Who will save Merlot? The fate of a much-maligned grape


File photo. File photo.

Merlot is making a comeback. Or so the prediction has gone for the past three years. According to retailers though, sales haven’t even begun to rebound, yet we keep reading that they have. So, has this grape that went from golden child to outcast in the span of 20 years really risen from the depths of our drains, or is it just an industry agenda to aid in its climb to cool again?

First, a look at Merlot’s day in the sun. In the early 1980s, several California and Washington producers were using Merlot as a blending varietal (just as in its native Bordeaux, where it’s the most widely planted varietal) to soften the fiercely tannic Cabernet Sauvignon. It didn’t take long for enterprising Americans to realize that the varietal could easily stand on its own. Single-varietal Merlot started popping up in the mid-’80s, with producers like California’s Shafer and Duckhorn and Washington’s Leonetti Cellar and Hogue leading the charge.

Fast forward a couple of years and Merlot, with its one-word, easy to pronounce name and uncomplicated palate, had become a sensation like Madonna and Prince and parachute pants. Grab your best pair and pour some Merlot on me.

Everyone wanted a piece of this Pac-Man-era pie, so producers started planting it in spades on marginal sites and bottling juice from underripe fruit. They assumed that as long as the label read Merlot, we’d lap it up. And we did, until its wimpy structure and taste of green bell peppers led producers to vamp it up into an ocean of alcoholic black cherry vanilla Coke. Wine-flavored wine to go with cheese-flavored cheese. Merlot had become a joke.

The 2004 movie Sideways issued the ba-dum-ch when fictional, frumpy, Pinot Noir-lovin’ Miles threw a temper tantrum at the prospect of having to drink any bleeping Merlot. It was a below the belt (albeit unintended, according to the movie’s writers) blow that deflated Merlot sales by 2 percent in the 12 weeks after the film was released, by 12 percent come 2006, and by 10 percent for the last three years running.

Something good came from Merlot’s denigration though. Faced with a glut of unwanted swill, producers started growing and making less, thus focusing on a return to quality, which, in its best examples, is a lush, plummy mochaccino of a wine. Merlot’s primed for a rally, but is anyone buying it?

Neither Market Street Wineshop’s Robert Harllee nor Rio Hill Wine & Gourmet’s Doug Hotz are seeing a resurgence of sales. “Cab is still king. But something like 85 percent of affordable Bordeaux (under $15) are mostly Merlot. In fact, it’s hard to find a majority Cab in that category,” said Harllee. Even in California, where cult Cabs often require deep pockets and a waiting list, you can get fantastic Merlot at a reasonable price. Hotz sells a Merlot from Annabella (Napa) and St. Francis (Sonoma) for under $20. “Both offer serious bang for the buck,” he said. There are exceptions, of course, like Château Pétrus, which is almost entirely Merlot and costs, by the caseful, as much as a new car. However, generally speaking, Merlot’s glass ceiling is about 50 percent lower than Cabernet’s.

Sommeliers love Merlot because it can be enjoyed at a younger age and with a wide range of foods. Keswick Hall sommelier Richard Hewitt says he’s selling more Merlot these days and that it seems to have regained the face it lost after Sideways. A great deal of his Merlot sales are from Virginia wineries, where just about everyone agrees the grape does really well.

Six of the 12 wines in this year’s Governor’s Case contained Merlot, and Keswick Vineyards earned one of those spots for its 2010 Merlot, a 100 percent single varietal. Keswick winemaker Stephen Barnard praises the grape for its predictability and consistency in a climate that’s anything but. “It ripens early, so most years you can get good, clean, ripe fruit which allows you to make a consistently high quality wine,” said Barnard. He tends to favor a European, fruit-forward style of Merlot that’s more elegant and supple than its harsher, boozier West Coast counterparts, but it’s still a wine with some vigor to it. The Octagon wines from Barboursville are blends driven by Merlot and have at least eight to 10 years of cellar life in them.

So what’s an overexposed and underappreciated grape to do? Wait for its white knight to grant it the respect it deserves? Virginia might be just the place for that movie.

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