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Wine Adviser / Paul Gregutt
Life after "Sideways": Merlots dust off bad p.r.
The enormous success of "Sideways," which depicts the wine-soaked escapades of two friends exploring California's Central Coast, has polished the image of pinot noir to a fine luster.
The movie's best rant is an explosive outburst from the beleaguered wine-wonk Miles, who refuses to drink any merlot. Suddenly good old merlot, the go-to red for most folks for the past 15 years, has all the sex appeal of a cabbage. Which makes me wonder, does merlot need a facelift? Some time with Dr. Phil? A self-help book? Or is it simply a victim of its own success?
That success was jump-started about 15 years ago when "60 Minutes" did their now-famous TV segment on "The French Paradox." reporting that moderate consumption of red wine was good for your health, the program turned millions of Americans onto red wine drinkers overnight.
Recommended Washington merlots
Columbia Crest Grand Estates 2001 Merlot ($10). Smooth, supple, full and ripe, with seductive chocolate/cherry flavors and a very French hint of herb.
Covey Run 2002 Merlot ($9). Tannic and chewy, with strong, herbal flavors.
Three Rivers 2002 Merlot ($19). Young and powerful, with cabernetlike depth and structure.
Isenhower Cellars 2003 Red Paint Brush Merlot ($26). Spicy and soft, with fresh red fruits and a light touch of oak.
Forgeron 2001 Merlot ($27). Beautifully aged, drinking perfectly, this supple, sexy merlot includes Klipsun, Boushey and Conner Lee fruit.
Fielding Hills 2002 Merlot ($28). Lovely winemaking mixes pleasing oak with bright, black-cherry fruit and hints of stone.
Latitude 46º N Vindication ($30). A bit more than two-thirds merlot, this nervy, fragrant, excellent wine enhances the solid fruit with mineral, stone and graphite.
Bergevin Lane 2002 Merlot ($30). 100 percent varietal merlot with lovely scents of plum and licorice, citrus peel and herb.
Seven Hills Winery 2002 Merlot ($30). This is a classy effort, 100 percent merlot showing red fruits and spices, with citrusy aromas and a long, silky finish.
Five Star Cellars 2002 Merlot ($30). Extra time in bottle has smoothed this out; it's big and chocolatey with a streak of orange liqueur.
Pepper Bridge 2002 Merlot ($45). The fourth vintage for PB includes a splash of malbec in the blend. Jammy, oaky, peppery and showing more complexity and length than previous efforts.
So merlot became the Britney Spears of its day, a marketing miracle, all buffed and sexy and easy to enjoy. In many ways it is simply a red version of chardonnay: Both grapes are blessed with French pedigrees, simple to pronounce, and never saw a new oak barrel they didn't love. And oddly enough, neither has any clear and unique identity of its own.
Trying to describe the actual flavor of merlot, unblended and fermented straight up, in stainless steel, is an exercise in futility. It has no particular flavor. It is as generic as a red wine can be, which is why Miles denounced it so memorably.
There are a handful of exceptions, notably some of the greatest wines of St.-Emilion and especially Pomerol, both Right Bank wine districts of Bordeaux. Merlot-dominated wines from prestige properties such as Trotanoy, Le Pin and Pétrus are opulent, lush, massive wines infused with the terroir-driven flavors of their gravel and clay soils. They are also incredibly expensive, with Le Pin and Pétrus now more than $500 a bottle, if you can find them.
Returning to Earth, my search for good, affordable red wines that have some character regularly includes merlots from Italy, southern France, Argentina, Chile, Australia and, of course, California. California could water its golf courses with its oceans of cheap merlot (not a bad idea!). But rare indeed is the under-$10 merlot from anywhere that can begin to approach the flavors of inexpensive syrah/shiraz, zinfandel or regional wines such as Chianti, Rioja and Cotes-du-Rhone.
There is one place, one tiny place in the New World, where merlot has a track record of excellence. In fact, the grape does so well there that it frequently outshines the cabernet. Rather than blending in merlot to soften their cabs, winemakers often soften their merlot by blending in cabernet. These wines, though the best of them can cost $40 or $50 a bottle, retain their character and fullness even in the $10 bottlings. Happily for us, they are widely available here in Washington, because they are from Washington.
Whether you are looking for an everyday table wine or a showpiece bottle for a special meal, the merlot you pour should exhibit clean berry, cherry and plum flavors that are nicely integrated. If the toasty, caramel and coffee flavors of new oak are present, they should be enhancements and should not obliterate the fruit. Avoid wines that show unripe, vegetal flavors; rough, green or stemmy tannins; and any wine with a musty, dirty, garlicky, rubbery or chemical smell.
Newly released merlots have plenty of grapey fruit, zippy acids and those beguiling new oak scents. But I wondered how they taste after a few years of cellaring, so I pulled a selection of Washington merlots from back vintages and lined them up.
The oldest was a 1998 Columbia Crest reserve merlot, now rounding into maturity with soft, lush flavors of dried fruits, toast, honey, caramel and cinnamon. A 1999 Kiona merlot, from purchased fruit, was a bit weedy, but great for grilled meats. A 2000 Hogue merlot, a $10 bottle when released, had faded fruit and was clearly past its prime. There were a pair of merlots from Three Rivers, well-matched from the excellent 2001 and 2002 vintages, supple and toasty, the younger wine still juicy with black-cherry fruit and mineral highlights. A 2002 Cold Creek merlot from Chateau Ste. Michelle exhibited the excessive tannins and tar that recent releases of the winery's reds have shown, but it improved markedly with a few hours of breathing time. And the youngest in the group, a 2003 merlot from Tamarack Cellars, delivered all the sweet young fruit and mocha toast flavors that we hope for in young Washington merlot.
The takeaway lesson is that merlots should be consumed within a couple of years after bottling. Right now the 2001 and 2002 vintages are at their best. If I have a criticism to make, it is that Washington winemakers in general stomp down too hard on the new oak pedal. Lighten up, so we can all see what the fruit has to say when it's not shouting over the wood.
Paul Gregutt is the author of "Northwest Wines." His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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