A couple of bullet points before you get into my blog, below:
I have been in the wine business for a long time - about 30 years, in fact - and I remember a time when people could not get enough Merlot. It was literally the most in-demand variety on the market. In the early 1990s, Americans kind of woke up to the notion that wine was good for you, could be a part of a healthy life-style, and was actually quite enjoyable. In this wake, Merlot from California in the $10 range was king and everyone was planting it as fast as could be. Blackstone, Forest Glen and similar brands were literally built on Merlot sales.
Then came Sideways in 2004, and we have Miles' famous we will not be drinking merlot rant. The world shifted a bit and decided to change gears and drink Pinot Noir. Leading up to this though the styles of Merlot coming out of California were, well, ok. Some of the greatest wines in the world are made from or in part from Merlot - which is a bit of the irony in the storyline for Sideways, but in the explosion of demand in the late 1990s for this grape a lot of production was stretched and grapes were planted in less than ideal locations. The result was wine being made by mega-producers looking to capitalize on the new fad, and we got served a lot of plonk.
Merlot in general is softer than Cabernet Sauvignon, but can make structured and age-worthy wines; no doubt on this. But when it's over-cropped and fed a ton of garbage it does the same thing we all do in that circumstance - it gets fat and lazy and uninteresting. So in combination with the Sideways effect it was not surprise to see this fairly dramatic shift in the early 2000s from Merlot demand to Pinot Noir demand - I sold wine in those days for a wholesaler and we had some of the top Merlot brands around - and then we had some of the top Pinot Noir demands around. Merlot had gotten boring, Miles just yelled it loud for all of us.
Unfortunately, if mega-producers were making marginally decent Merlot, they sure-as-heck were not doing the same for Pinot Noir, which is an even more finicky grape to grow. What we saw happening was a lot of budding over of Merlot vines to Pinot Noir - a practice where they essentially lop off the top of the plant and put a bud from a new plant on the rootstock, and in a year or two - miracle! You have a new plant making a new grape variety. Merlot likes slightly warmer climate than Pinot Noir, and the result was a lot of basically half-assed, fat and flabby Pinot Noir (not a good thing) - and certainly nothing like you get from a cooler region like the Willamette Valley in Oregon, Santa Barbara, or even Burgundy.
Don't get me wrong - loads of great Pinot Noir out there, but in the $10-$15 range - there was a lot of garbage wine - and there still is to this day. In fact, it may even be worse now as the consumer's palate was morphed over the past 20-years to believe Pinot Noir should be round and flabby, dark and intense. And today, we still have mega-brands out there that bottle Pinot Noir with other grapes in the blend (Pinot Noir is not a good player when it comes to blends) and a lot of winemaking going on in the lab, rather than the cellar.
Merlot though is still a player. I have watched the sales volume of Merlot over the years and it has of course dropped, but it was not as quick and tumultuous as some believed. There were/are a lot of Merlot fans. Unfortunately, it has become a bit of a back-seat player, though. I had a conversation this week with one of my managers, and he said that we cannot sell Merlot to anyone to save our lives. Which is a shame because these wines are fantastic, and are often better choices to go with food than say a big, brawny Cab that is too young to drink. I also like Merlot for its red fruit and spice character, along with juicy, soft tannins. It's such a great blending partner, which is why it is still a grape grown in huge numbers for blending purposes.
Whether you are a fan or not, this is a great time to look for Merlot on a wine list or store shelf. I think the quality level in the $15-20 range has improved vastly over the years. And if you go just a bit higher in the price range you are going to find outstanding wines at better value to quality than a lot of "better" grapes. Look for wines from regions like Napa, Sonoma, Washington State and Bordeaux - yes, they grow Merlot in Bordeaux - a lot of it, actually. Just ask Miles.
ABOUT THE Author
Brian Mitchell runs The New England Wine Academy, and is responsible for the content of this blog. With 30 years of drinks industry experience, Brian has learned a few things, but everyday he is learning more. This blog helps to bring that knowledge to you.