The Boston Phoenix
March 2 - 9, 2000

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Mellow merlot

In defense of a bunny-slope wine

by David Marglin

At Stratton this past weekend, I watched a woman deciding what she would have to drink après ski. She finally hit on red wine, and she ordered,without asking what was available, a glass of merlot. And she enjoyed it enormously.

We take it for granted that people have to learn how to ski or snowboard on the bunny slopes, and that most people will get better, and that some will even learn how to challenge the black-diamond runs. Wine does not, in most instances, pose the same risk of injury as Alpine sports, but we often forget that developing a palate takes a lot of time and experience (and, for the most part, some money). Drinking wine is easy. Appreciating different varieties of wine, and determining what you like and why you like it -- well, that's not so easy.

Most people start with chardonnay and merlot. This has led to a backlash among connoisseurs, many of whom have come to disdain these varietals as bunny-slope wines. One retailer, who winced when I asked for recommendations of good merlot, explained it this way: "If I had a dollar for every time someone comes in and all they want is a good bottle of merlot for less than $15, I would own the store. Its drives me nuts, when there's so much other, better, more-interesting wine for the same price, or even less."

Is the merlot backlash fair? Hardly. I don't think connoisseurs or wine sellers have any business looking down on the tastes of wine drinkers still in the early stages of their wine affairs.

Another retailer I spoke to was more philosophical. "Look," he said, "this is America, and while Americans may say the word 'dry,' they really want fruity. They want sweet. Coca-Cola, ice cream, sugar in their coffee. Merlot is often a really easy wine, lots of fruit, easy to say, safe. Winemakers should be in the business of making the product people want to drink. People want merlot, give them great merlot."

Certainly merlot has been -- and still is -- used in some great wines. Its previous lot in life was primarily as a blending grape, mixed with cabernet sauvignon in many of the great reds of Bordeaux; it's also sometimes used to soften up cabernet in California. In the early '70s, the pioneering winemaker Ric Forman, working at Sterling Vineyards, became the first Californian to produce a merlot-based wine. But, much like zinfandel, the grape languished as a soloist until it was rediscovered in the late '80s. The merlot boom was led by evangelists such as Dan Duckhorn, who founded Duckhorn Vineyards in 1976, and the Newtons, the family that owned Sterling in the '70s. (Their Newton merlots, and Ric Forman's own Forman merlots, are still among the best in the country.)

At the highest end, the most expensive red wines in the world, Château Pétrus and Château Le Pin, are both merlots from Bordeaux (Pomerol, to be exact), and both are priced, upon release, somewhere in the neighborhood of $1000 per bottle! So when you hear wine people giving merlot a bad rap, it is not because of merlot per se, but because of the way merlot is presented in the US: fruity, not a ton of tannins, but lots of oak on the finish.

I, for one, love merlot when it is well made, and I think it makes a lovely match for meatier, gamier foods. I also think we should support wines that get people comfortable drinking wine, and in my opinion it's only a matter of time and experience before the best merlots outside of Pomerol start to challenge Pétrus and Le Pin in terms of depth and complexity. Washington state makes some of the most amazing merlots in the world, and New Zealand is turning out some fine examples, as are Chile, South Africa, and Italy.

Merlot at its best and even near-best deserves to be taken seriously. Most merlots are straightforward, fruit-forward, approachable wines. Some are smart buys for the money. And except among wine snobs, who judge wine by its rarity, complexity, and price, merlot tends to be a safe bet for company.

Sure, lots of winemakers make slapdash merlots, designed for you to pull off the shelf at the market and consume later that night. But, like the young lady at Stratton, at least you're drinking wine. And enjoying it.

The following wines are all good values and, for the most part, relatively interesting.

1998 Tortoise Creek Les Amoureaux Merlot-Cab Vin de Pays d'Oc ($7.99). Seventy percent merlot and 30 percent cab. Way fruit-forward, verging on a fruit bomb. Not deep, but smooth and round, with clean, ripe flavors. Works well with meats and red sauces.

1998 Swartland Merlot South Africa ($11.95). For more than 50 years, these crafty South Africans have been making outstanding wines, but only in the last decade have we been getting them here. This bad boy has blueberry and boysenberry and some vanilla up front, and a shot of whipped cream on the finish.

1996 Château D'Aiguilhe Comtes de Neipperg Côtes de Castillon ($15.99). This is a high-class merlot with tons of tannins and lots of wood. A bit preening, though, like a 16-year-old with a tad too much makeup on. It will balance out someday.

1997 Michael Pozzan Sonoma ($17.95). The family has been in the wine business for generations in Italy. This will hit you with its big oak, big blackberry notes, and tartness. Lots of heart, with an Italian feel to it. Great with red meats, pastas with red sauces, and stuffed mushrooms.

1998 Te Awa Farm Longlands Hawkes Bay New Zealand ($19.95). "Te Awa" translates as "river of God," and this is definitely divine merlot. Smooth and velvety; eminently approachable. The flavors will enhance food without overwhelming it.

1997 Rocca di Bancciara Tenuta Bonzara Italy ($29.99). You didn't know there was such great Italian merlot? This is way earthy, with chocolate, cherry, cedar, and a good long finish. Serve with steak, nothing too spicy. A win, even at this price.

1997 Château des Laudes St. Émilion ($34.99). A merlot blend from the old country (Bordeaux). Plenty of cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon in here too, but merlot was born to blend. Lush, elegant, suave.

David Marglin can be reached at wine@phx.com.


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