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.
Most of the newest merlot vineyards, however, were put in warm to hot climates (such land was a lot cheaper), and merlot, a cool-climate-loving grape, rebelled. The inexpensive merlots that resulted were pretty boring, if not downright poor. Anyone who knew anything about wine rebelled against merlot.
Just about then, in the early 2000s, Alexander Payne was writing the screenplay for Rex Pickett’s novel “Sideways.” He heard that wine lovers were voicing disgust with the state of merlot.
Payne chatted with wine experts, who verified the distaste many wine lovers had for bad merlots, so he included in the screenplay a memorable scene in which the lead character, Miles Raymond, a wine snob and pinot noir enthusiast, disparages merlot with a vitriol rarely seen on screen.
The epithet had legs. Before long, even quality merlot producers had to admit that the film – even though it was basically about pinot noir – had left its most lasting impact on merlot.
Today, however. merlot from cooler regions and even a few from slightly warmer regions like Napa Valley, continues to be a stellar alternative to cabernet sauvignon. California today has 41,000 acres of merlot, some of it still planted in the wrong locations; 7,500 acres are in the hot central San Joaquin Valley.
Cooler-area versions of the wine can be lovely red meat accompaniments, and the grape has a lot less tannin than its bigger brother, making it more approachable when you buy it — no aging necessary.
O ne key to fine merlot is lower alcohol. When it gets close to or over 15 percent the wine can be clumsy, but when it’s closer to 13.5%, the wine can have an attractive balance of fruit and varietal herbal elements and be a happy dinner companion.
Such wines are easier to like when young, without the need for the extended aging that most cabs require to tame the tannins.
Wine of the Week: 2015 Decoy Merlot, Sonoma County ($25) – This wine, Duckhorn’s second label, responds nicely to decanting, its flavors unadorned by unnecessary oak. And its 13.9 percent alcohol doesn’t intrude on the palate. Often seen at $21 or so.
Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.