Move Over, Merlot!
© by John Juergens
I'm not really sure what or who brought Merlot wine into the public consciousness, but I do know what propelled it to the most popular red wine in the industry. Merlot (pronounced Mer-low, emphasis on the second syllable) grapes tend to make a very soft and mellow wine, which makes it very easy to drink. And all the news about the health benefits associated with red wine in general made Merlot the ideal wine for people to drink who don't care for the big, robust nature of most other types of red wines.
Merlot traditionally has been used just as a blending grape to soften the hard edges that frequently be found in Cabernet Sauvignon. So when the boom hit for Merlot, there was a shortage of domestic grapes. Producers looked abroad to Europe and South America, which had an excess of fruit and wine; however, the quality frequently was suspect. Although the term "excess" does not necessarily mean lower quality, which grapes do you think wine makers in those other countries are going to use for their wines?
So what's waiting in the wings? Answer: Syrah, Shiraz, and, to a lesser extent, Petite Sirah varieties transplanted from the Rhone Valley in France, and Sangiovese from Italy. There are several characteristics that make these emerging grape types very attractive alternatives to Merlot.
First, although the Rhone varieties actually grown in France have a distinctive intensity about them, when they are grown in California and Australia where there is an abundance of sunshine, the fruit flavors become absolutely huge. Of course, those who prefer the leaner, more elusive European style probably will find these wine a bit overpowering. On the other hand, for those of you who have become accustomed to that big, bold, in-your-face American style, these are wines that definitely will pop your cork.
The other unpronounceable grape I mentioned above, Sangiovese (pronounced San-gee-oh-vay-zee, accent on the "vay") is the primary grape that goes into Chianti wines and some other legendary wines-- meaning very expensive.
While you can find nice fruity Sangiovese based wines from Italy, the grape can vary considerably in the type of wine it produces. It is extremely sensitive to its immediate environment and can produce wines with dramatically different characteristics depending on local soil and climate conditions. Lucky for us, when the Sangiovese grape is planted in certain areas of California, it, as the Rhone varieties, pumps up like the boys down at Venice Beach.
The really nice thing about these European transplants is that they pack a lot of flavor and nice smooth texture at a moderate price, neither of which Merlot does consistently. What do they taste like? The Syrah and Shiraz, which, by the way, are the same grape, tend to have complex layers of aromas and flavors of raspberries, black cherries, maybe a slight touch of smoke, a little vanilla, wood, cedar, coffee, and/or chocolate. They also tend to have a certain spiciness reminiscent of black pepper. Each wine will vary a bit on which of these characteristics are dominate.
The Petite Sirah is similar to the Syrah in flavors, but, contrary to its name, it usually produces a huge blocky wine that is "one-dimensional." By that I mean it just up and slaps you in the palate and then paves your tongue with an intense coating of the flavors I mentioned above. It's a no-nonsense wine that is all business, and it has the potential to overwhelm your Brunswick Stew or smoked wild boar ribs. Try the Markam Petite Sirah, it's that big.
The Sangiovese can be similar to the Syrah and Shiraz with layers of the same flavors, but with a little something extra to remind you that it's not from around here. Some of its Tuscan heritage still comes through, which is difficult to describe.
The only way to really appreciate these wines is to try them. I just had the 1998 Rosemount Australian Shiraz and it was one of the best wines I have ever tasted. And it still only cost right around $10. I am at a lost for how they do this year after year. Other Australian producers to look for include Lindemann's and Penfold's, and be sure to try the Peter Lehmann Shiraz. Although it has one of the ugliest bottles and label designs I have ever seen, the wine could be served with a fork.
A good American version of Shiraz is made by Forest Glen, and there are a lot of other producers depending on where you shop. Forest Glen also makes a very nice and inexpensive Sangiovese. Another Sangiovese that is super is made by Robert Pepi, but it is kind of pricey.
If that isn't enough good news, wait until you read this. I recently attended the American Vintners Association meeting in Austin, Texas, where I learned that the price for Shiraz and some other mainstream grapes in Australia has dropped dramatically, in some cases to one-fourth their previous cost. Some grapes are selling for as little and $350 - $400 a ton over there while things like Merlot and Carbernet Sauvignon are selling for as much as $1800 to $2000 a ton in California. And you know what that means: The U.S. is going to be flooded with high quality Australian wine for lower prices. Man, I really hate when that happens! American producers understandably are finding deep doo-doo in their pants right now.
The point is, you don't have to spend a lot of money to get a really good bottle of red wine, and the selection is about to get even better. So keep an eye on the Australian wines if you like the big bold fruity style of wine.
Although producers have already begun shifting to these other grape varieties, don't worry if you are stuck on Merlot, there will always be a certain amount of it available. After all, hundreds of acres of Merlot grapes were planted over the last several years to meet demand and those grapes have to go somewhere. Although there might be fewer brands available, the abundance of grapes should drive the price of a decent Merlot down a bit. G'day, mate.