Old World vs. New World: Merlot

My first strong memory of Merlot was “learning” from the movie Sideways that Merlot was wine to be scoffed at. Seeing as one could also “learn” from that movie that cheating on one’s fiancé can work out for you if you are a sh#*ty white guy and your bestie has your back, I don’t know why I so readily adopted its stance on the grape. But having not yet gotten into wine, I (along with so many people that Sideways now has an entry in the Oxford Companion to Wine) made a note to myself to not order Merlot. My feelings took a turn in a tasting room just outside of Austin. That’s right, Texas Merlot changed my mind. I was with my family and a boyfriend who unabashedly drank Merlot. Unfortunately, he also drank arguably bad wine, the cheap stuff that was probably so processed and additive-laden it was scarcely wine at all, much less a fair representation of Merlot. This only compounded my conviction that it was not the grape for me. Back to the Texas tasting. We’d tried nearly everything but not the Merlot because like, why? At which point the boyfriend piped up that he would like to try it. We skeptically sipped and lo and behold, the best wine we had in Texas was Merlot. Georgetown Winery . Just do it. I am here to hold Merlot’s hand as I shepherd them back into the public’s (hopefully adoring after reading this) arms. Sure, some Merlots who took another name were able to get through the Sideways madness undercover. Chelsea Barrett, winemaker at Materra , told me they chose to name their bottling “Right Bank” so that savvy drinkers would know what they were getting, but the wine might also attract the consumer who wouldn’t order a Merlot. Likewise, Bordeaux châteaux didn’t feel the need to cut out the Merlot and graft Pinot Noir on the vines for those wines, since the word Merlot is nowhere on their label. Merlot comes from a good family, at least on the father’s side. Its dad is Cabernet Franc (check out my Old vs New Cabernet Franc piece here ), well-known for also being Cabernet Sauvignon’s father. But Cab Sauv’s mom is also well-known Sauvignon Blanc (hence the combining of names), whereas Merlot, who gets none of their parents’ names to help them out, was the child of Cabernet Sauvignon, plus the not-really-known Magdelaine Noire des Charentes. Despite being the brother from another mother, Cabernet Sauvignon is happy to hang out in blends with both his step-sibling and father. And also a few other grapes—but the two Cabernets and Merlot tend to make up the highest percentage of Bordeaux wines, as well as California’s Meritage (rhymes with heritage) blends. If not named for its father, how did Merlot get its name? The hypothesis is that the blackbird, known in the Occitan as ‘merlau’ enjoyed those grapes. I consulted Jancis Robinson’s “Wine Grapes” to decide which regions were most important to taste. I went with Bordeaux , Italy (especially in Tuscany), California , Washington , and Chile . I considered Australia but most things turned up with the majority being Cabernet Sauvignon. So I added the criteria that the wines I tasted be at least 70% Merlot. Will there be a winner? Let us begin… ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ BORDEAUX Yes, Merlot grows in some French regions beyond Bordeaux, notably in Bergerac, but it shines most on those clay and limestone soils on the Right Bank. 2017 Château Tournefeuille Laland de Pomerol It’s sassy tart, grounded in pencil shavings. A nose bursting with cranberries and all the plums, just-ripe. The body has those tannins squeezing you just tight enough, blue plums plus mint and again with the pencil lead(!). It isn’t a soft wine, but it isn’t gruff either. I want to wear it like a peasant blouse. 2008 Château Haut-Fonrazade Saint Emilion Grand Cru The plums! The cassis! The pencils! The soy sauce! And more pencils. Seriously, Bordeaux Merlot blends are trying to woo old-school writers with the graphite notes, I swear. If a night with an earthy writer doesn’t sound like a sexy night, then have another glass. This wine will seduce you from the get-go. 2018 Château Beauséjour Puisseguin Saint-Émilion 70% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc Purple-y, earthy, dark ink and dark of night Merlot. The nose has layers of dark fruits followed by dark dirt followed by baking spice. Heady AF. Again with those Merlot-specific tannins that manage to make a statement without getting carried away with themselves. More of everything I got on the nose I got on the palate but with a hint of mint. ITALY When I first started studying wine, I was surprised to learn there’s a goodly amount of Merlot grown in Italy. Then I considered the how well the Bordeaux grapes fare in Super Tuscans and was like, oh yeah, that checks out. Speaking of, I’m actually not sure that I’ve had many Super Tuscans? If anyone can secure some Massetto for me… 2015 Tenuta Guado Al Tasso Cont Ugo Bolgheri DOC Plums, tar, vanilla and cigars mingle with blackberry jam and dried herbs. If that doesn’t sound like a Merlot picnic in Tuscany, what does? Honestly, at six years old I’m thinking this is just coming into its prime. Granted I did not try it closer to its birth but given the tannic grip, I am thinking it has a few years to shine even brighter. 2015 Barone Ricasoli Casalferro Toscana It’s like getting on the West Coaster Racers, a new roller coaster at Magic Mountains here in Los Angeles. Unlike many others that start with a slow climb uphill, West Coast Racers utterly explodes out of the gates. As does the nose on this baddy. Quite savory and earthy. And almost a hint of…fennel? On the palate (again like the roller coaster) is quite a series of twists and turns, so be sure to pull down the safety bar, but don’t worry, the tannins are all velvety. Like, the very epitome of well-integrated. Red and purple plums, blackberry compote, more spices, a whiff of vanilla all whirl you around. Take your time with a glass, it may come at you with a bang but rewards a lengthy contemplation time to air out and show you even more tricks. CALIFORNIA Oh yes, where all the trouble for Merlot began. 2018 Materra ‘Right Bank’ Luscious and lulls you in with a nose of wealth and richness. Smells like plum jam and Godiva chocolate liqueur, truly, with a smidge of cedar and vanilla extract. Brighter and spicier on the palate, but it is also a chocolate covered cherry with pleasantly textured tannins. It lies somewhere between hedonistic up front, playful on the back palate. 2018 Deovlet Sonny Boy Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon Blend I tasted this in a blind tasting of candidates I was helping somm friends evaluate. Tasted like…oh, a textbook example what I would want what I’d want of a California Merlot based wine with a smidge of Cab to be. “Dark fruits dried plums pleasant oak yes” read my initial notes. As I said, I was in a tasting of thirty wines and trying to decide yes or no on all. Revisiting I added to my yes-notes that this has a spiced dark cherry compote element to it to boot and “fruit meets fresh mid-palate” and juicy and fresh. A big wine, but a congenial one. 2019 Broadside Margarita Vineyard Merlot Paso Robles goodness! It’s a ripe style that rubs me the right way. The nose is boysenberry and blackberry jam with a whiff of smoke. Palate is silky as can be then the tannins gently poke you just to remind you they are there. I get more red fruit on the palate—the ubiquitous Merlot plumminess is both red and purple here, and there is just a kick of vanilla coffee and greens which sounds like a weird lunch, but it works in this wine. And come to think of it, being a caffeine and salad enthusiast, I probably have enjoyed those foods together many a time. WASHINGTON This state is always just doing its thing, making great wine, and in my opinion never clamoring loudly enough for more attention. There’s some fine work being done up there, especially with Merlot. 2016 Warr-King Red Mountain Merlot Spritely. And SO much freshness even 5 years on. Bright red pomegranate and red plum and brisk acid pop up front and then leisurely back off, jazz hands and a vanilla smile. Smells like if the ocean flowed with blackberries and white peppercorns. 2017 L’Ecole 41 Estate Merlot Super good. I could be more articulate so I guess I will be. SO much texture and acid and swarthiness Very red fruit and cedar, I want it on Thanksgiving—wait —should Merlot, when made with ample acid and balance be the new Thanksgiving darling? This one has a bit more tannic structure I find rather beguiling. It’s Merlot to age a smidge. CHILE Ah yes, Merlot in Chile. A fun subject as until 1994 people thought the Carmenere growing there was Merlot. Intriguing yet more when I considered how green peppery the first Merlot I sampled from there was. 2019 La Playa Colchagua Valley Merlot This tasted green in a way I almost found unpleasant then…didn’t. It really has an herbaceous kick that had me wondering if some Carmenere had indeed found its way in there. I like it though. Quite medium through and through so at least balanced. But there was cool, calm chocolate-vanilla twist finish that stuck with me. Quality for price levels it up. 2017 Lapostalle Grand Selection Merlot From Rapel! Really friggin’ delicious. On the nose there is a pleasant hint of pepper and tar, and if chocolate covered plums are a thing, then there’s some of that there too. The mouthcoating tannins are slightly coarse but integrated (they seem like they belong there) along with rich ripe red fruits (more plums, the odd cherry) and cedar do-si-do with the pepper which has now gone from bell pepper pepper-y to arugula-style peppery. Every taste yields something a little different so give it time. Chile is killing it on the price quality game. IN CONCLUSION I’ve decided that Merlot is quite good at expressing regional typicity. The Italian ones taste…Italian. Albeit nearly all Italian wines do to me. There is always something about them—is it the herbal notes? The Washington ones taste Washingtonian—lifted, elegant, but ripe. Chile was spicy. California, rich. And the French Bordeaux had that delightful pucker with pencil lead. So far France has my heart. They’ve had longer. Chile was my surprise runner-up. Okay but I also do adore well-made California wine. And Washington. See why you shouldn’t learn to hate a wine from a dumb movie about stupid dudes? Merlot contains multitudes. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Want to read more from Ellen? Check out her recent articles: ALL the Wine Cans: Get It 2021 Go Mendocino Ellen in Lalaland, Almost Post-Pandemic Style May Flowers Ma Sherry You can also listen to Ellen's podcast , The Wine Situation here . Check out her recent transcripts of the Final Five questions: Wine Situation Final Five! With Matthew Lindsey Wine Situation Final Five! With Alissa Bica

Château Beauséjour

Puisseguin Saint-Émilion Cuvée Spéciale Merlot & Cabernet Franc 2018

Purpley (look and taste!), earthy (probably a Virgo) and it does have that Virgo-esque ability to be heady (Ready to conquer nose! Tannins! So much!) but, again, earthy and grounded. With a hint of mint. — 2 months ago

Severn, Romain and 13 others liked this

Casa Lapostolle

Rapel Valley Merlot 2017

Lots happening here! Every sip was a smidge different, from chocolate to plum to arugula. Def recommend. — 2 months ago

Neil, Shawn and 14 others liked this

Warr-King

Red Mountain Merlot 2016

Ware-King never fails. Five years on and it’s still so fresh. Do it. — 2 months ago

Tyler, Shawn and 7 others liked this

Marchesi Antinori

Tenuta Guado al Tasso Cont'Ugo Bolgheri Merlot 2015

There’s a ton going on here, with a sturdy grip for a Merlot, and I’m into it. — 2 months ago

Juan, Shawn and 10 others liked this

Broadside

Margarita Vineyard Merlot 2019

Funtimes high value obvi new world doing it right for a friendly wine that won’t break you but do you need to be broken? Nah. Silky and plum fun just like unravel your pretentious side. — 2 months ago

Romain, Serge and 7 others liked this

Barone Ricasoli

Casalferro Toscana Super Tuscan Blend 2015

The nose is full throttle from the get-go—a surprise reminding me of my recent trip to Magic Mountains, as West Coast Racers is a roller coaster with no slow-burn climb uphill. Oh no—you zoom out the gates and go through a series of twisty-windy loops and it’s a shock to your system but then you’re like “let’s do it again!”
And so with this. That explosive nose is savory and earthy like a blackberry compote kissed by a forest spirit. On the palate the tannins are the epitome of velvety and well-integrated. I get all the aromas of the nose here, plus some more red fruit. And vanilla. And then again with almost an…iodine herb thing I always associate with Italian wines, no matter the grape. And then a hint of…Montenegro? Is this the wine for both roller coaster and amaro aficionados? Stand-up Merlot. Do it.
— 2 months ago

Trixie, Serge and 19 others liked this

La Playa

Estate Bottled Colchagua Valley Merlot 2019

Quite an herbaceous character I didn’t like at first but it grew on me. Good quality for price! — 2 months ago

Neil, Shawn and 9 others liked this

Château Tournefeuille

Lalande de Pomerol Red Bordeaux Blend 2017

Somewhere between rustic and high-stung it’s a silk cranberry peasant blouse of a wine. Leading you just enough one way, just enough the other. And then there are those pencil lead notes because someone besides me is making notes. Probably. — 2 months ago

Romain, Serge and 10 others liked this

L'Ecole No. 41

Estate Grown Walla Walla Valley Merlot 2017

Very very good. There’s a lot of texture to fit. Elegant. I for some reason find myself thinking I should serve it at next year’s Thanksgiving. — 2 months ago

Neil, Shawn and 14 others liked this
Neil Valenzuela

Neil Valenzuela

Stuff from Walla-Walla is legit! Probably all the onion fields 😂
Ellen Clifford

Ellen Clifford Influencer Badge Premium Badge

@Neil Valenzuela haaaa well, I’m not so sure that theory adds up but they do have good onions too

Materra

Right Bank Oak Knoll District Red Blend 2018

A nose of plum jam and Godiva chocolate liqueur, what a groovy get. The palate reads brighter, it’s a great line between hedonistic and playful. — 2 months ago

Shawn, Bob and 8 others liked this