Everything You Need to Know about Merlot
"If anybody orders merlot, I'm leaving."
That is the beginning of the now-famous rant in the 2004 film Sideways. It is delivered by a snobbish oenophile, Miles (Paul Giamatti), after a friend drags him along on a double dinner date. After a lot of foot-stamping, Miles finally agrees to enter the restaurant but only after sputtering, again, that he's "not drinking any [insert colorful adjective] merlot."
Miles never explains what is so distasteful about it, though. Regardless, his words left an impression on audiences. Just as Sideways piqued the public's curiosity in Miles's grape of choice (pinot noir), it made merlot mockery trendy. In fact, sales for pinot rose as high as 16% in the months following the film's release, while sales for merlot actually dropped in what became known as the "Sideways effect."
But it would take more than a movie to dethrone a varietal with a long history of being accessible and easy to drink. Despite its mainstream reputation, merlot has many merits that the movie glossed over.
Here are a few good reasons to pour yourself a glass of the red wine that went from king to punching bag.
Merlot wine is most famously associated with the Bordeaux region in southwestern France, where it is the leading grape in terms of acreage and overall production. The varietal is more prominently used by estates and chateaus on the Right Bank of Bordeaux's Gironde estuary, though it grows throughout the region.
A Smooth, Mild Grape
When compared to the perennially popular cabernet sauvignon, merlot grapes have thinner skins, which is one factor that contributes to their comparatively middling levels of tannin. They also have a tendency to ripen about a week earlier than cab grapes and possess slightly less natural acidity.
Taken together, these factors help explain why, as a wine, merlot tends to have fleshier, rounder fruit flavors and fewer harsh, astringent notes. Bordeaux winemakers have historically taken advantage of this by blending merlot with some combination of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot, and/or malbec to help smooth out some of their blended wines' rougher edges.
Is merlot sweet? The short answer is no, but it can range from soft and fruity to bold and brawny depending on the maker.
From Casual Sips to $2,000 Bottles
Since merlot tends to fall near the middle of the spectrum of medium- to full-bodied wines, it makes sense that it would catch on as an accessible wine that casual drinkers could enjoy. It tends not to have the same muscular force of cabernet, the intensely earthy aromas of syrah, or the elusively subtle flavors of pinot noir. Instead, merlot has an appealingly soft and fruit-forward approach that can be even more pronounced when it is grown in warmer climates, such as California and Australia.
As with all wines, though, it would be a mistake to assume that merlot is an uncomplicated varietal that is best suited for making inexpensive wines. Small differences in soil composition, climate, and winemaking techniques can help elevate it to spectacular heights.
Pétrus is an estate in the Pomerol appellation of Bordeaux's Right Bank that makes red wines consisting of as much as 99% merlot, and its new releases regularly command prices approaching $2,000 for one 750-milliliter bottle. Naturally, the passage of time only causes these prices to skyrocket—especially in the case of a particularly esteemed vintage.
So Should You Be Drinking Merlot?
That depends on whether you like it. Try a bottle within your standard price range and see what you think. Do you like the supple fruit flavors and relatively straightforward approach? Do you find it to be too simple?
Whatever you decide, make sure to try at least a few more bottles. Ideally, you should choose representatives from winemaking regions throughout the world. If lush Australian merlot isn't your thing, maybe relatively austere northern Italian merlot will be. The important thing is to avoid writing off an entire varietal, even if you're initially unimpressed. Instead of saying that you don't like merlot, just say that you haven't had the opportunity to taste a merlot that really piqued your interest.
When it comes to wine, always keep your options open, and trust your own palate before you trust a joke from a movie.