“You had me at hello.” A line made famous by Dorothy Boyd, the love interest in the film “Jerry Maguire.” However, if Dorothy had been a sommelier, she may have said, “You had me at Merlot.” And, with good reason.
Merlot, French for little blackbird because of its very dark fruit, is naturally versatile, acclimating to different climate zones and soil compositions, which, over time, have made it the second most planted red grape on the planet, behind its brother from Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot can be big and rich, but also fruity and soft, without being overly high in acids or tannins. These characteristics make Merlot an elegant and easy choice to drink as well as pair with food.
If that doesn’t spark your interest in Merlot, maybe this will. You know all those famous red wines from Bordeaux? Wines that are considered some of the best in the world? Well, they’re all blended with Merlot. And, many are mostly Merlot—especially, on the right bank of the Gironde estuary in the Bordeaux appellation, where it’s the law that Merlot has to be the predominant grape. Of course, the most famous Merlot wine is undoubtedly Pétrus (100% Merlot) from the Pomerol region of Bordeaux. This highly collectable wine can fetch several thousand dollars, depending on its vintage.
You may not be as familiar with Merlot’s positive attributes, especially post “Sideways”—a 2004 film about a wine tasting road trip/bachelor party of two forty-something guys. You may remember the cheeky comment made by Miles, one of the main characters: “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking f—ing Merlot. Well, with one character line and an Academy Award nomination, the film, “Sideways” brought the grape’s reputation to its knees. The pivotal comment from the film was fueled, in part, by California’s mass production of Merlot in the 1990s. Due to the wine’s smooth nature, it hit an all time high in popularity and was immediately picked up by the mass market. With Merlot’s increased popularity, demand was high. Growers saw that they could increase yields with strong irrigation, which led to a more herbaceous wine, requiring manipulation to bring it back to the profile that had been popular. In the end, what was special about Merlot was made bland for mass consumption.
This is not the case today. In the United States, some of the best Merlot is coming out of Washington state. Although the grape can adapt well to many environments, the cool, higher elevation of the Columbia Valley with its poor soils allows this early ripening variety to thrive. And, in Northern Italy, the region of Friuli makes some of the most stunning single variety Merlot around. The Merlot is smooth with hints of its natural herbaceous character mingling with soft mocha and blueberry notes. The Washington wines are a bit leaner than those from Northeastern Italy with brighter fruit characteristics, but they still retain those wonderful peppery notes that make the wine great for all kinds of food.
Here’s the thing:
While I may know a bit more about wine today, growing up, my exposure to wine was comprised of Granddaddy Rieley’s homemade, blackberry wine—consisting of blackberries, sugar, and yeast in an enormous jug with a clean rag stuffed in the opening. When I turned 21 and was able to drink legally in the early 1990s, I was understandably no wine connoisseur. One of the reasons I ordered Merlot was because it was easier…and a lot less intimidating to pronounce than Cabernet Sauvignon! However, as I got older and more comfortable ordering wine, I continued to choose Merlot and Merlot blends. I truly enjoy its smooth, medium-bodied, medium acidity, medium tannin, medium alcohol, fruit-forward character.
So, before you choose a glass of Pinot Noir, just remember this: Merlot may not “complete” you as Jerry Maguire stated. However, whether it’s blended in a chateau in Bordeaux or taking center stage in the new world of wine, Merlot can certainly satisfy your soul. Why not give it a chance? 🙂