John JuergensDo You Know Where Your Merlot Has Been?

If Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc were the "pin-up" wines of the 1980s, Merlot is the centerfold for the 1990s. There has been such a huge increase in the popularity of Merlot in the last few years that grape growers and wineries have not been able keep up with the demand. And we all know what happens when demand exceeds supply: Big price increases. But there are a couple of other things going on with Merlot that I think you need to be aware of.

First, even though wine makers do not have enough Merlot grapes to meet demand for Merlot wine, they are not about to miss out on this seller's market. Many California wineries have been importing excess and inexpensive French Merlot wine in huge quantities and selling it under their regular label or blending it with California wine as an extender. For example, in Oxford you can by Stonestreet Merlot in standard 750ml bottles that contains California produced wine and also in 1.5L magnum bottles that contain French produced Merlot. As a side note, California law requires that for a wine to be labeled "Merlot" or "Californian" it must contain at least 75% of wine made from Merlot grapes grown in California. The other 25% can be anything produced anywhere.

What does this mean for you the consumer? Well, I did a blind taste comparison of the two Stonestreet wines and they tasted very different to me. One was not necessarily better than the other, they were just different styles, which could be important to you. The California Merlot was fruitier in smell and taste, was softer and easier to drink by itself, while the French version had typical European characteristics of being drier, less fruity with a dusty, dry finish. It definitely needs to go with food. Depending on which style you prefer, you might not like the other wine. This could be a problem if you have been drinking the California version and then decide to pick up a magnum containing the French version for a holiday party.

This is just one example and there are many others like this on the market. What you need to do is read wine labels carefully these days to see where the wine was produced. As I mentioned above, to be called a California wine the majority of the grapes or wine must have been produced there. If it is a French version it has to state that on the front and back of the label. However, as with the Stonestreet wines, the word "French" sometimes is so small you can easily miss it.

The second important thing you need to know is that because of the great popularity of Merlot a lot of low quality wine has come on to the market and most of the wines below about $10, although very drinkable, just don't taste like Merlot. This is not a problem if you have never tasted a really good Merlot, but still like whatever it is you are drinking. You should also know that there are some Merlot wines from South America that give you a much better drink for your money and actually have some of the classic Merlot tastes. Concha y Toro is one that comes to mind.

Those of us who drank Merlot long before it became popular remember the soft, silky texture and the aromas and flavors that had hints of chocolate, some leather and tobacco, maybe a little smoke, and, oddly enough, shoe polish. I know this doesn't sound like something you would want to put in your mouth, but trust me, in the bizarre world of wine descriptions this is a wonderful taste experience. With only a few exceptions, the only way you can get that true Merlot taste these days is to raise your price tolerance level to the $15-$20 range. The most notable exception is the Hacienda Merlot from Sonoma County in California. It has all the classic Merlot fruit flavors with that soft, velvety texture all for about $8. This has become one of my regular house wines.

For those of you who have the money and the interest, there are a lot of excellent wines out there in the higher price range. The following is a brief list, in no particular order, of several wines that you might want to try to get a sense of what Merlot should taste like.

  • Chateau Ste. Michelle (Washington State)
  • Whitehall Lane (California)
  • Clos du Val (California)
  • Hogue Cellars (Washington State)
  • Covey Run (Washington State)
  • Sterling Vineyards (California)
  • Farrari-Carano (California)
  • Clos du Bois (California)

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