locale and not for the grapes.

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Recently I was treated to a bottle of a stellar Merlot-based wine from St. Emilion, a Grand Cru, no less, the Chateau Valandraud 2011. The vintage is not as exciting as either 2009 or 2010, but this wine shined above and beyond. Since it retails around $200 per bottle, I was hoping it would live up to the hype, and it did. It was one of those rare wines that got better on day two, because of its inherent density and richness. I began my analysis with careful observation:  A deep purple color with inky black depths and a gigantic nose of spicy cedar, ripe plum and hints of Chambord. This is a huge Merlot with incredible complexity and longevity. It opens up but never lightens up. Graphite and mineral notes add to a chewy density on the palate, finishing with hints of anise, bitter herbs and Band Aid. I’m tasting earth and I’m tasting sun; this is the truest expression of terroir—I’m tasting a moment in time, I don’t even care what grape this is anymore. This is St. Emilion, just around the corner from St. Emil’s cave, a cave that leads into imagination.

After five hours, I finally find some violets, and the wine is still opening up, with a little more licorice, finding less fruit and more minerality. The oak has sheltered the mineral notes, rather than masking or competing with them, like a shawl or a cape, softening the sharper tones, smoothing any edges. Each of these components is necessary for the complete expression that is this wine. Terroir, but also wine-making skill and mastery at work. This is a Merlot I can truly love. It’s good to be reminded that our own prejudices often limit our own enjoyment of life. So rethink Merlot and try one of these French masterpieces or take a little jaunt to Napa Valley and try the Stepping Stone or Osso Anna Merlots. Any of these wines will tickle your fancy and give no one a reason to leave upon being ordered. These are some good <blanking> Merlots!


Daniel Eddy

Gainesville Wine Consultant for ABC Fine Wines & Spirits. Follow me on Twitter @abcwinedane.

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