By Bill St. John, Special to Tribune Newspapers
March 2, 2013
One of the great guffaws in the 2004 movie "Sideways" comes when Miles drops the F-bomb, shouting "No more … merlot!" If you're in the know about wine, though, an even better laugh comes toward the end of the film, when Miles is at the hamburger joint and slugs down a paper cup full of his beloved 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc — a blended red Bordeaux that's nearly half merlot.
Miles didn't know. Like most Americans, he buys Bordeaux because it is at once delicious and prestigious, not because it contains certain grapes.
But no two ways about it, "Sideways" helped hammer coffin nails into merlot sales, in favor of the rhapsody the market began to sing over pinot noir. If the 1990s saw the ascendancy of merlot, the 2000s certainly witnessed both its demise and a newfound popularity for pinot noir.
Merlot did itself in, though, as hopped-up grape varieties oft do. Long before either Miles or the movie, it had replaced cabernet sauvignon as the go-to red for millions because it was easier to pronounce and to stomach. Winemakers planted more and more of it to slake what they assured themselves would be insatiable demand.
They planted merlot inappropriately, however. Too much of it was overcropped, and some of it in places where it didn't ripen well. It was this tsunami of thin and "green" merlot that, in truth, gave "Sideways" its teeth. (Prediction: Soon a new movie will slam pinot noir, for the same reason.)
Even so, as Miles inadvertently illustrated at the hamburger stand, many places grew good merlot and made outstanding wine of it. They just fell off the map when the "No more merlot" mantra took hold.
Good merlot has always been around; it just needs to be rediscovered. Find it and do both your palate and table a favor. Merlot is so appealing — plush, round, low in tannin, loaded with juicy tastes of black cherry, chocolate and ripe plums or, if from Bordeaux, even an acceptable turn on the flavors of fruitcake.
One region where merlot is way underpriced because it still suffers "Sideways" is Napa Valley. True, some well-made Napa merlot tops $50 a bottle, but that's still much, much less than its sibling Napa cabernet sauvignons from the same wineries (Shafer's is the best example).
Here are several recommended Napa merlots, in ascending price, as well as a coda of merlot from other regions well worth the money.
Don't miss the two at the end — they're Deal City.
Napa merlots to try
2010 Freemark Abbey Napa Valley: A big, fleshy and flashy merlot, with mouth-puckering tannins on the attack for fat; better at table than alone in the glass, but here's to that. $34
2009 Trefethen Oak Knoll Napa Valley: This sculpts merlot's pillowy texture into a more linear delivery but sacrifices none of the grape's canyon-deep flavor; tannins that caress, discreetly dusting away eats. $38
2008 Hestan "Stephanie" Napa Valley: From Napa's south, so healthy in the acidity department, not where merlot always shines; brightness of fruit too, a nice fillip. $40
2008 Grgich Hills Estate Napa Valley: Of the less forward style, demure but very pretty for its modesty, supple tannin and lengthy aftertaste. $42
2008 Twomey "Single Vineyard" Napa Valley: Reminds of those chocolate-covered cherries, without the sugar of course, plus many notes of wood and spice; round and plump, but substantial. $50
2009 Shafer Napa Valley: Packed and powerful, but the difficult vintage also shaped it, carved it edges in acidity and "lift" of fruit so it's big but exuberant too. $50-$55
Others worth discovering
2010 Three Rivers Columbia Valley Washington: Perfect merlot, soft-sided, gently tannic, with the brooding fruit vibrant in an intriguing way. $23
2008 Northstar Walla Walla Washington: Opaque, impenetrable color, welcome presage to red-black flavors flecked with dark chocolate and shalelike mineral aromas; luxurious, a fine example of the state's prowess with merlot. $50
2009 Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve Sonoma County: Wilford Brimley as red wine: round, straightforward, the fruit and texture unadorned with neither wood nor winemaking gewgaw; its jovial plainness is heartwarming; fine price. $23
2010 Pedroncelli "Bench Vineyards" Dry Creek Sonoma County: Aged, low-yield vines make for delicious concentration; terrific earthy base note; much opulent, sexy texture for very little money. $14
2001 Les Tannes en Occitane Vin Pays' d'Oc France: Underlying notes of spice and mineral are the kind you find in more expensive renditions from the same region; the super price makes the dark red fruit flavors even more fresh and lively. $12
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
Bill St. John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.
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