In 2004, the quirky movie Sideways was released. It focused on an oenophile, Miles, and his soon-to-be-married friend, Jack, who embark on a road trip through California wine country as a bachelors’ last hurrah. In one memorable line, Miles declares: “If anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any f***ing merlot!” This proved good for the fictional Miles’ favourite grape, pinot noir, as real-life sales of the wine skyrocketed. Merlot’s popularity, however, plummeted.Winemakers in California even started replacing merlot vines with pinot noir and other Bordeaux grapes. In wine shops, merlotstarted to become a rare find.
As a sommelier, I’ve seen guests say they don’t like merlot, then quaff a Right Bank wine, not realising it’s merlot based.
To see if merlot was indeed a lost cause, I began looking for interesting bottles, with a wine collector friend and the Hong Kong Wine Society’s cellars. We put together a blind tasting of a dozen bottles containing a minimum of 60 per cent merlot.
Three were super Tuscan-style IGTs (an Italian classification), including a 2006 Feudi di San Gregorio Patrimo, from Irpinia, in Campania. This was agreed by all to be quintessentially merlot, with dense, dark, plummy fruits and hints of mocha. The others were two vintages – a 1998 and a 1996 – of Lamaione, a super Tuscan IGT made on the Frescobaldi family’s Castelgiocondo estates. These were some of the oldest bottles we tasted that evening and both still had vibrant fruit. One came in at the middle of the pack and the other dead last.
From Bordeaux, we had two top-notch Right Bank wines – a 2006 Troplong Mondot from Saint-Émilion, made from 90 per cent merlot. This is from the highest point of Saint-Émilion, with soils that have deep limestone deposits under thick clay – good for holding moisture. Here, merlot plantings have increased from 65 per cent in the 1980s to 90 per cent. Against this, we had a 1995 Château L’Évangile that was 70 per cent merlotand 30 per cent cabernet franc. The winery has been owned by the Rothschilds since 1990, so quality is a given. It was the highlight of our evening.
We had merlot from South America – a 1995 Casa Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandre Merlot, from Chile’s Colchagua Valley, to be exact. Given its age, I expected this to be rather tired but surprisingly it held its own, with dusty, prune-like fruit.
Australia was next with a terrific selection (with many thanks to my wine friend), all of which did well. The 2002 Clarendon Hills Brookman Merlot, from McLaren Vale, is so rare one can only get hold of a bottle if you visit personally (the winery is better known for shiraz). It was made from grapes from dry-farmed vines that are 50 to 90 years old, then hand-pressed, naturally fermented with wild yeasts and aged in third-hand oak barrels (a very thrifty winemaker). Many of the tasters were pleasantly surprised when I told them it was Australian.
Next was a 2008 Printhie Mt Canobolas Collection Merlot from Orange, in New South Wales, which is made only in exceptional vintages – this one came fifth on our list. In second place was a 2004 Yering Farm Merlot from Yarra Valley – the oldest vineyard in the region wasplanted in 1857 with cuttings from Château Lafite. One final Australian came from Margaret River – 2011 Voyager Estate VOC Merlot, Wilyabrup (VOC, or Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, is a tribute to the Dutch East India Company, the first Europeans to explore that part of Western Australia). We placed this one fourth.
New Zealand was not missed on my merlot quest. We had a rare 2007 Mills Reef Elspeth Merlot, from Gimblett Gravels, in Hawkes Bay, a region with gravelly clay soils similar to those on the Right Bank in Bordeaux. This wine had dusty, plummy fruit and was just a little too dry.
Last but not least, California and a 2012 Keenan Napa Valley Merlot, from a blend of regions – Spring Mountain, Napa and Carneros, Sonoma. It came third in our blind tasting, but was my personal favourite with thick, juicy, ripe blackberry and plum fruit.
The moral of the story? Don’t dismiss merlot – it’s the underdog of the wine world, and it’s back.
Nellie Ming Lee is a food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers