“I am not drinking any fucking merlot!” That’s a line shouted by a character named Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, in the exceptional Hollywood movie Sideways, a movie which came out around the time merlot sales began to tank in America. Because merlot bashing was a persistent storyline throughout the movie, many people believe it was responsible for merlot’s commercial failings.
While the movie condemned merlot, it promoted pinot noir in a parallel storyline. “Why are you so into pinot? It’s like a thing with you,” Miles’ love interest asked him mid-movie. He responded with a long, thoughtful answer that ends with “it’s flavors are the most haunting and brilliant, thrilling and subtle…” Sideways also came out around the time that pinot noir sales began to sky rocket.
“Merlot sales had nothing to do with Sideways,” winemaker Chris Carpenter told me not that long ago. Among many great wines like Lokoya and Cardinale that he makes, Chris makes some of the very best merlot. “It had everything to do with a lot of bad merlot being made at the time, and an over-investment in bad merlot vineyards by the industry in the decade or so leading up to Sideways.”
Chris and I were discussing merlot for an upcoming Good Vitis piece on the variety. The first (and only) wine I’ve made myself, from scratch, was a merlot. My mom’s go-to wine when I lived at home was merlot. And it’s a key contributor to many of my favorite red blends. Though it’s never been my favorite variety on its own, I do think that it gets an unfortunate shake these days and I wanted to understand why. Hence the upcoming piece focused on merlot.
Adam Lee, who I’ve written about in these pages before, has been producing pinot noir in California for decades, and I asked him what he thought of the Sideways theory. “I don’t buy it, but I’m not sure why,” he said. The more he thought about it, the more he saw parallels to what happened to merlot before Sideways and what happened to pinot noir after Sideways. “It’s true that a lot of bad merlot was being made in the 90s, so when Sideways came out there was a lot to hate about merlot,” he said.
“When Sideways came out, the current pinot releases were 2003 and 2004, both bad vintages in my opinion. They were very warm and we had big, ripe wines that were out of character. People who were supposed to like merlot because it was being made big and ripe, and hadn’t had pinot before, went nuts for the 03’s and 04’s, and in the subsequent years many wineries mainstreamed that big, jammy style, and it’s still around.”
Chris and Adam are two of many who I’m talking with for research on the merlot piece, so more on that in the future. In the lead up to that article, though, I want to suggest that people take another swing at merlot because it’s a great grape. One of the ironically hilarious nuggets of Sideways is that the pinnacle wine for Miles is Cheval Blanc, a wine from Saint Emilion in Bordeaux that is a predominantly merlot blend and among the most highly respected and sought-after wines in the world. The 2016 vintage, which retails for around $750 per bottle and received lavish praise from all the big critics, is 59.5% merlot.
The fact is that some of the most esteemed wines in the world have substantial portions of merlot in them, while many winemakers rely on merlot to make their best cabernet sauvignon. Though far more popular than merlot, cabernet sauvignon makes a less complete wine than merlot on its own. If not grown exceptionally well, cabernet feels like a donut in your mouth: substantial around the sides with a hole in the middle. Merlot fills that hole, and brings some nice flavors to the party as well. If I’m given the choice between a 100% cabernet and 100% merlot of equal caliber, I’m going with the merlot every time.
If I can motivate a few people to give merlot another try, then I’m going big with my pick: I want to suggest a bottle made by Chris Carpenter at the Mt. Brave Winery in California, which uses fruit from Mt. Veeder, a particularly great mountain site to grow red Bordeaux varieties.
Mt. Brave’s vineyards on Mt. Veeder. Credit: Mt. Brave Wines
The 2015 Mt. Brave Merlot isn’t cheap at its $80 retail price, but it is worth it. You can find it for as low as $65 on wine-searcher.com (scroll to the bottom for some options). It is a substantial wine with layer upon layer of complexity. Give it a good two to three hours in the decanter now and it’ll sing for the following two days. This makes it contemplative wine as well, meaning that if you can nurse small pours over a long time and think about what you’re smelling and tasting throughout, then you’ll go through an intellectual exercise that demonstrates why wine can be magical: it’s a performance art just like ballet or an orchestra. It moves, it sings and it dances. Try this wine because merlot can be great, and this one is.
What a killer, earthy and penetrating nose: sour cherry, strawberry, mesquite charcoal, bitter cocoa, sawdust and emulsified dandelion. It’s full bodied in a way that fills the palate, but the acid is juicy and alive and prevents the wine from settling and becoming cloying. The tannins are fine and focused. The fruit is beautifully layered, with muddled cherry, mountain strawberry and boysenberry that go for ages, and are followed by ground espresso and cocoa beans and graphite. The tail end of the flavor profile features tanned leather, tobacco leaf and a small dose of menthol. This does very well with a couple of hours in the decanter, but I imagine it can go through tremendous evolution over a decade or so. 94 points, value: B+.
Where it buy:
You can order it winery direct here for $80. Check out wine-searcher.com for where to find it in your area, including stores that will ship to you. Below are a few shops around the country that carry it.
Fort Lauderdale, FL: Your Wine Cellars
Chicago, IL: Flickinger Wines
Greater Boston, MA: Wollaston Wine & Spirits
Wayne, NJ: Gary’s Wine & Marketplace
Bend, OR: RHC Selections
Nashville, TN: Cana Wine Company