sunday schoolMaking the case for maligned merlot. . .

May 9, 2021by Corners Crew

SCHOOL  IS  IN  SESSION!

Join us each Sunday for an ongoing series of articles exploring the world of wine.  

Merlot has gotten a bad rap lately — and undeservedly so. This week, we get to know some of the great growing regions for this noble grape.

This week we discuss the much maligned, but none-the-less majestic, grape known as merlot.  Go ahead, say it. . .  “I’m not drinking any #(@%!^) merlot!” — then know that the character who uttered these unfortunate words was enamoured with a wine that is (depending on whether you reference the novel of the film) either entirely or largely merlot (and quite pricey, to boot).  Even if you have no idea what I am talking about, there is a high likelihood that your perception of merlot has been negatively influenced by the film (or novel) Sideways.  Trust me when I tell you that the bad reputation that has attached itself to merlot in the past few decades is quite undeserved.  That is not to say that there is not poor quality merlot-based wine out there.  The sad truth is that there is poor quality wine from many grape sources on the market, but it hardly seems fair (let alone wise) to judge such a large category of wine by a few inferior examples.  Some grapes seem to be cursed by this prejudice (chardonnay, anyone), while others seem fairly immune (cabernet is king!).  Let’s get to know a few areas/appellations which will help to ensure success in choosing a good (even great) bottle of merlot. . .

We’ll start our exploration of merlot appellations in Bordeaux, the famous wine growing region surrounding the city of the same name.  While merlot is grown throughout the region of Bordeaux (in fact, it is the most widely planted grape in the region), the primary growing areas for merlot are on the right banks of the Gironde and Dordogne rivers, around the city of Libourn and the neighbouring communes of St. Emilion and Pomerol.  In most cases, as is true through Bordeaux, wines are a blend of at least two (sometimes more) grape varietal).  There are a few exceptions to this rule (the famous and incredibly expensive Château Petrus, which is 100% merlot, comes to mind), but most right-bank Bordeaux will be a merlot dominant blend.  Right bank Bordeaux appellations to be on the lookout for include:

  • Blaye-Côtes de Bordeaux and Côtes de Bourg — Blaye-Côtes de Bordeaux and Côtes de Bourg are part of a group of Côtes de Bordeaux (slopes/hillsides of Bordeaux) appellations spread throughout the region.  Several of these appellations are allowed to attach a commune/village name at the front of the more general Côtes de Bordeaux appellation.  Blaye-Côtes de Bordeaux and Côtes de Bourg (not to be confused as a Bourgogne/Burgundy appellation) are immediately across the Gironde river from the famous cabernet sauvignon dominated Médoc communes of Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, and Margaux.
  • Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac — Just to the west of the more famous areas of Pomerol and Saint-Émilion (each of which are discussed below), Fronsac and the smaller area of Canon-Fronsac are planted to about 80% merlot, followed by cabernet Franc (about 15%) and cabernet sauvignon.
  • Pomerol and Lalande-de-Pomerol —  Pomerol is the home to the aforementioned Château Petrus (the favorite wine of Miles in the novel Sideways), as well as a number of other excellent producers.  Pomerol is planted to about 70% merlot, followed by cabernet Franc.  Expect notes of cocoa, plum, and violet along with beautiful, plush texture which makes them (unlike many higher-quality Bordeaux) very approachable and enjoyable when young.  Lalande-de-Pomerol is just to the north of Pomerol.
  • Saint-Émilion and its “satellites”– Along with Pomerol, Saint-Émilion is the most highly regarded of the right-bank Bordeaux appellations.  In fact, Saint-Émilion, like the famous Médoc communes, has its own classification system.  The Saint-Émilion classification was established in 1954, but unlike the famous 1855 left-bank classification, it requires reclassification every 10 years — although that required reclassification has met with a number of legal challenges over the past decade or so.   The classification establishes a “Grand Cru Classé” designation, with “category A” (superior) and “category B” levels.  The four “category A” Grand Cru Classé châteaux are:
    • Château Angelus (named for the nearby church bells calling parishioners to the Angelus prayers three times daily).
    • Château Ausone
    • Château Cheval Blanc (the favorite wine of Miles in the film Sideways)
    • Château Pavie

Saint-Émilion also has a number of well-regarded “satellite” villages that may append their names before Saint-Émilion:

  • Saint-Georges-Saint-Émilion
  • Montagne-Saint-Émilion
  • Lussac-Saint-Émilion
  • Puissaguin-Saint-Émilion

Merlot is grown in several other French regions outside of Bordeaux (particularly in the Loire Valley and in Provence), sometime in significant acreage, but merlot is not a key part of wine culture in France outside of Bordeaux and generally is not included in permitted grape varietals for appellations outside of Bordeaux.  Other European countries with significant merlot plantings include:

  • Spain — Merlot is planted in many areas of Spain, but most of the country is simply too hot for merlot to be successful.  The areas in which merlot is successfully used (usually as part of blend) are generally areas with some maritime influence to help temper the heat, and include:
    • Navarra
    • Aragon
    • Cooler areas of La Mancha
    • Costers del Segre in Catalonia (Catalunya)
  • Italy — Merlot is grown in a few Italian regions, primarily in the northern portions of the country.  Key appellations, include:
    • Tuscany — Merlot may be a part of Tuscan blends, particularly in:
      • Chianti — While Chiani regulations require appellate wines to contain at least 70% sangiovese, merlot may sneak under a vague allowance for “other suitable red varieties.”
      • Maremma — In Maremma (and a few other small appellations), merlot often makes an appearance in “Super-Tuscan” blends (originally created for renegade wine-makers who chose to produce wines with grapes that were not traditional in the area).
    • Tre Venezie — In the collective region known as the Tre Venezie, merlot often makes an appearance in blends (and sometimes appears solo) in:
      • Trentino-Alto Adige — The cold climate of this area can result in brighter acidity than might be expected in merlot, but global-warming trends are beginning to allow merlot to reach fuller ripeness in this area.
      • Fruili-Venezia-Giulia — Generally, the best merlot in the Tre Venezie comes from the more temperate area of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia.  You are more likely to find high quality, single varietal merlot in this area.
      • Veneto — The super-fertile plains of Veneto produces quite a bit of merlot, but the high-yields and over-ripeness that are often allowed (even encouraged) seldom produce quality wines.
    • Umbria — The central, land-locked region of Umbria grows quite a bit of merlot, but most of it is bottled almost anonymously, in blends.

In general, European producers of merlot will opt for an “old world” style, harvesting grapes early so as to retain acidity and produce medium-bodied wines with moderate levels of alcohol, often with a certain vegetal/leafy quality.  Outside of Europe, most producers will opt for a “new world” style, harvesting grapes later so as to emphasize riper fruit flavors, fuller body, and higher alcohol.  Key areas of “new world” production include:

  • United States
    • Washington — The cool climate of Washington is very well suited for quality merlot production.  Keep an eye open for the following appellations:
      • Columbia Valley
        • Horse Heaven Hills 
        • Walla Walla Valley
    • California — Merlot is grown in many areas of California, often for use alone and often as part of a blend.  In fact, many California cabernet sauvignons contain a significant amount (up to 25%) of merlot.  The best California appellations for merlot include:
      • Sonoma — While not as widely planted in Sonoma as pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon, merlot performs well in Sonoma County, particularly in the temperate areas of: 
        • Dry Creek Valley
        • Alexander Valley
        • Carneros
      • Napa– Merlot is the second most widely planted red grape in Napa County, often appearing alone or as part of “Meritage” (Bordeaux styled) blends and other cabernet sauvignon based blends.  Key areas include:
        •  Rutherford
        • Oakville
        • Mount Veeder
        • Carneros
  • Chile — Merlot arrived in Chile along with many other Bordeaux varietals (cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, carménére) in the mid-19th century.  In fact, much of what was once produced as Chilean merlot has lately been determined to be carménère.  Today, merlot is successfully grown in:
    • Casablanca Valley
    • Maipo Valley
    • Colchagua Valley
    • Curicó Valley
  • Argentina — Merlot is not nearly as nearly as widely grown in Argentina as some other Bordeaux-natives, particularly malbec and cabernet sauvignon, but it is often grown successfully in Mendoza.
  • South Africa — Merlot is often part of a blend of classic Bordeaux grapes in a lush California style in South Africa, particularly in the Cape Town vicinity areas of:
    • Paarl
    • Stellenbosch
  • Australia — Just as much Chilean “merlot” was recently discovered to be carménère, quite a bit of Australian “merlot” has recently been determined to be cabernet Franc.  In both cases, the confused varietals arrived together with displaced wine-makers seeking to re-establish their livelihoods following the mid-19th century devastation of Bordeaux vineyards by the root-louse known as phylloxera.  Today, merlot is grown successfully in the Australian regions of:
    • Western Australia — Merlot performs particularly well in the Western Australia region of Margaret River.
    • South Australia — Key areas for merlot production in South Australia include:
      • Barossa Valley
      • McLaren Vale
  • New Zealand — Merlot is the second most planted red grape (after pinot noir) in New Zealand.  Of particular note is merlot from Hawke’s Bay and its sub-appellation Gimblett Gravels.

We hope today’s exploration of merlot has encouraged you to explore some of the great growing regions for this unjustly maligned grape.  After all, there is a reason that merlot is a part (or the whole) of some of the world’s most sought after wines.  Next week, we will continue our exploration of grapes “originally from Bordeaux” with one of the parent grapes of merlot, the grape cabernet Franc (which also happens to be one of the parent grapes of cabernet sauvignon, malbec, and carménère– which makes merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and carménère half-siblings. . .).  Coincidentally, cabernet Franc happens to be one of my favorite wine grapes!  If you don’t know this big-daddy grape from Bordeaux, it is high time you did. . .

 

To view previous articles in this series, please visit

https://www.cornersfinewineandspirits.com/category/sunday-school/.


© 2021 Terrell Abney

Sláinte! (To your health!)

Terrell Abney, Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW), Society of Wine Educators and

Wine Buyer at Corners Fine Wine & Spirits in Peachtree Corners, GA

This week we discuss the much maligned, but none-the-less majestic, grape known as merlot.  Go ahead, say it. . .  “I’m not drinking any #(@%!^) merlot!” — then know that the character who uttered these unfortunate words was enamoured with a wine that is (depending on whether you reference the novel of the film) either entirely or largely merlot (and quite pricey, either case).  Even if you have no idea what I am talking about, there is a high likelihood that your perception of merlot has been negatively influenced by the film (or novel) Sideways.  Trust me when I tell you that the bad reputation that has attached itself to merlot in the past few decades is quite undeserved.  That is not to say that there is not poor quality merlot-based wine out there.  The sad truth is that there is poor quality wine from many grape sources on the market, but it hardly seems fair (let alone wise) to judge such a broad category of wine by a few inferior examples.  Some grapes seem to be cursed by this prejudice (chardonnay, anyone), while others seem fairly immune (cabernet is king!).  Let’s get to know a few areas/appellations which will help to ensure success in choosing a good (even great) bottle of merlot. . .

We’ll start our exploration of merlot appellations in Bordeaux, the famous wine growing region surrounding the city of the same name.  While merlot is grown throughout the region of Bordeaux (in fact, it is the most widely planted grape in the region), the primary growing areas for merlot are on the right banks of the Gironde and Dordogne rivers, around the city of Libourn and the neighbouring communes of St. Emilion and Pomerol.  In most cases, as is true through Bordeaux, wines are a blend of at least two (sometimes more) grape varietals.  There are a few exceptions to this rule (the famous and incredibly expensive Château Petrus, which is 100% merlot, comes to mind), but most right-bank Bordeaux will be a merlot dominant blend.  Right bank Bordeaux appellations to be on the lookout for include:

  • Blaye-Côtes de Bordeaux and Côtes de Bourg — Blaye-Côtes de Bordeaux and Côtes de Bourg are part of a group of Côtes de Bordeaux (slopes/hillsides of Bordeaux) appellations spread throughout the region.  Several of these appellations are allowed to attach a commune/village name at the front of the more general Côtes de Bordeaux appellation.  Blaye-Côtes de Bordeaux and Côtes de Bourg (not to be confused as a Bourgone/Burgundy appellation) are immediately across the Gironde river from the famous cabernet sauvignon dominated Médoc communes of Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, and Margaux.
  • Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac — Just to the west of the more famous areas of Pomerol and Saint-Émilion (each of which are discussed below), Fronsac and the smaller area of Canon-Fronsac are planted to about 80% merlot, followed by cabernet Franc (about 15%) and cabernet sauvignon.
  • Pomerol and Lalande-de-Pomerol —  Pomerol is the home to the aforementioned Château Petrus (the favorite wine of Miles in the novel Sideways), as well as a number of other excellent producers.  Pomerol is planted to about 70% merlot, followed by cabernet Franc.  Expect notes of cocoa, plum, and violet along with beautiful, plush texture which makes them (unlike many higher-quality Bordeaux) very approachable and enjoyable when young.  Lalande-de-Pomerol is just to the north of Pomerol.
  • Saint-Émilion and its “satellites”– Along with Pomerol, Saint-Émilion is the most highly regarded of the right-bank Bordeaux appellations.  In fact, Saint-Émilion, like the famous Médoc communes, has its own classification system.  The Saint-Émilion classification was established in 1954, but unlike the famous 1855 left-bank classification, it requires reclassification every 10 years — although that required reclassification has met with a number of legal challenges over the past decade or so.   The classification establishes a “Grand Cru Classé” designation, with “category A” (superior) and “category B” levels.  The four “category A” Grand Cru Classé châteaux are:
    • Château Angelus (named for the nearby church bells calling parishioners to the Angelus prayers three times daily).
    • Château Ausone
    • Château Cheval Blanc (the favorite wine of Miles in the film Sideways)
    • Château Pavie

Saint-Émilion also has a number of well-regarded “satellite” villages that may append their names before Saint-Émilion:

  • Saint-Georges-Saint-Émilion
  • Montagne-Saint-Émilion
  • Lussac-Saint-Émilion
  • Puissaguin-Saint-Émilion

Merlot is grown in several other French regions outside of Bordeaux (particularly in the Loire Valley and in Provence), sometime in significant acreage, but merlot is not a key part of wine culture in France outside of Bordeaux and generally is not included in permitted grape varietals for appellations outside of Bordeaux.  Other European countries with significant merlot plantings include: 

  • Spain — Merlot is planted in many areas of Spain, but most of the country is simply too hot for merlot to be successful.  The areas in which merlot is successfully used (usually as part of blend) are generally areas with some maritime influence to help temper the heat, and include:
    • Navarra
    • Aragon
    • Cooler areas of La Mancha
    • Costers del Segre in Catalonia (Catalunya)
  • Italy — Merlot is grown in a few Italian regions, primarily in the northern portions of the country.  Key appellations, include:
    • Tuscany — Merlot may be a part of Tuscan blends, particularly in:
      • Chianti — While Chiani regulations require appellate wines to contain at least 70% sangiovese, merlot may sneak under a vague allowance for “other suitable red varieties.”
      • Maremma — In Maremma (and a few other small appellations), merlot often makes an appearance in “Super-Tuscan” blends (originally created for renegade wine-makers who chose to produce wines with grapes that were not traditional in the area).
    • Tre Venezie — In the collective region known as the Tre Venezie, merlot often makes an appearance in blends (and sometimes appears solo) in:
      • Trentino-Alto Adige — The cold climate of this area can result in brighter acidity than might be expected in merlot, but global-warming trends are beginning to allow merlot to reach fuller ripeness in this area.
      • Fruili-Venezia-Giulia — Generally, the best merlot in the Tre Venezie comes from the more temperate area of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia.  You are more likely to find high quality, single varietal merlot in this area.
      • Veneto — The super-fertile plains of Veneto produces quite a bit of merlot, but the high-yields and over-ripeness that are often allowed (even encouraged) seldom produce quality wines.
    • Umbria — The central, land-locked region of Umbria grows quite a bit of merlot, but most of it is bottled almost anonymously, in blends.

In general, European producers of merlot will opt for an “old world” style, harvesting grapes early so as to retain acidity and produce medium-bodied wines with moderate levels of alcohol, often with a certain vegetal/leafy quality.  Outside of Europe, most producers will opt for a “new world” style, harvesting grapes later so as to emphasize riper fruit flavors, fuller body, and higher alcohol.  Key areas of “new world” production include:

  • United States
    • Washington — The cool climate of Washington is very well suited for quality merlot production.  Keep an eye open for the following appellations:
      • Columbia Valley
        • Horse Heaven Hills 
        • Walla Walla Valley
    • California — Merlot is grown in many areas of California, often for use alone and often as part of a blend.  In fact, many California cabernet sauvignons contain a significant amount (up to 25%) of merlot.  The best California appellations for merlot include:
      • Sonoma — While not as widely planted in Sonoma as pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon, merlot performs well in Sonoma County, particularly in the temperate areas of: 
        • Dry Creek Valley
        • Alexander Valley
        • Carneros
      • Napa– Merlot is the second most widely planted red grape in Napa County, often appearing alone or as part of “Meritage” (Bordeaux styled) blends and other cabernet sauvignon based blends.  Key areas include:
        •  Rutherford
        • Oakville
        • Mount Veeder
        • Carneros
  • Chile — Merlot arrived in Chile along with many other Bordeaux varietals (cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, carménére) in the mid-19th century.  In fact, much of what was once produced as Chilean merlot has lately been determined to be carménère.  Today, merlot is successfully grown in:
    • Casablanca Valley
    • Maipo Valley
    • Colchagua Valley
    • Curicó Valley
  • Argentina — Merlot is not nearly as nearly as widely grown in Argentina as some other Bordeaux-natives, particularly malbec and cabernet sauvignon, but it is often grown successfully in Mendoza.
  • South Africa — Merlot is often part of a blend of classic Bordeaux grapes in a lush California style in South Africa, particularly in the Cape Town vicinity areas of:
    • Paarl
    • Stellenbosch
  • Australia — Just as much Chilean “merlot” was recently discovered to be carménère, quite a bit of Australian “merlot” has recently been determined to be cabernet Franc.  In both cases, the confused varietals arrived together with displaced wine-makers seeking to re-establish their livelihoods following the mid-19th century devastation of Bordeaux vineyards by the root-louse known as phylloxera.  Today, merlot is grown successfully in the Australian regions of:
    • Western Australia — Merlot performs particularly well in the Western Australia region of Margaret River.
    • South Australia — Key areas for merlot production in South Australia include:
      • Barossa Valley
      • McLaren Vale
  • New Zealand — Merlot is the second most planted red grape (after pinot noir) in New Zealand.  Of particular note is merlot from Hawke’s Bay and its sub-appellation Gimblett Gravels.

We hope today’s exploration of merlot has encouraged you to explore some of the great growing regions for this unjustly maligned grape.  After all, there is a reason that merlot is a part (or the whole) of some of the world’s most sought after wines.  Next week, we will continue our exploration of grapes “originally from Bordeaux” with one of the parent grapes of merlot, the grape cabernet Franc (which also happens to be one of the parent grapes of cabernet sauvignon, malbec, and carménère– which makes merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and carménère half-siblings. . .).  Coincidentally, cabernet Franc happens to be one of my favorite wine grapes!  If you don’t know this big-daddy grape from Bordeaux, it is high time you did. . .

To view previous articles in this series, please visit

https://www.cornersfinewineandspirits.com/category/sunday-school/.

by Corners Crew

Corners Fine Wine & Spirits is the first and only Fine Wine & Spirits store located in Peachtree Corners, GA.