Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The noble grapes: merlot


Our delightfully cantankerous friend, Willie Gluckstern in The Wine Avenger -- a book I must praise and recommend for the newcomer, precisely because it is so overheated it is easy to understand -- dislikes merlot almost as much as he dislikes chardonnay. Both are bland, easily oaked, therefore seeming-sweet and ridiculously popular. He points out that a standard wine guide of his own youth paid almost no attention to the merlot grape, and then huffs that those looking for a good example of it in a glass now should instead "get a life."

He exaggerates, of course. But a standard wine guide of a generation ago in my possession, Frank Schoonmaker's Encyclopedia of Wine (1973), also devotes little space to merlot. "Distinguished red grape, nearly as important as the two cabernets in Bordeaux production," Schoonmaker says. In Bordeaux it was traditionally mixed with cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc to give those wines some softness and gentle fruit flavors. Prolific and early ripe, the merlot grape presents "obvious temptations" to the grower. That sounds sinister. Indeed it is, a little. Lots of early-ripening grapes mean a big harvest, unthreatened by frost, and the more grapes, generally, the less flavorful they and their wine are. Think mass-production, nature's way. Schoonmaker goes on to say that merlot, used alone, does make nice wines in northern Italy and southern Switzerland.

Oz Clarke's New Encyclopedia of French Wines (1989) explains more fully that merlot was rated second or third best in Bordeaux because for years, the ability of a wine to age in the bottle -- the definition of class -- was what connoisseurs valued. Merlot grapes, thin skinned and lacking the tannins of a cabernet sauvignon, do not make wines that age well. However, "times change," Clarke says, and merlot became more popular because people wanted the Bordeaux flavor in a wine they could drink now. Jancis Robinson in How to Taste (1983, 2000) corroborates Clarke's assertion that most of the Bordeaux region is now planted to merlot, and that, chances are, any French wine labelled "appellation Bordeaux controlee" is going to be mostly made of that "supple," "plummy," "superficially sweet," grape that grows so abundantly, and lacks the grand dignity of her cabernet friends. They do like her, but these writers might almost call her Merlot the Floozie.

Once again, as with Lawrence Osborne's cogitations in The Accidental Connoisseur, we come up against the question of taste: what should a certain wine taste like, how did it used to taste, is a grape so popular now that it is overplanted and has sacrificed taste, are some tastes richer or more difficult or worthwhile than others. Robinson says delicately that many California merlots, "and there are many California examples -- are extremely light on varietal character to say the least." How does she know? What character are all the varieties supposed to have? Only years of everyday experience, moving us through initial relish to dissatisfaction to experiment to deeper rediscovery, would pave the way for these niceties of judgement. We all move in the same way from our initial youthful tastes in books and movies to more satisfying things.

Robinson recommends what sound like some high-end California merlots instead of the varietally "light" ones, and I'm sure the high end kind (Shafer, Silverado) will reveal themselves by their price. Washington State and Chile are also sources for good-value, good merlots. Even Willie Gluckstern admits with a sniff that you can find merlots for $3.99 in your grocery store, and in fact I have found them. They are from Chile, and seem perfectly nice to me.

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