Perhaps no American grape variety has suffered as much exaltation and such disrespect in such a short period of time as has merlot.
Within the space of two decades, it went from savior of the California red wine scene to being widely scorned and ridiculed, and then most recently to being ignored.
Despite all that, it has recently made a stirring if fitful return to respectability as an alternative to the most popular red wine grape of our time,and is poised to regain its former stature that once made it the top banana’s friendly companion and treasured ally.
In the 1970s, just as cabernet sauvignon was gaining its earliest recognition as California’s greatest red wine, and one that would reward long-term aging in a cellar,nearly every winery that made one also made a companion red wine from merlot. And many used merlot to blend into cabernet to make it more approachable.
So joined at the hip were these two parallel red wines that most people who made a merlot charged the same amount for it that they charged for their cabernet. And often and there was a startling similarity between the two wines.
During the fall of 1972, one of the worst on record in terms of rain during harvest, many wineries could only make a decent cabernet if they blended in significant amounts of merlot. (Sterling’s excellent 1972 cabernet was 40 percent merlot.)
Among the best merlots every year were those from Clos du Val, Beringer, Ridge, Duckhorn, Dry Creek, Mondavi and Carneros Creek.
By 1990, statewide acreage of the variety had reached 8,000 acres, compared to about 30,000 acres of cabernet.
Then in late 1991, an event occurred that changed merlot’s fortunes radically. A CBS “60 Minutes” report entitled “The French Paradox” spoke of the protective effects of regular consumption of red wine as it pertained to heart disease.
The report said the French, even though they smoked more and consume a lot more fat, had a much lower rate of heart disease. Implicated in this was the significant intake of red wine in France. The following day, and for months after, Americans began to consume red wine, starting with cabernet because it was the most popular grape variety on store shelves.
But the wave of interest in cabernet was short-lived after many newcomers to wine realized cabernet was extremely tannic and astringent to the point where it felt like a mouth full of sand. Many new red wine consumers complained, and merchants replied that people seeking heart disease insurance try merlot, which had long been widely known as a far less astringent wine.
Without warning, merlot became the next hot wine. By the summer of 1992, merlot sales had shot ahead so quickly that most wineries were completely out of stock, and soon merlots from Australia, Chile, and even Argentina began to flood the import channels.
California grape growers, caught unaware of this new-found rising star, rapidly began to plant new merlot vineyards and convert other varieties to it. In 1992, only 37,000 tons of merlot grapes were crushed in California. By 1997, that total had risen to 202,000 tons — and the state’s merlot acreage had reached 56,000 acres, an increase of nearly 50,000 acres in a seven-year stretch.