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Poor, maligned merlot received an unfair bashing in the Oscar-winning movie Sideways (2004) when Miles, the principal character, delivers an emotional tirade against the grape. The movie led to a decline in the consumption of merlot in the US, as consumers moved towards Miles' preferred grape variety, pinot noir.
But that did not spell the end of merlot. In France, it still accounts for two-thirds of the vines planted, and the iconic Chateau Petrus, which is predominantly made from merlot, has seen no decline in price.
Merlot originated in France. In Bordeaux, it is found on the right bank in regions such as St-Emilion and Pomerol that have cooler, heavy clay soil where it reaches optimum ripening. By contrast, cabernet sauvignon reaches its apex in the gravelly, warmer soils of the left bank. In southern France, Languedoc-Roussillon is increasing its cultivation of merlot, which is only one sign of its increasing popularity. Planting has spread around the world, from Chile, Australia, and California to Italy. In Tuscany, wine producers reacted to the explosion in demand for Bordeaux blends by planting cabernet sauvignon and merlot. These Bordeaux blends, known as Super Tuscans, have fetched stratospheric prices. One of the best known is Masseto, a wine made 100 per cent from merlot. In New Zealand, where merlot may struggle to ripen, it has found a niche in the Gimblett Gravels in the North Island.
Merlot has a nebulous personality, and at times it may be hard to pinpoint its one defining varietal character. Flavours can vary from blackcurrant, cherry, fruit compote-like flavours to plums and chocolate in warmer regions. As merlot ages, it will acquire savoury, leather, truffle-like aromatics. Merlot is a high-yielding variety, but where yields are high and grapes are not sufficiently ripe, the wine may be prone to green pepper flavours, which are not desirable. On the palate, merlot tends to have softer tannins compared with its cabernet sauvignon cousin. Acid levels will be lower, and it has a softer, rounder mouth feel.
In Bordeaux, merlot is blended with cabernet sauvignon as it balances out the lean, austere cabernet character and lends softness and a fruitiness, making both more approachable. Merlot wines are often aged in oak barrels to add spiciness, structure and complexity. For the 2001 Masseto, the wines spent about 24 months in French barrels to allow for the integration of fruit and the oak. Merlot has the ability to age for decades, the exact length depending on the region and the target market for the wine.
Merlot can be soft and seductive, making the wine enticing. If yields are not tamed in the vineyard, it can be unbalanced, weedy, thin and hard. With careful attention in the vineyard and thoughtful winemaking, it can make some of the greatest wine in the world. Miles was wrong to write it off so quickly. But although it took the US market a while to overcome 'the Sideways effect', surveys indicate merlot sales are back on the rise.
Casa Lapostelle Cuvee Alexandre Merlot 2007, HK$225, City'super
Newton Unfiltered Merlot, Spring Mountain, 2005, HK$369, Rare & Fine Wines, www.rarenfinewines.com.hk
Mazzei Castello di Fonterutoli Siepi IGT 2006, $898 Watsons Wine Cellar