For several years, there was a bizarre role reversal among wine consumers when it came to merlot.
Cork dorks still savored this (literally) noble grape, but casual consumers turned up their collective noses at their once-favored wine.
The trend commonly was attributed to the merlot-bashing in the movie “Sideways,” which is odd because: (a) who would follow the lead of a character as schlubby and annoying as Paul Giamatti’s Miles? and (b) the “I’m not drinking any [expletive] merlot” line was laced with irony because Miles’ dream wine, Cheval Blanc, is a merlot-cab franc blend.
In another bizarre twist, the Twin Cities actually was at the forefront of a subsequent wine trend, arguably ahead of the coasts, in embracing malbec early and often as an easy-drinking-red alternative to merlot.
And truth be known, there was a lot of mediocre (or worse) merlot out there, as the variety often was transformed from a wine to a commodity, especially by large commercial operations in California concocting overly jammy, flabby versions.
The problem was that as merlot’s popularity skyrocketed, it became over-planted — from eight acres in all of California (!) in 1960 to 2,000 in 1985 and 50,000 in 2003 — and wrongly planted, in unfriendly low places. The grape grows best in arid, rocky soil but also handles clay better than most grapes.
Still, as many of the plonk producers fell by the wayside, dandy renditions were emanating from Washington, Chile and, of course, Bordeaux, where it actually is the most widely planted variety. (Not that this helps consumers, since the grape name is not on the label, although wines from Saint-Emilion and Pomerol tend to be all or mostly merlot). California also continued to provide solid-to-spectacular merlots, from inexpensive Bogle to deservedly iconic Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard.
In short, wine enthusiasts had no reason to move away from merlot, just from certain icky iterations.
Merlot is justly considered one of the world’s six “noble grapes” with cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and riesling. In the right hands, it’s a rich, seriously smooth wine, with plummy, dark-berry and tropical-spice notes, but more herby than spicy in Bordeaux. It’s medium-bodied with moderate tannins, falling between cab and pinot noir in weight.
Less expensive merlots tend to be jammy with vanilla notes (from the oak barrels or chips) with low acid and soft tannins that sometimes result in what I call a “doughnut wine”: nice start and finish, but a hole in the middle (midpalate).
The higher-end stuff tends to be earthier and often has coffee and/or chocolate notes. The delineation carries over to the dinner table, where the softer, fruitier versions play well with tomato-topped pasta or pizza, grilled or roasted chicken and mildly spicy ethnic dishes, while the richer ones love steak, lamb and duck.
Here are some of my favorites (domestic unless noted) in a variety of price ranges:
$12 and under: Bogle California Hogue Columbia Valley, Columbia Crest Two Vines, Cycles Gladiator California and Viña Montes Classic Series (Chile).
$12-$20: Boomtown, Folie Á Deux, Bisquertt La Joya Reserve (Chile), Dadá Art Wine 2 (Argentina), Benziger Sonoma County, Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells, Columbia Crest Horse Heaven Hills, Milbrandt Columbia Valley, Murphy-Goode California and Tortoise Creek “Revivalist.”
$20-$40: L’Ecole No. 41 Walla Walla, Rust en Vrede Stellenbosch (South Africa), Charles Krug Napa, Craggy Range Te Kahu Gimblett Gravels Vineyard (New Zealand), Rodney Strong Sonoma County and Matanzas Creek Alexander Valley.
$40-$60: Shafer TD-9, Duckhorn Napa, Northstar Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley.
$60-$90: Beringer Bancroft Ranch, La Jota Howell Mountain, Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard, Pahlmeyer Napa and Leonetti Walla Walla.