I had an oenophilic epiphany last weekend as I gallivanted around the country tasting fine wines: I can no longer tolerate drinking Merlot. OK, I’ll acknowledge that it was with the help of Merlot that I was able to build my palate and appreciation for wine. It is an easy drinking wine, light on the tannins, and is generally easy to decipher flavorwise. Merlot is certainly the entry-level wine of choice for many. So, thank you Merlot for being there for me at the beginning of my quest.
But when you’ve learned to finally ride your bicycle, you remove the training wheels with no pretension of ever reattaching them. There is always a place for the guitar soloist, but there is nothing like the aurally transcendent experience of big band jazz or a symphony orchestra. One boutique vintner, when presenting his wines to us last weekend, called the Merlot “the queen” and the Cabernet “the king.” I will often say that Merlot feels two-dimensional while Cabernet and other powerful full-bodied wines feel three-dimensional.
I am not alone here. Growing popular distaste for Merlot was canonized and perpetuated in Sideways with Miles’s notorious exclamation: “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any fucking Merlot!” A survey conducted by AC Nielsen examining wine purchasing trends in the US showed that while Americans continued to purchase Merlot, even in the aftermath of Sideways, 3% fewer households were repeat purchasers of the varietal. And it goes without saying that popularity of Pinot Noir, an exciting, full-bodied cherry-berry varietal, skyrocketed in the wake of Sideways, with 14% increases in both household penetration and frequency of purchase. In general, this two year-old article from the San Francisco Chronicle discusses the Merlot dislike phenomenon from a historical perspective and the author hypothesizes that the bad rap Merlot has taken of late is a function of the rate at which the varietal was planted during the period which saw a surge in the popularity of dry reds in the States.
Just to make sure that I wasn’t blowing things out of proportion, I decided that even after tasting lackluster Merlot after lackluster Merlot last weekend, I would try one last time. I saddled up a Carmel 2004 Regional (Upper Galilee) Merlot, let the bottle breathe for an hour, thereafter decanting into glasses to allow for additional oxygenation. The color looked good for a Merlot. On the nose, the first thing that hit me was the strong smell of alcohol, and indeed, the wine’s 14% alcohol content is on the high end for a Merlot. The smell of oak was also very strong (12 months in French oak barrels), with a very vague hint of cherry. The first sip that I took was very aggressive on the tip of my tongue (i.e., acidity issues), and the wine felt like an “oak bomb.” The oak overpowered any of the other potential flavor components of the wine, which was a real disappointment. When I tasted the wine the next day, it had opened nicely and was much more tame, with a distinct cherry bouquet and taste. That was it. Oak and cherry. Not a very impressive wine. My score: 82, and that’s only after the wine has been allowed to breathe overnight!