WT101: Merlot - Was Miles right?

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WT101: Merlot - Was Miles right?

Postby Robin Garr » Mon Jun 05, 2006 2:18 pm

Merlot - Was Miles right?

"If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any #%*$ing Merlot!"

Perhaps the most widely quoted wine-related line from the movies since Dracula's legendary "I never drink ... wine," this laugh line by the twitchy, neurotic character Miles in Alexander Payne's 2004 comedy "<I>Sideways</I>" has been blamed for knocking sales of Merlot, well, sideways, almost as much as the wine-country road movie set the market for Pinot Noir on fire.

As I wrote in the April 18, 2005 <I>Wine Advisor</I>, Miles didn't really hate Merlot. The most mythic bottle in his collection was 1961 Cheval Blanc, a great Bordeaux that's one-third Merlot and two-thirds Cabernet Franc, another grape that Miles said he didn't like.

Indeed, Merlot is a classic French wine grape (its name is said to stem from a medieval French word for "blackbird"), and it's a major player in the Bordeaux varietal blend. But wine "geeks" like Miles and, well, like a lot of us, I guess, tend to shun Merlot because it has become one of the most popular cheap, mass-market wine varieties. And in its least-common-denominator form, there's a lot not to like. Much of it is sourced from greedily over-produced vineyards and vinified in a crowd-pleasing style, soft, sweetish and blowzy.

And even when it's made well, Merlot arguably shines best in blends - as it is most often used in Bordeaux - where its strengths and weaknesses play off against other varieties in a thoughtfully composed cuvée.

Still, it would be foolish to shun all Merlot just because of a funny line in a movie. In an effort to rehabilitate its reputation, we're taking on Merlot as the topic for June in our interactive wine-education feature, Wine Tasting 101. You're invited to taste and talk about the Merlot of your choice, starting with a California or U.S. West Coast Merlot if you can get it. Those in other parts of the world who can't easily find American Merlot are welcome to substitute any Merlot from other cool-climate regions, but we are encouraging all-varietal (or at least varietally labeled) Merlot rather than Bordeaux-style blends.
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This is the June WT101 thread

Postby Robin Garr » Mon Jun 05, 2006 2:23 pm

As we continue to tinker with the relationship between this WLDG and the Netscape Forum, we're hoping to heighten the visibility of WT101 on this forum as a way to encourage WLDGers to take part. Accordingly, this thread will be "sticky," at least for a while, and open for Merlot tasting notes and Merlot-related discussions.

If you're new to wine and new to Merlot and hoping to learn more about it, this is the place to learn. But we're hoping to have some serious, advanced conversations, too, about the market for Merlot, whether Miles's disdain was justified, and where Merlot is being done right (or badly) and by whom.
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Re: WT101: Merlot - Was Miles right?

Postby Covert » Mon Jun 05, 2006 4:03 pm

Robin, I tried with no luck to find a recent stat on how Merlot is doing compared to Cab and Zin. As of this time last year, Producers crushed 292K tons of Merlot, 360K tons of Cab and 322K of Zin.

I would assume that Merlot is still selling very well, just not as robustly as it did before the movie made it uncool. Do you know if it has enjoyed any rebound with the fading of the movie's popularity? Most non-wine geeks that I know hold smoothness to be their sole criterion of "good" red wine, and Merlot is certainly that.

And what is the consensus now - if you know - regarding why Miles chose Cheval Blank as his Holy Grail, given its half Merlot make-up? Granted Cheval Blank tastes nothing like Cal Merlot, but still!? Was it supposed to be a metaphor of his sad, self-contradictory nature? I guess, like questions such as the mystery of the contradictory Mona Lisa smile, it is a magical question that imortalizes the work of art.

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Re: This is the June WT101 thread

Postby Sue Courtney » Mon Jun 05, 2006 4:06 pm

Ravenswood Vintners Blend California Merlot 2002

I had my first West Coast Merlot the other day, as the heading says, it was the Ravenswood Vintners Blend California Merlot 2002 but whereabouts in California it came from, I'm not so sure.
The colour (color) was deep dark red with a glossy shine. The aroma was leathery but not overly fruity. The palate, however, was full-bodied and concentrated with big juicy tannins over a spicy backbone with creamy French oak, juicy currant-like fruit and a lovely infusion of spice with a touch of anise as the flavour (flavor) lingered in the mouth. I thought it succulent and powerful with some nice bottle developed characters emerging. It was drinking well.

I wouldn't have immediately picked it as Merlot, based on the Merlots I know from NZ. This was stylistically different with seemingly less acidity.

This was not a particularly food friendly wine, not with red meat dishes anyway (I tried lamb, venison and beef). It would probably be better with cheese.

The alcohol content is stated as 13.5% on the bottle and the price in New Zealand at full retail is $23. According to the Ravenswood website, the 2003 vintage sells for $10 in the USA.

By the way, down here, most people pronounce Merlot with the emphasis on the first syllable - 'Mer' as in 'her', 'lot' as in 'low' - i.e. 'mer-low', although some people say 'meer-low'.

Cheers,
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Not shunning Merlot in Washington

Postby Jenise » Mon Jun 05, 2006 5:02 pm

Robin,

In California, but for a dalliance with the former merlot-of-the-moment Matanzas Creek and some good experiences with wineries like Havens, Groth and Pride, I avoided merlot. Bottle after bottle from producer after producer were too soft and very red-fruited, or herbal and underripe from what I understand would be poor canopy mangement. Then I moved to Washington, and found to my delight that here merlot is an entirely different animal. It's not the red wine for people who don't actually like red wine, it's serious stuff: black and blue fruits, more structure, more layers. Definitely more to love.

I've bought a few to cellar, among them: Pedestal, Donadei, Andrew Will, Leonetti, Woodward Canyon, Columbia Milestone and Andrake. I've also bought a few examples from British Columbia wineries like Poplar Grove, Burrowing Owl, Grey Monk and Kettle Valley.

Why merlot? I think it fills the same niche for me that zinfandel fills for others. Neither is usually as intellectual a wine as cabernet and Bordeaux style blends, but sometimes you just want to be loved by what's in the glass and not have to think too hard about it. Merlot's usually-lower tannins and sweeter fruit make that possible, and for anyone who enjoys blackberries, huckleberries, blueberries, coffee and dark chocolate flavors, Washington state's cooler-climate merlots can be a revelation. Too, the taste quality available in the $10-$15 price range is surprisingly rich and complex and a good level or three above what the same money will buy you in California.

Haters of the California style should really give Washington's products a chance. They converted me!

But a couple of comments about the downturn in merlot: as good as the merlots in this state are, Washington's merlots were in trouble long before Miles got uppity. Where several of this state's wineries actually put themselves on the map with their excellence with this grape and made several vineyard specific versions--Andrew Will is a prime example--somewhere in the last decade two things happened. 1) Producers realized that wine critics were simply never going to take merlot as seriously as cabernet, and 2) Doug McCrea astonished the wine world with his syrahs at a time when almost nobody in California but Randall Grahm bothered with the grape. Suddenly syrah surpassed merlot as the grape that should make Washington famous.

As a result, single vineyard names like Klipsun and Pepper Bridge are disappearing, but high quality merlot is still made here. Sure, some are rather spoofy, but from what I've been told by those who have been drinking wine here longer than I have, producers are starting to choke back the oak in general and merlot will benefit along with the other grapes.
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Re: This is the June WT101 thread

Postby Robin Garr » Mon Jun 05, 2006 5:39 pm

Sue Courtney wrote:Ravenswood Vintners Blend California Merlot 2002


Thanks for the TN, Sue. It's interesting to see a note on an American wine from Down Under.

Ravenswood was once a big name in Zinfandel, but I get the impression that the property is changing fast under multinational (Japanese) ownership; I have no idea how this may play out in the 2002 Merlot, or where the grapes might be from.
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Re: This is the June WT101 thread

Postby Steve Guattery » Mon Jun 05, 2006 5:53 pm

Robin Garr wrote:Ravenswood was once a big name in Zinfandel, but I get the impression that the property is changing fast under multinational (Japanese) ownership...

Ravenswood is part of Constellation's empire. That is, unless something has changed very recently.
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Re: Not shunning Merlot in Washington

Postby Sue Courtney » Mon Jun 05, 2006 5:54 pm

Jenise wrote:In California, but for a dalliance with the former merlot-of-the-moment Matanzas Creek and some good experiences with wineries like Havens, Groth and Pride, I avoided merlot. Bottle after bottle from producer after producer were too soft and very red-fruited, or herbal and underripe from what I understand would be poor canopy mangement. Then I moved to Washington, and found to my delight that here merlot is an entirely different animal. It's not the red wine for people who don't actually like red wine, it's serious stuff: black and blue fruits, more structure, more layers. Definitely more to love.


I wonder if the Washington Merlots are more like the serious NZ Merlot wines that are brimming with structure and red and black fruits, with good acidity underpinning the wine. As I said in the posting above, I would not have picked the Californian Merlot as Merlot, if I had been tasting blind.

Cheers,
Sue
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Re: WT101: Merlot - Was Miles right?

Postby Sam Platt » Mon Jun 05, 2006 6:09 pm

From the time I became interested in wine California Merlot was always a "notta" wine from me; not a Zinfandel and not a Pinot. It never clearly filled a niche that I could identify with. Some Duckhorn from the late '90's was not bad, but that was about the most exciting CA Merlot that I ever ran into. In general, I think the grape works better as a mixer.
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Re: Not shunning Merlot in Washington

Postby Robin Garr » Mon Jun 05, 2006 6:14 pm

Jenise wrote:Why merlot? I think it fills the same niche for me that zinfandel fills for others.


Good point! Thanks for the entire essay, Jenise. An excellent contribution to the thread. On Day One, it's looking like the idea of a dedicated, sticky WT101 thread on the new WLDG might have been a good one ...
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Re: WT101: Merlot - Was Miles right?

Postby Jenise » Mon Jun 05, 2006 6:22 pm

Sam, it's easy to understand why California merlot didn't fill a niche for you; in general it's a lesser wine. That is, less acidic, less complex, less spicy, less structured--which is why in the cheap range it appealed to non-wine people. It was easy and "smooth" (the favorite compliment of non-wine geeks, in my experience.)

But that it didn't is exactly why you should give it another chance and look north, or to New Zealand or South Africa where it also enjoys a reputation as a serious wine. Go ahead, prove Miles wrong. :)


Sue--yes, definitely. It's no surprise that based on what you've tasted of merlot in NZ that the Ravenswood wouldn't ring true. The Ravenswood is just a quaffer level wine anyway, but it's the California style that typifies merlot in the minds of most people and it's exactly what prompted Miles' disdain. It deserves it, doesn't it?
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Re: WT101: Merlot - Was Miles right?

Postby Bob Parsons Alberta » Mon Jun 05, 2006 9:09 pm

Robin, there is already a good discussion going on over on the other forum. How can we post these comments here? Any chance you, or someone else, can go over the procedure one more time? Is it the cross posting method?...ie type Ctrl-C to copy etc. From past comments these past few days it does not appear too many here are going to check in over there!...and that is where WT 101 has its official bed so-to-speak. The sooner WT 101 is on this side the better.
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Re: WT101: Merlot - Was Miles right?

Postby Bob Parsons Alberta » Mon Jun 05, 2006 9:25 pm

Jenise, you bring up some excellent points in your Merlot postings here today. Any chance you could list some of the characters to look out for? Types of fruit, the spicyness etc..or lack of!! Guess Randys annual notes might give some of us some guidelines, what to expect etc.
Last year, I did the same (got the ball rolling) with Primitivo and quite a few forumites added their opinions. Believe we are all still talking to each other!!
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Re: WT101: Merlot - Was Miles right?

Postby Bob Parsons Alberta » Mon Jun 05, 2006 9:34 pm

Anyone care to give a list of the Merlots to look out for. I am looking forward to this month although am in the white wine mode!!

How about....

Clos du Bois.
Shafer.
Sterling.
Coppola.
Castle Rock.
Cuvaison.
Markham.

Stephen Brook in his Wines of California book goes into a lot of info about the better regions to grow Merlot. Do forumites have any special thoughts on this..Napa,Sonoma, Alexander Valley etc?
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Re: WT101: Merlot - Was Miles right?

Postby Paul B. » Mon Jun 05, 2006 11:34 pm

Jenise wrote:It was easy and "smooth" (the favorite compliment of non-wine geeks, in my experience.)

In mine too, Jenise! I have family members who think this very same way.

Of course, when someone praises a wine for being smooth, to me it's like they're from another planet. I equate smoothness with nothingness: a wine must be sinewy and full of scintillating structure for me to be wowed by it in the least.
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Re: WT101: Merlot - Was Miles right?

Postby Isaac » Tue Jun 06, 2006 1:33 am

I dunno, Paul. I think a wine can be both smooth and powerful. Rare, granted, but possible...
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Re: WT101: Merlot - Was Miles right?

Postby Hoke » Tue Jun 06, 2006 1:33 am

Bob Parsons Alberta. wrote:Anyone care to give a list of the Merlots to look out for. I am looking forward to this month although am in the white wine mode!!

How about....

Clos du Bois.
Shafer.
Sterling.
Coppola.
Castle Rock.
Cuvaison.
Markham.

Stephen Brook in his Wines of California book goes into a lot of info about the better regions to grow Merlot. Do forumites have any special thoughts on this..Napa,Sonoma, Alexander Valley etc?


You could add Swanson, Groth, and Newton to your list, Bob. I'd personally take Clos du Bois off the list. Shafer will be pricy. Alexander tends to make the 'smoother', more balanced style of Merlot. Rutherford makes a meatier, chunkier style in general.

Is it just CA Merlot you're looking for? If you can broaden your reach, Chile makes some pretty decent Merlots---like the Lapostolle Cuvee Alexandre Merlot (with Michel Rolland as consulting winemaker).

And any number of good producers are in the Columbia Valley in WA.
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Re: WT101: Merlot - Was Miles right?

Postby Randy Buckner » Tue Jun 06, 2006 1:57 am

Here are a few I've tried recently. B, B- wines. Life is too short for me to spend my time in B movies....

2002 Cosentino, Merlot, Reserve, Napa Valley, California, $42, 676 cases. Black fruit, dark chocolate, toasty oak and vanilla highlight the nose. Full and generous in the mouth, the tannins and oak need 3-4 years to integrate; 86/84.

2003 Dry Creek Vineyard, Merlot, Dry Creek Valley, California, $18, 3,080 cases. Black cherries, plums, American oak, and spice are apparent on the nose and expand on the palate. Firm tannins need time; 84/84.

2004 Frei Brothers, Merlot, Reserve, Dry Creek Valley, California, $20, 47,400 cases. This middleweight Merlot shows nice balance, with black cherries, cedar, and vanilla spice delineating the wine; 86/86.

2004 Hogue, Merlot, Columbia Valley, Washington, $9, 36,373 cases. Cherries and black raspberries are presented in a straightforward package with drying tannins; 81/81.

2004 Reynolds, Merlot, South Australia, $?. The wine is simple, fruity, with a streak of mint to add interest to the cherry cola and clove notes. Drink now; 81/81.

2004 Stone Cellars by Beringer, Merlot, California, $8. The wine is very soft and simple, with modest tannins. Black cherries, rhubarb, and herbs define the wine; 80/80.

2004 Washington Hills, Merlot, Columbia Valley, Washington, $9, 4,852 cases. A simple quaffer for those grilled burgers, offering straightforward black fruit flavors and soft tannins; 80/80.

2003 Windy Point, Merlot, Yakima Valley, Washington, $18, 191 cases. Cherry and berry fruit lead off on the nose of this middleweight. The wine shows nice balance, supported by rounded tannins; 84/84.
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Re: WT101: Merlot - Was Miles right?

Postby Dale Williams » Tue Jun 06, 2006 9:07 am

The best CA Merlot I've had in recent years is the Albini Family (1999). I've also liked Havens in the past, and Neyers has provided good QPR at PC blowouts, even if not at list. I've seen the attraction of Newton and Pride, but not really my style, coupled with high prices, means not on my buy list.

Smoothness equals nothingness? When I think of smooth Merlot I think of L'Evangile, Clinet, La Fleur du Bouard, Trotanoy.......surprisingly, if I think of nothingness, none of these pop into my head.
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Re: WT101: Merlot - Was Miles right?

Postby Bill Buitenhuys » Tue Jun 06, 2006 10:04 am

Smoothness equals nothingness?

Where is Sartre when you need him?
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Re: WT101: Merlot - Was Miles right?

Postby Jenise » Tue Jun 06, 2006 11:10 am

Paul--we're on the same wavelength, to me 'smooth' (when used by the non-wine drinker) means nothingness, and that's because when a non-wine geek person uses the term, they usually mean that there's low acidity or a lack of noticeable tannins. To you and I, in wine that's "nothingness".

There is, however, a kind of smoothness that I consider desirable, but it's a stylistic descriptor that I would preferentially call elegance where 'elegant' is the opposite of 'rustic', a style I also appreciate. A wine doesn't have to give up anything to be elegant, it just has to have everything in a certain unangular, harmonious balance. Like Dale's St. Emilions.

Bill--have you ever seen the send-up on Sartre making a casserole? I should dig that out and repost it on FLDG if I can find it. It's one of the single best things I've ever seen floating around the 'net.

Bob Parsons--agreed with Hoke, lose Clos du Bois. It will be a soft red-fruit oakbomb. The Castle Rock will be low end, but better than Sue's Ravenswood--the Castle Rock people are negociant producers taking advantage of surpluses, and you never know what you're going to get but I've been routinely surprised with how good those wines are for the money. Markham used to do a good merlot that was a fair representative of the rich, luxurious Napa style for a good price. Coppola--never had a good Coppola. Sterling's quality was so all over the place for so long I've stopped paying attention to them, but their Three Palms (a vineyard they share with Duckhorn) Merlot has always been a winner. If you have that one available, I'd bite. Otherwise, on that list the Cuvaison could be your best bet.
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Twelve serious Washington Merlots

Postby Randy Buckner » Tue Jun 06, 2006 11:41 am

I think even Miles would enjoy some of these. Look to WA for serious Merlot.

2002 Cougar Crest, Merlot, Hangartown Select, Walla Walla Valley, Washington, $29, 915 cases. This wine presents with a host of black fruit, chocolate, integrated oak, crisp acids and easy-going tannins. Tasty; 90/90.

2003 Stephenson, Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, Washington, $28. Lots of black fruit, cedar and dill spice radiate from this inky wine. Built on a full-bodied frame with firm but rounded tannins, black fruit predominates on the palate, finishing long and lovely; 89/89.

2003 Tamarack, Merlot, Columbia Valley, Washington, $28, 1,456 cases. Purple/red in color, this is a full-throttled Merlot with jammy overtones and firm, rounded tannins. Black cherries, berries and white pepper spice come together to make a tasty package; 90/90.

2003 Walla Walla Vintners, Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, Washington, $28. Big, full, lush and jammy, you'll find juicy black fruit with just a kiss of mint; 90/90.

2003 Isenhower, Merlot, Red Paintbrush, Columbia Valley, Washington, $26. Here's another classic example of Washington Merlot. The wine is loaded with lush fruit spanning the blue/black spectrum. The finish is long and lush, showing well-integrated oak; 90/90.

2002 Pepper Bridge, Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, Washington, $45, 1,113 cases. The nose is filled with aromas of fresh-crushed black cherries, coffee and oak nuances. The wine is full bodied, with generous but rounded tannins. Complex fruit unfolds in layers of black cherries, cassis and cocoa; 91/91.

2002 Zerba, Merlot, Columbia Valley, Washington, $24, 296 cases. Medium bodied in structure, the tannins are well rounded and also shows good oak integration. Black and red fruit defines the flavor profile, with a long, satisfying finish; 89+/89+.

2002 Fort Walla Walla Cellars, Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, Washington, $28, 455 cases. Here's a Merlot with all of the adjectives - lush blackberries, plums, herbs, jam, balance and integrated oak. The finish is endless; 91/91.

2003 Spring Valley, Merlot, Uriah, Walla Walla Valley, Washington, $40. Uriah is a Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot blend. You'll find an aromatic nose of Japanese plums, black raspberries and Baker's chocolate. Full and rich in the mouth, with cherries and berries abounding. The tannins are pretty rough at this point, but I think they'll settle down in three or four years; 89+/89+.

2002 Whitman, Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, Washington, $32. This has all of the stuffing to make a nice wine, but it is totally closed down right now, making it almost impossible to rate. They sent me a sample bottle and I left the wine in the decanter for 24 hours before it finally started opening up to show rich black fruit and Baker's chocolate; 90+/90+.

2002 Three Rivers, Merlot, Columbia Valley, Washington, $19. This is a classic example of Washington Merlot. Well structured, full and lush, the wine sports black cherries with a hint of licorice and black olives; 89/91.

2002 Woodward Canyon, Merlot, Columbia Valley, Washington, $33, 1,536 cases. Full and complex, the wine displays loads of black fruit, mocha, spice and vanilla. Firm but ripe tannins dictate three to five years of aging before serving; 89/89.
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Re: WT101: Merlot - Was Miles right?

Postby Sam Platt » Tue Jun 06, 2006 11:47 am

Jenise wrote:But that it didn't is exactly why you should give it another chance and look north, or to New Zealand or South Africa where it also enjoys a reputation as a serious wine. Go ahead, prove Miles wrong.


Jenise, I will give Merlot from NZ and SA a go. To date I've tasted nothing state-side, or even North American-side that compares on any level to the juice for St. Emilion. It seems that Merlot cries out for a shot of Cab Franc and/or Cab Sauv. Lacking that it's just a wine in search of an identity. I think that is why Miles hated it. He saw Merlot as a metaphor for his personal situation.
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Re: WT101: Merlot - Was Miles right?

Postby Bill Buitenhuys » Tue Jun 06, 2006 12:06 pm

Bill--have you ever seen the send-up on Sartre making a casserole? I should dig that out and repost it on FLDG if I can find it. It's one of the single best things I've ever seen floating around the 'net.

I'd love to see that one, Jenise!
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