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There was a trite little line in a recently over-exposed and ghastly movie that disparaged the noble grape merlot.* Apparently because of this one throw-away line the sales of merlot took a dive. I regularly conduct wine tastings at a store in Washington, for months after this movie was released I had to hear people suddenly sing the praises of Pinot Noir (a grape I have always loved), and disparage Merlot. One day a person said to me “why do they even bother to make merlot anymore.” At the time I was standing in front of a Magnum of 1989 Petrus. I couldn’t help but laugh. I asked the customer about their experience with merlot. It had not been a positive one. With some probing I found out that they had only been exposed to cheap California merlot. And I believe that is where the problem lies. These aren’t inexpensive wines, no they are simply cheap.

So can merlot be made into a drinkable wine? Absolutely!

The grape shines the brightest in France, it is the primary grape used in Petrus (usually around 90%), plus it is the primary grape used in making Cheval Blanc, the wine that was so coveted by that ignorant bastard who disparaged merlot. But it is possible to find great examples of this wine without having to spend a fortune, even from Bordeaux. Expensive is always such a relative term. But if you do not cough at spending $50 to $80 a bottle, Gomerie and La Fleur de Gay make fabulous merlots. There are also French merlots for less than $50, just look to Languedoc Roussillon, or Southwestern France. Two of the wines that standout to me are Domaine la Soumade and Guilhem Durand. If you can find them they can be had for less than $20.

American merlots are a mine field, and I think that this is what causes such ill feeling towards this fantastic grape. You can find the aforementioned cheap merlot dotting the aisles of your local Safeway, however these are wines that are barely useful for cooking let alone drinking. But not all American merlots should be judged based on an impression that a bottle of Sutter Home Merlot has left with the drinker. While I have yet to have one that achieves the level of a Petrus, they can rival some of the other French merlots. One of my favorites is the Behrens and Hitchcock Oakville, it is a wonderful spice filled bottle of wine. Even some familiar names like Beringer produce wonderful merlots. It has been my experience that when it comes to California merlots, price does matter. I would be happy to find a good or even drinkable American merlot for less than $20, I just have not found one, and have given up the quest.

Italy is where inexpensive merlots shine the brightest. Falesco makes a stunning merlot for around $20 a bottle. I have had countless others for less than this. Stella and Marina Danieli come to mind as an example of a great inexpensive merlot. Italy can produce wonderful expensive merlots as well, some can even rival the best that Pomerol has to offer.

Other parts of the world are producing tasty merlots as well. I recently had a Richard Hamilton merlot from Australia that was sublime. Chile is also starting to produce some respectable merlots for a reasonable cost.

So any thoughts on merlot based wines? Some of the Zin fans might have difficulty with the elegance of a fine merlot, but these days there are plenty of syrupy merlots to be had for those who like that style of wine.

* Yes I know the story behind this line, that is what makes it even more juvenile.

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I'm a little scared to join in with the advanced wine drinkers, but here goes . . .

When the wife and I last went tasting in Napa, the woman pouring at Duckhorn echoed your thoughts about Merlot almost exactly. That is that there are simply no good inexpensive american Merlots. As this is primarily, if not exclusively, what the casual wine drinker in our country will taste, they form the opinion that the grape is not worthwhile.

Incidentally, it was her opinion that Sideways had little effect upon the purchasing habits of americans and that merlot had been on a downward popularity trend even before the film became popular.

In any case, we did get a bottle of their 2003 Merlot which was delicious to my and my wife's untrained palates and was later named by the SF Chronicle as their California wine of the year.

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plus it is the primary grape used in making Cheval Blanc, the wine that was so coveted by that ignorant bastard who disparaged merlot.

Not quite. The vineyards of Cheval Blanc are planted thusly:

Merlot 39%, Cabernet Franc 57%, Malbec 3%, Cabernet Sauvignon 1%

And the character of Miles in "Sideways" didn't shoot himself in the foot with that line, the only real contradiction is when he and his friend are at the winery with the character played by Sandra Oh pouring Cabernet Franc for them. He disparages Cabernet Franc in that scene, which is ironic given his love of Cheval Blanc and the prized bottle of the '61 in his collection.

(since this isn't a film board, I won't take issue with your assessment of "Sideways" as a "over-exposed and ghastly movie" here, except to say that I thought that it was so originally-written and well-made that I was surprised that it got noticed at all, it was such a small film that grew legs. Great performances by all and superb writing. But that's just my $0.02)

In Mile's defense though, there are oceans of mediocre, confectionary, over-cropped Merlot on the market, and I think that this was his primary objection in the film, he simply didn't want to be subjected to that.

That seemingly throw-away line did indeed have an impact on Merlot sales for a time afterward, but I think that it will be forgotten after a while, a passing fad. I no longer seem to encounter customers who are embarassed to ask for it. I applaud that it took something like a Hollywood film to expose Pinot Noir for the lovely wine that it can be, though it has resulted in some embarassing shortages.

Sure, there is great Merlot to be found from a variety of places. Italy, the south of France as you mentioned, even New Zealand. I've had good ones from South Africa and Argentina. There are some good California and Washington State Merlots also.

No, it's neigh well impossible to find a substitute for Petrus, but delicious examples exist nonetheless. Too many good ones to list here.

I remember several years ago speaking with Paul Forrester, the General manager of Bonny Doon Vineyards. He was decrying the fact that they's lost their source for Grenache fruit for their Clos de Gilroy bottling. The vineyard owner, in Hecker Pass, had replanted the vineyard to Merlot, a phenomenon that Paul referred to as "merlonoma" :lol: .

I think the Merlot problem in the U.S. will take a few more years to resolve itself, for vines to reach a certain age and for some producers to focus more on quality than quantity.

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No substitute for Petrus, but one of the great bottles I ever had in my life was '76(?) Trotanoy, back in the day.

And back then, there were a lot of pretty decent Merlot's arounf for $15 or so. St. Francis was a favority, and I seem to recall Clos du Bois being pretty good, as well. And you could get Duckhorn for maybe $25/bottle on sale.

Alas, as many have pointed out on this thread, the bargain wines are not bargain wines any more and the inexpensive wines now available can never be a bargain as long as they taste that bad. Yeck.

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I stand by my contention that the majority of Cheval Blanc is Merlot. Granted they plant more Cab Franc, but the blends have tended to be weighted towards merlot. For an example:

2001 - 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc

2000 - 53% Merlot and 47% Cabernet Franc

1999 - 59% Merlot and 41% Cabernet Franc

1995 - 50% Merlot and 50% Cabernet Franc

In 1998 and 2004 the blend tilted to Cab Franc.

I am not sure what the blend was in 1961, however, I am sure that the right bank merlot played a great role in the flavor and character of the wine (the character also disparaged Cab Franc in the movie).

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I stand by my contention that the majority of Cheval Blanc is Merlot. Granted they plant more Cab Franc, but the blends have tended to be weighted towards merlot. For an example:

2001 - 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc

2000 - 53% Merlot and 47% Cabernet Franc

1999 - 59% Merlot and 41% Cabernet Franc

1995 - 50% Merlot and 50% Cabernet Franc

In 1998 and 2004 the blend tilted to Cab Franc.

I am not sure what the blend was in 1961, however, I am sure that the right bank merlot played a great role in the flavor and character of the wine (the character also disparaged Cab Franc in the movie).

Kudos for doing some research. You're correct, there can be a disparity between what they have planted and what is actually used in any given year's blend. It mostly depends upon which ripens best, and when, and if excess rain played any part that year.

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A large part of the problem is that when Merlot got popular a while back, there were acres and acres of the stuff planted and no thinning of yields. This led to a lot of insipid Merlot being produced.

One only has to look at the wonderful Merlot from Paloma, Pride, Spring Valley, Pahlmeyer, or Behrens & Hitchcock to see that Merlot can be sublime. I recently opened a bottle of the Owen Sullivan R3 Columbia Valley 2001 that I bought when I visited the winery and it was wonderful, so much so that I'm not sure when I will open my last bottle.

Edited by dinwiddie
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A large part of the problem is that when Merlot got popular a while back, there were acres and acres of the stuff planted and no thinning of yields.  This led to a lot of insipid Merlot being produced.

One only has to look at the wonderful Merlot from Paloma, Pride, Spring Valley, Pahlmeyer,  or Behrens & Hitchcock to see that Merlot can be sublime.  I recently opened a bottle of the Owen Sullivan R3 Columbia Valley 2001 that I bought when I visited the winery and it was wonderful, so much so that I'm not sure when I will open my last bottle.

2 more to look for: Lewis Cellars (Schneider's has it) and Darioush.

Sleeper Pomerol of the year for me: Chateau Beuaregard 2002, about $45 retail.

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There are some good California and Washington State Merlots also.

Back in the late 70's, much of the available, affordable California (non-jug) varietal red wine that wasn't zinfandel was cabernet, much of it tannic 100% cab with an unfortunate tendency to vegetal bell pepper and green bean notes; merlot was a softer, tastier alternative, with berry-fruit flavors. Clos du Bois was one I remember liking a lot, back in the early '80's. As the quality of winemaking and blending improved in California, and the spectrum of varietals increased, merlot simultaneously became the mass market go-to red wine and of much less interest to California wine geeks.

I have had a couple of opportunities to drink Leonetti Cellars Merlot from Columbia Valley, Washington, thanks to Joe Heflin, who is on the Leonetti mailing list. It is excellent wine--certainly nothing to sneer at.

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I ran across this item from the San Francisco Chronicle that gave me pause:

sfc022307uz0.th.jpg

Discuss amongst yourselves. :o

It has gotten a bad rap, but in truth there is a lot of boring, boring merlot out there. It's easily overcropped and is easily screwed-up, too. It can be very soft and inoffensive, so there are many consumers who are willing to accept it, even if what they are drinking is often boring.

I'm proud of the examples that we carry.

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if you're drinking based on what some movie tells you to drink then you might also be smelling a hint of asparagus in your wine.

I've drank a lot of wine in my life, and I'm no expert, but I've never EVER tasted asparagus in any wine, bad or good.

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Properly grown, merlot is one of the world's great wines. But it lends itself all too well to the excesses of modern winemaking. Those who make black wines, not red, who lust after syrupy texture and high alcohol can coax this style of wine at the rate of 6 tons to the acre from merlot. Of course it will ahve no terroir, no discernable varietal character, just an ameanable weediness and loads of glycerin. If thats your cup of tea, so be it. I was at Winebow's trade tasting and I tasted many a merlot. There was not one that really wowed me. While there were some nice enough wines in the merlot selections, there was always something else for the same or less money that was better in my mind.

And I am not just reacting to the fruitbomb issue... Viader makes a second wine from Cabernet Franc called Dare.... a hedonistic fruit bomb if ever I tasted on. But it was also balanced in terms of acidity, it had sufficient structure to balance the abundant fruit which actually tasted like cab franc. When I next look to add some cab related wines to the list, there might be room for it, even though I would not particularly drink it myself. But I will put htis up against the other merlots at its price range and higher that I tried and it was hands down a better wine, IMO, than eny of the merlots.

There is a winery called Tenuta di Trinorio. They are in a very southern exposure in Toscana. They make two wines: Le Cupole which is a blend of many grapes with a 57% merlot base and their top of the line red, Castello di Trinorio I believe) wholesaling for ove 100 a bottle, which is almost pure merlot (or may be 100%). The Cupole, which retails for about $40 a bottle, is spicy, tasty, balanced, with earthy and mineral overtones that make it quite lovely. The Trinorio top wine is a big clumsy Merlot. But, in the world of scores and love of falbby huge reds, it has no trouble selling out.

For some wonderful merlots, try wines from the Friuli region where merlot is often bottled with cabernet franc. Ronco del Gnemiz' Rosso del Gnemiz is amazing if hard to find, Zamo makes a nice one as well. In Toscana, I prefer my merlot with sangiovese and like the rosso from Rendola or Do et Des which is 1/3 each merlot, cab and sangiovese. Petrolio makes an amazing Merlot although I prefer (and carry) their 100% sangiovese.

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I think what has been lost in the 1980s push for merlot-as-cash-crop is a close examination of the sites/soils/exposures/climates where merlot can be expressive, as, like sauvignon blanc, it often struggles to express site (particularly when made very reductively). In addition, said 1980s push means that many modern merlot clones (darlings of dashing viticultural consultants) have been synthesized to give fruitier aromas at bigger yields--a sort of merlot-as-grenache scenario, while at the same time, the climates of many classical merlot sites have started to drift toward grenache-like temperature norms.

Sadly, the longer-term implication for tip-top, expressive merlot likely means planting it in more unfashionable places, such as the Burgenland, Slovenia, and perhaps even the more gravelly parts of Elgin. Which, of course, will diminish it's marketability.

That said, the chocolate-covered cherry crowd won't miss a beat with their overcropped, wood-chipped, reverse-osmosized, blended-and-branded bottlings.

ETA: Dean is spot on about Friuli.

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if you're drinking based on what some movie tells you to drink then you might also be smelling a hint of asparagus in your wine.

I've drank a lot of wine in my life, and I'm no expert, but I've never EVER tasted asparagus in any wine, bad or good.

I've noticed asparagus flavors before, but only because it is such a recognizable scent, and I don't normally "get along" with tasting notes. But granite? Slate? Nuh uh. Maybe I didn't spend enough time licking rocks as a kid to have the necessary olfactory benchmarks :o . (BTW, the ability to detect the mercaptan by-products of asparagus that give it it's, um, unique odor on the way out of your system is genetic; so is the enzyme that breaks down said compounds to produce the smell. So some people may be able to produce it but not smell it, which may also prevent them from detecting the hints in a wine's flavor profile).

Back to the blurb. There's a lot of really boring chardonnay out there (like really, really boring stuff). And there is a lot of boring cabs out there as well.

Joe - what makes merlots the king of the cheap, boring wines aside from their tendency to be unoffensive to the novice wine drinker? Is merlot an easy grape to grow cheaply, or are there just tons of merlot vineyards out there?

ETA: nevermind, I think you answered these questions above

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I've noticed asparagus flavors before, but only because it is such a recognizable scent, and I don't normally "get along" with tasting notes. But granite? Slate? Nuh uh. Maybe I didn't spend enough time licking rocks as a kid to have the necessary olfactory benchmarks :o .

You don't need to lick anything as your taste buds can only detect 4 (or 5) things and it your nose that detects flavors. Have you ever hiked near a small river with water rushing over some rocks? Or smelled limestone after a rainstorm? It is is plenty of wines out there, just ask Wabeck.

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You don't need to lick anything as your taste buds can only detect 4 (or 5) things and it your nose that detects flavors. Have you ever hiked near a small river with water rushing over some rocks? Or smelled limestone after a rainstorm? It is is plenty of wines out there, just ask Wabeck.

I was being more than slightly facetious. I get the mineral elements in many wines, just not the differentiation. Granite vs. limestone vs. slate? It's all rocks to me.

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Granite vs. limestone vs. slate?
Yeah, it's not cut and dried. Usually, denoting a particular rock in a tasting note represents an amalgamation of elements that the taster normally associates with wines from monolithic or near-monolithic soils of the particular type.

Guy Bossard in Muscadet bottles monolithic-site wines that are excellent for study. There are gneiss, orthogneiss, schist, and granite bottlings, some of which are available in this area and more of which are available in New York.

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Yeah, it's not cut and dried. Usually, denoting a particular rock in a tasting note represents an amalgamation of elements that the taster normally associates with wines from monolithic or near-monolithic soils of the particular type.

Guy Bossard in Muscadet bottles monolithic-site wines that are excellent for study. There are gneiss, orthogneiss, schist, and granite bottlings, some of which are available in this area and more of which are available in New York.

But aren't the real "flavors" that are being detected the mineral oxides that are more abundant in stone X vs. stone Y? Wouldn't it be more correct to refer to those? I get the difference between metals (copper vs. iron vs. lead are all fairly distinct "tastes"). Or is it just that much more badass oeno-Rambo to say you detect "a slight undercurrent of orthogneiss". The geek in me wants to be able to pull that sh*t out one day and mean it!

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if you're drinking based on what some movie tells you to drink then you might also be smelling a hint of asparagus in your wine.

I've drank a lot of wine in my life, and I'm no expert, but I've never EVER tasted asparagus in any wine, bad or good.

Try an aged New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. No need for any genetic ability to recognize digestive mercaptans there. :o

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There are gneiss, orthogneiss, schist, and granite bottlings, some of which are available in this area and more of which are available in New York.
I'm reasonably sure I've drunk a lot of schist-y wine in my life, although some of it was gneiss enough.

(My God people, geology humor. Is this what we've sunk to?)

We're talking about the ocean of merlot from CA, right? I can't remember ever having one that impressed me. But, I never tried to find one either.

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California is certainly capable of producing balanced, elegant Merlots, though they're few and far between.

The right-bank inspired stuff from Havens can be quite good, though sometimes oakier than it needs to be. I've always been impressed by Mike Haven's Merlot made from Carneros fruit.

The variety's future is in Washington State though, I believe. The good Merlots are full-bodied but fresh and elegant, with a wonderfully plush texture you only get from Merlot and pure fruit flavors.

If you haven't tasted what Andrew Will Winery has been doing, get thee to the nearest shop carrying their wines. He has a vineyard blend philosophy; the Klipsun Vineyard is mostly Merlot. If you can find the Cuvee Lucia, still labeled as a Merlot, it's a very good buy.

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Considering that I am very much a fan of the Bordeaux from St. Emilion (and who in his, or her, right mind would turn down a Cheval Blanc if offered), I can say nothing bad about Merlot when it is done right. I still have fond memories of a '99 Chateau Souvrain Merlot that was as good example of a properly done American Merlot as I can remember in ages. (I think I still have a couple left in the cellar somewhere, I better drink them)

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My Merlot by the Glass is Jeckel, from Monterey. it is very decent. Almost good. It should retail for about $15/bottle. Other "value" Cali Merlots, not so much. :lol: (wine snob alert) :o Look for cooler AVA's. And lets not forget Columbia Valley merlots, yummy!

Dave Batista

"People's Republic of San Francisco"

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