Paul Giamatti’s performance in Sideways did, in fact, change the California wine industry: The term “the Sideways Effect” is still tossed around in regard to the intense proliferation of Pinot Noir… and the fall of Merlot, a varietal author Rex Pickett reportedly chose to make his protagonist’s bete noir because…it was what his ex liked. Merlot growers saw tanking prices; some pulled their vines out entirely.
There is no non-fad-based reason for this phenomenon. Supple, velvety Merlot has been a mainstay of the Bordeaux region, California and many other places for a long time and not for no reason. The blue-black grape is an ideal foil for the later-ripening and higher-tannin Cabernet Sauvignon and also makes really great, fleshly, curvy, silky varietal wines whose hallmark note tends to be ripe plums. (In Bordeaux it is made in a slightly less ripened and more restrained style that leans more toward strawberries and can have herbaceous or green notes and stronger acidity.) It’s a relative of the Cabernets and also Carmenere and Malbec, and tends to thrive in similar conditions.
Merlot has a sexy, come-hither quality to it; it’s voluptuous and approachable (it’s commonly considered to be a great first red wine because it’s so eminently quaffable, but don’t think for a minute that this means it’s lacking in elegance). Food friends for this wine commonly include red meat (it appreciates steak, or lamb), mushrooms, blue cheese, caramelized onions, duck breast, and anything that’s heavy on Mediterranean herbs.
Eight Bottles to Try
Abeja Merlot (Columbia Valley, WA $38)
One of the reasons I mention wine from Washington State a lot is that…well, it’s that there is a ton of good wine coming from there and because it is a young, rapidly developing wine region you’ll kind of find everything there. Abeja is smaller-run and less widely distributed than some of the bottles on this list, and you might be ordering it online. Do so, because it’s a great balance between the Bordeaux and “International” expressions of the grape. It’s full-bodied but not all over the place, has warm-climate blackberry-ness and cool climate acidity. The 2015 vintage, which is what you’re likely to find right now, is one that will have plenty of staying power (despite the grape’s lower tannins) and in fact is a bit clenched when first opened (I’m not saying you can’t drink it now, you can. Let it relax for an hour or so). Bramble and cane berries, spice notes (I get star anise), something leafy, a persistent sense of aromatic herbs like thyme and rosemary. This is a wine that loves meat, but if you don’t, it’ll play along fine.
Charles Krug Merlot (Napa Valley, CA $25)
Charles Krug is about as venerable as it gets in Napa, with an estate property on some fiercely pricey real estate and generations of winemaker moxie, so I’m always pleasantly surprised at the absence of awesomer-than-thou pricing. These guys are a bargain for the quality. The current release Merlot is lavish, luscious, in the “mouth-filling” range, and texturally sensuous and supple. Blackberry and plum notes dominate. Spicy traces on the finish.
Chateau Grand Corbin-Despagne St. Emillion Grand Cru (St. Emillion, France $30)
Yeah, so these guys have only been working with Bordeaux varietals for… about 200 years? Wine for grownups! This is a blend and also has cabernet in it. It’s also a great value even if $30 (roughly, it depends on the vintage) seems steep to you; similar wines can be a lot more than that. Can be a tiny bit vegetal when first opened, but with air you’ll get a stronger oak and dark fruit character along with a hint of almond. If “structured” is your thing be on the lookout for this wine.
Chateau la Mothe du Barry La Cuvee a Mon Loup (Bordeaux, France $14)
Have sulfite problems? Look for this wine, which has basically none. It’s a lighter-bodied iteration of the grape, with an unusual hint of bay leaf underlying a red fruit core. Blackberry, peppercorn and some other assorted spice notes.
Domaine Emile Grelier Merlot (Bordeaux, France, $21)
Varietal Merlot from Merlot ground zero. Violet in the glass, brooding but friendly on the tongue. Earthy terroir, an unabashed plum-fest, moderate tannins, velvety texture. The 2014 (the most recent one I tried) is spicy, with pepper and sweet spices showing, and has notes of ripe blackberry and mulberry along with dark plums and a bit of currant. The finish is long and a tiny bit leathery.
Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard Merlot (Napa Valley CA $98)
In the “special occasion giftable” category, Duckhorn has proved relatively Giamatti-proof. From a high-prestige Napa Valley vineyard, this wine is a gift possibility for a serious Merlot freak or a fancy-pants holiday meal. Keyword here is “density.” Aside from the general plum-ness that seems to be a given with this grape, Duckhorn’s Three Palms Merlot has a blueberry and fig kind of vibe that almost recalls a less-inky Lagrein; there are notes of cacao and roses and a little flintiness on the finish. Very delicious.
L’Ecole Merlot (Columbia Valley, WA $25)
L’Ecole is one of Washington’s oldest wineries, and has won an international “Best Bordeaux Blend in the World” award. As in, better than the stuff from Bordeaux. (I got to try the blend in question once and can confirm it is thoroughly excellent.) This Merlot is supple and rich, with cherry and plum fruit and traces of violet, pepper, baking spices, and a tiny whisper of something almost minty. Walla Walla volcanic terroir, great structure.
Rutherford Hill Atlas Peak (Atlas Peak, CA $65)
Atlas Peak is one of Napa Valley’s most coveted vineyard sites and Rutherford Hill’s romance with Merlot has never faltered. Classic plummy, velvety character. Dried herbs waft across the nose on this one, and there’s a stronger tobacco leaf presence than in many Merlots. Sub-notes of blackberry, blueberry and chocolate. Very food-versatile.