The Much Maligned Merlot

#157 – December 30, 2014


I wanted to shine some well-deserved light on a varietal that cannot seem to garner any respect, regardless of what it does – the Much Maligned Merlot. As any reader of this newsletter knows I am a big believer in oenophilic diversity and think that limiting one’s self to any particular corner of the wine world is the wrong way to go about things (regardless of how big a corner it is). Whether this means railing against the anti-white wine folks or those that only drink big, oaked and fruit-forward red wines, the goal of this newsletter is to encourage folks to step outside their comfort zone and try something new from time to time (and hopefully more often than that). While having a strong preference to a particular wine is obviously fine and certainly very much in line with my own personal motto of regardless of anyone else’s opinion, “a good wine is the wine you enjoy” (unless of course it’s the blue-bottled abomination of course), there is a lot of quality wine out there and you are likely missing out on wines you will enjoy if you don’t try and expand your horizons from time to time.

However, I often meet people who express intense negative feelings for one type of wine over another; be it Cabernet Sauvignon over Merlot, red over white or dry over dessert (just to be clear, despite its rising popularity, semi-sweet isn’t really a category or even a wine so we will leave it out of the discussion) usually accompanied by exclamations along the line of “I don’t drink ______” (fill in the blank with your own negative preference. Cabernet Sauvignon remains the wine that folks are most interested in which causes some problems. Many higher-end Cabernet Sauvignon wines are released to the market long before they are fully ready to drink. Among other things, their high-tannins and oak aging contribute to their need of cellaring in order for the wood, fruit and acidity to settle down and learn to play nice together. As few people age their wines, many folks are not getting the full satisfaction out of their wines (unless they join a “Rosh Chodesh Club”). Instant gratification isn’t the best virtue in appreciating wine and Merlot is a great alternative here as it is usually approachable out of the gate and presents in a rich, deep and meaty manner without the need for integration or additional bottle aging (although many versions can certainly age and improve with time).

Many consumers have recently gotten over their fear of unfamiliar varietals such as Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Gewürztraminer, Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot and others due largely to their increasing availability, approachability and increasing quality; one of the noblest grapes of all continues to languish on the shelf with very few takers – Merlot. Despite the urban legend that the classic scene from the movie Sideways was responsible, the decline in Merlot’s popularity started a number of years prior to the movie’s release and there was plenty more plaguing Merlot than the visceral hatred of Miles Raymond (as a complete aside and just a bit of movie and wine trivia, one of the movie’s delicious ironies is that Mile’s most prized wine that ends up consumed out of a paper cup paired with a McDonald’s cheeseburger, the 1961 Château Cheval Blanc, is a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc (another varietal disparaged in the movie by Miles)). The issue facing this magnificent grape is one of perception as opposed to unfamiliarity. Merlot rode to fame based on the “French Paradox”, gaining popularity (between 1995-2005 Merlot went from 3% to over 10% of US supermarket wine sales) as the quintessential easy-drinking red wine – soft, integrated tannins, lush fruit and good for you to boot (I will note that “drinkability” isn’t exactly an attribute, despite Budweiser’s admirable efforts to convince me otherwise). However, the same characteristics that propelled it to greatness, also contributed to its fall from grace granting it a perception of mediocrity and lameness as wine consumers evolved to more flavorful and exciting varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and others (overplanting and utilizing lesser sites also contributed). Without the benefit of Cabernet Sauvignon’s big and bold characteristics, the cache of cool owned by the newer kids on the block like Gewürztraminer, Viognier and Petit Verdot or the natural food friendliness of Pinot Noir or Riesling, Merlot doesn’t fill any desirable niches any more and as a result, has been consistently ignored for years. As we all know, the kosher market follows the non-kosher one by about five years and our hatred of Merlot is no different, albeit one I am trying to change (and the wines reviewed below should be sufficient to change anyone’s mind.

Despite its reputation, Merlot is anything but mundane and has much to offer. As with many other wines, it is the abundant of cheap commercial versions that have handicapped the better options (here’s looking at you Moscato). Giving you the punch line in advance – Merlot wine can be first class, is well worth your efforts and there is some great stuff coming out of Israel and France that will blow your socks off. With thinner skin and lighter tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot is a far more food-friendlier wine that, when well made, still delivers plenty of depth, complexity and aging ability (the Domaine Rose Camille reviewed below is easily a 20-year wine, if not longer). A child of Cabernet franc and Magdeleine Noire des Charentes (say that three times fast), it’s name is derived from the Occitan word for blackbird (presumably based on the grape’s color), Merlot is by far the most widely planted varietal, in Bordeaux where it is primarily blended with Cabernet Sauvignon as a softening the blend. While Merlot accounts for about 25% of a typical Bordeaux blend (especially on the Left Bank where it is added for body and softness), it represents the bulk of many Right Bank wines, especially those from Pomerol and Saint-Émilion (where it is typically 80% or more of any given blend). One of the world’s greatest wines, Château Pétrus, is 95% Merlot with the rest flushed out with Cabernet Franc. One big advantage of Merlot, especially in rainy climates like France, is the fact that it ripens nearly two weeks earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, which can be the difference between a successful and ruined crop during a rainy harvest season where one massive rainstorm can be the difference between greatness and mediocrity (think of Merlot’s more reliable ripening as a Bordeaux wine-grower’s insurance policy against the failure of its more lucrative Cabernet Sauvignon crop).

As with many varietals (Syrah being another prime example), there is a discernable difference between warm climate Merlot (i.e. Israel and California (where is can assume more fruit-forward notes and hints of violets) and cool climate Merlot (i.e. France and Italy, where it can be a major component in the so-called “Super Tuscan” wines), with cool-climate Merlot showcasing higher tannins and more earthiness that warm-climate merlot which presents lusher fruit and typically more oak-aging to compensate for the lower tannic structure. Many Merlot wines also have a green or herbal streak to them, sometimes a result of bushy leaf canopies left to protect the thin-skinned Merlot from shattering in the sun (pruning reduces the green notes but heightens the potential for shattered grapes and is but one of the multitude of trade-offs winemakers make while the grapes are still on the vines that directly impacts the wine we end drinking). Merlot tends to also have a higher sugar content and lower malic acid than Cabernet Sauvignon, further contributing to its popularity and reputation as an “easy drinking” wine. Despite its popularity and expansion, the Merlot grape is pretty finicky and requires careful vineyard management to coax out the quality wine we know it can produce. With the mainstream wine consumer (otherwise known as “the herd”) not being especially appreciative of the grape, this translates into lower sales and less incentive for winemakers to go the extra mile to get the great Merlot wine we want (although, as evidenced by the wines below and others, thankfully not all winemakers fell this way).

While some of the best kosher Merlot wines today hail from France, the majority of Merlot currently hails from Israel with much of it being mediocre, insipid and uninspiring (aiming for easy-drinking allows many a winery off the hook in the Merlot department). However, Israel also makes some outstanding Merlot wines with many prime examples listed below and others including offerings from the awesome Gvaot winery, Psagot, Ella Valley (who used to produce Israel’s best version of the grape but recent vintages have disappointed), the Golan Heights Winery (with some fantastic ageable Merlot) and Shiloh (among others). While the Shomron region seems to produce truly outstanding wines, there is top notch Merlot being produced in many other regions of the country including the Judean Hills, Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights.

This week, in the hope of doing my share in propping up this fine grape that has taken a quite unjustifiable beating, I am recommending a number of Merlot wines I hope you will enjoy and will help in overcoming any unsubstantiated prejudice you may have against this delicious grape.

Dalton, D, Merlot 2012: With other wineries making lots of “noise”, Dalton continues to make approximately ne million bottles of high-quality wines that are typically very well priced as well. As any reader knows, some of my favorite “go to” wines come from Dalton, including the Petite Sirah and Wild-Yeast Viognier. With 2012 being a pretty darn good vintage year from many Israeli wineries, this Merlot is an underappreciated bottle of wine that is well worth a second look. With plenty of ripe red fruit on the nose accompanied by sweet cedar and a touch of oak, the medium bodied palate provides just enough complexity to tantalize and create interest for the discerning wine lover while the abundant yet controlled fruit, sufficient acidity, cigar-box and hint of chocolate create a delicious wine that can be appreciated by all. Drink now through 2015.

Domaine Roses Camille, Pomerol 2005: I have mentioned this wine in the past and included it on my Pesach Wine Buying Guide earlier this year, but given the absolute greatness of this wine (likely the best kosher Merlot I have ever tasted) I thought it deserved some real recognition (it will also be on my Best Of” newsletter showcasing the best wines I tasted in 2014 – I tasted the 2006 vintage last year). While not in the league of the real DRC (as some folks have unfortunately taken to referring to this wine), it remains a really special wine (with a price tag to boot) and worth splurging on as a special treat. Basically all merlot with a drop of Cabernet Franc thrown in for special effects, the wine has a lovely and scintillating nose with plenty of raspberries, currents, red plums, hints of cherries, freshly turned earth with a hint of bell pepper, tobacco leaf and wild mushrooms with that barnyard funk so characteristic of so many great (and less than great) French wines. A full bodied palate with plenty of the same along with rich dark chocolate, earthy minerals, slightly burnt espresso, a nice hint of spiciness and a touch of saddle leather, showcases the impeccable balance between wood, fruit and tannin while retaining a supreme elegance that requires patience for the wine to reward you, but is a truly worthy endeavor to do so with a long and lingering finish with plenty more fruit, minty chocolate and a touch of barnyard-laced oak that provides some extra character. Concentrated, elegant, powerful and sexy, the wine needs time to open and should continue to improve through 2020 and should continue to cellar for at least five years after that. Give this special wine the time it deserves and it will change the way you think of Merlot forever.

Four Gates, Merlot, M.S.C., 2008: While continuously touting the greatness of Four Gates has negatively impacted my personal shopping habits (prices have risen and “allocations” introduced), I truly have no choice as the quality of the wines and talent of its winemaker continues to stand on its own. While Benyamin’s Cabernet Franc remains my all-time favorite of his “estate-grown” wines, the M.S.C. Merlot is no shrinking violet and (like the other wines reviewed here) helps showcase Merlot as the intriguing powerhouse it can be. With three different labels for his Merlot including “La Rochelle”, a “regular” Merlot and this M.S.C. (not all are produced in each vintage year and are slotted under the different labels based on the quality and character of the grapes in each vintage year), side by side comparisons of the different offerings are illuminating and fun tastings to try (even if not from the same vintage year). A rich and ripe nose loaded with dark forest fruit, a touch of green, plenty of earthy minerals, some spicy oak and a touch of baker’s chocolate with much of the same on a full-bodied palate that needs some air before it opens up and yields a delightful array of fruit and spice backs by a powerful tannic core and plenty of Four Gates’ characteristic acid that helps keep everything in check and nicely balanced. A long and robust finish loaded with near-sweet fruit, some more spicy oak and rich dark chocolate rounds out this powerful wine that is at its peak now and should continue to showcase nicely for another two years.

Flam, Reserve, Merlot, 2011: After an immensely successful inaugural kosher 2010 vintage including one of the best Israeli Cabernet Sauvignon wines ever and the pièce de résistance – the 2010 Noble now released in both Israel and the US, the 2011 vintages of the reserve wines are now available and are even better than the 2010 wines, albeit slightly different in style. A truly delicious and sophisticated wine with plenty of soft and supple red and black forest fruit on the nose together with slate minerals, Mediterranean herbs, slightly spicy oak, eucalyptus and a hint of pleasing salinity that provides the wine with a uniqueness rare among Israeli Merlot wines, especially those not-sourced from the Shomron region. The palate contains much of the same with some smoky oak, more red and black fruit, green notes of bell pepper and more herbal bitterness, freshly turned earth all wrapped around a perfectly balanced powerful tannic core providing a supple backbone to this rich and layered wine that will age gracefully and beautifully. If opening now, give the wine at least an hour to open or better year, have some patience and don’t open it for another year before enjoying it through 2020, likely longer.

Recanati, Reserve, Merlot, 2010: With the Mediterranean Reserve wines garnering much of the spotlight for Recanati together with the new varietal Marselan and the delightful (though over-priced) Special Reserve White, it is sometimes hard to remember all the great wines in Recanati’s “regular” Reserve Series including a terrific Chardonnay and this amazing Merlot, all created by their two top winemaking talents – head winemaker Gil who is assisted by the über-talented Ido. Sourced from Recanati’s top vineyard in Manara, located in the Golan Heights, this 100% Merlot spent 16 months in French oak.  A vibrant nose of crushed blackberries, plums and black cherries along with a hint of blueberries, Mediterranean herbs, warm spices and toasty oak.  A full-bodied and richly complex palate with plenty more black fruit, sour cherries, nicely integrating tannins, rich dark chocolate and layers of complexity that reveal themselves with every passing minute.  A long caressing finish rounds out this amazing wine.

Tabor, Adama, Merlot 2011: The 2010 vintage of this wine was the QPR miracle of the year garnering a score of 93 from the Wine Enthusiast, the highest achieved for an Israeli wine (while I think scores are ridiculous for wines, I acknowledge their marketing importance and recognize what such an achievement means for Israeli wine), and the 2011 is almost as good and remains very well-priced. For some reason I haven’t yet determined, the wine needs a LOT of airing out time (especially relative to its oak-aging and “stature”) but if you don’t have the time or the patience, you can always use a Vinaturi, double-decant or even try the blender to move things along a little quicker (I recently used this technique to open up a hyper-closed 2011 Napa Valley Reserve. A lovely, mostly black, nose of forest fruit, earthy minerals, cigar box, roasted coffee beans leads into a full-bodied and well-extracted palette with plenty more fruit, graphite and slate, some red cherries, more tobacco notes and a lingering finish. Significantly more layers and complexity that you might have expected, this is a real find and worth stocking up on and drinking through 2017. Stay tuned for a full write-up on Tabor, which has dramatically improved in many respects over the last 2-3 years.

Teperberg, Reserve, Merlot, 2011: As Teperberg continues on its upward trajectory, the wines in its reserve line continue to increase in quality and complexity while somehow remaining under the oenophilic radar. A beautiful wine that give much pleasure while providing layers of surprising complexity in a treat of a wine that should not be overlooked especially at a relatively rare (for Israeli wines) 13% AbV. A delightfully fresh nose of plums, cassis, raspberries and some rich blackberry notes in the mix, along with graphite, a streak of slightly bitter herbs, freshly cured tobacco leaf and spicy oak with most of the same notes appearing on the full bodied palate where some of the red fruit disappears and some more bell pepper and eucalyptus notes appear, together with rich chocolate, warm spices and dark roasted espresso. Drink now through 2017, maybe a bit longer.

Tura, Merlot 2010: Tura is one of those slightly frustrating wineries that can produce some truly spectacular wines in one year with the following vintage being subpar and even have large inconsistencies within the same vintage among different wines and varietals. That said, the last 2-3 years have seen massive improvement in both the winemaking quality and the consistency from wine to wine and vintage to vintage, leaving me with great hope for this up and coming winery located in the heart of the Shomron. Showcasing the region’s great “talent” for producing top tier Merlot, this is a powerful wine with plenty of rich ripe dark fruit, Mediterranean herbs, rich forest floor, pungent truffle notes and cigar-box cedar. Bracing tannins are now nicely integrating and providing a nice backbone for this rich and delicious wine that ends on a chocolaty finish that tantalizes. Drink now through 2016.