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Tannic Panic! Issue #27: Don’t Judge a Grape By Its Movie Line
It’s time we all drink some f*cking Merlot.
HEAR YE, HEAR YE, O’ WINOS OF YORE — Once upon a time, there was a film…
And that film inspired a global trend of hating on Merlot.
Indeed, the 2004 cinematic sensation "Sideways" and the insightful remarks of Miles (portrayed by Paul Giamatti) seemed to significantly sway public opinion on Merlot.
Of course, there’s quite a bit of irony to Miles’ little outburst, because his most prized bottle — a 1961 Cheval Blanc, is made from it. The ‘61 Cheval Blanc (which at $5000 a bottle is practically free!) comes from the Right Bank of Bordeaux and thusly contains about 50% Merlot. The other half is Cab Franc, a variety he less famously also disparages in the film (calling it “flabby and overripe”). Thankfully, Cab Franc weathered the proverbial storm.
Nevertheless, consumers started dismissing Merlot as dull, soulless fruit bombs, lacking in both structure and complexity (LIKE ME!)
BUT IT AIN’T SO. Merlot is an incredibly versatile grape that not only lends WONDERFUL flavors and structural elements to blends around the world, but also produces a plethora of guzzlable single varietal wines in just about every corner of this dirty little quadrilateral we call home #squareearth.
So let’s all say “I’m sorry” to the forgiving fruit of Merlot and start to explore what it has to offer. This week we’re making it easy for you — we’ve got 6 great recommendations from different regions around the globe to nab at your leisure.
DID YOU KNOW… Merlot is the 2nd most widely planted black grape in the world.
Merlot: The Grape, The Myth, The Legend
Merlot is produced all around the world in a range of styles. The grape is recognized for its dark color and is often used to soften wines made from more tannic varieties (think Bordeaux blends, Super Tuscans, Cape Blends, etc etc etc).
The flavor profile of Merlot varies, ranging from fresh red plum, cherry and leafy/herbaceous aromas in cooler climates to more concentrated blackberry and plum fruit in warmer regions.
In recent years, the preferred style of Merlot has shifted towards the so-called “international style,” achieved by harvesting the Merlot grapes as late as possible to ensure maximal ripe fruit flavors. Because of their bold flavor profiles and structure, these wines tend to benefit from oak aging, allowing the wines to develop vanilla and spice aromas, evolving into chocolatey, meaty, and tobacco notes with bottle age.
Enough of that, let’s dive into the juice.
… AND NOW FOR THE REVIEWS (IN ORDER OF PRICE):
2020 Cusumano Merlot, Terre Siciliane IGT, Italy / 88 Points / $13 [VALUE PICK!!]
Profile: plum, cherry, tomato leaf, star anise, nutmeg, chocolate, a hint of volatile acidity
Sicilian Merlot isn’t something you’ll find lining your grocery store shelves. In fact, as far as my beady little eyes could tell, this was the only single varietal bottle of Merlot in the entire Italy section at Total Wine. Needless to say I had to grab it for you folks, and here’s the dealio — it ain’t half bad.
This is a solid, fruity wine with much better structure than expected. It shows notes of plum, cherry, tomato leaf, some oak spice and a hint of VA. Alcohol is high, but well integrated, and overall the wine is very well balanced though acidity is just a little sharp. There is a good concentration of flavors and not even a whiff of that manufactured artificial bs you would get at this price point in the US.
A really cool find from a region you don’t typically jump to when you think of Merlot. For $13 this is a fantastic buy.
2021 Kunde Estate Merlot, Sonoma Valley, USA / 90 Points / $16
Profile: black cherry, plum, raspberry, chocolate, nutmeg and tobacco
Medium+ intensity aromas and flavors with medium acidity, medium tannins, full body and a long finish.
This is a very fruit-driven and concentrated style of Merlot that will appeal to most people (including YOU). While this is not as complex and structured as some more premium examples, this actually tastes like real wine made from good quality fruit.
Again, a wine with no evidence of ‘cheap’ winemaking manipulation (e.g. oak chips, sugar enrichment or mega purple enhancement) that is often found in California Merlot at this price point.
2012 Seven Falls Cellars Merlot, Wahluke Slope (Columbia Valley), Washington State, USA / 92 Points / $16
Profile: blackberry, black plum, raspberry, dried strawberry, violets, bay leaf, tobacco, cigar box, chocolate and vanilla
This is a very complex wine showing beautiful integration of tertiary flavors due to 10+ years of bottle age while still retaining concentrated fruit flavors. It is incredibly well balanced, and sports a loooong finish. It hails from the sub-appellation of Wahluke Slope within the broader Columbia Valley AVA, which is known for being one of the most warm and arid parts of Washington State. The warm, arid climate contributes to the concentration, ripe fruit flavors and structure found in this wine. While this particular bottle may not be accessible to most of you garden variety TP fans, other Merlot based wine from Columbia Valley can be found abundantly the domestic market, and I beg you — I AM ON MY SCRAWNY LITTLE KNEES RIGHT NOW — seek one out and try it. Or don’t, whatever, it’s your funeral.
Bonus points if you see bottles from the humble, but prestigious slope of Wahluke.
Can’t find this one, or looking for something even cheaper? Try this instead!
2019 Chateau Au Pont De Guitres Lalande de Pomerol / 90 Points / $20
Profile: blackberry, black plum, tomato paste, bay leaf, cedar, coffee and vanilla
You MUST let this wine open up for at least 2 hours before you can enjoy it. I mean, you can choose not to do so, but it would be the SINGLE BIGGEST MISTAKE YOU’VE EVER MADE.
Upon opening, there were prominent aromas and flavors of burnt rubber and over-roasted coffee, but those subsided with a few hours of aeration, revealing an infinitely more delectable flavor profile. Black fruit (blackberries, black plum), tomato paste, bay leaf, cedar, coffee, and vanilla. Yum yum in my tum tum.
2018 Château Laborde Cuvée 1628 Lalande De Pomerol / 91 Points / $25
Profile: tomato leaf, violet, black plum, black cherry, strawberry, cigar box, chocolate, mushroom
BOOM — another Lalande de Pomerol. Like the above bottle, this one comes from the little nook adjacent to the more prestigious region of Pomerol. What does this mean for you? Similar style, without the price premium. Quite complex, incredibly smooth and nicely balanced.
Unlike the Au Pont, this one doesn’t start out with any kind of off-putting aromas from the jump, it comes out of the bottle to say hello with welcoming aromas of tomato leaf, violet, black fruits, strawberry, cigar box, chocolate and mushroom.
Still, it really develops as it opens up so we still recommend a humble decanting if you have the strength.
85% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 100% good time.
2018 Mascota Vineyards Unánime Merlot, Argentina / 90 Points / $26
Profile: ripe black plum, blackberry, rich chocolate, mocha yogurt, nutmeg, tobacco
This puppy slithers right up to you with a bucket of rich, ripe fruits, chocolate and oak spice. Stylistically this really showcases the powerful, black fruit flavors of Argentinian Merlot.
It is a touch hot (wino speak for noticeable ethanol) with slightly harsher acidity than I’d like to see at this price point, but the flavors are concentrated and bold.
This would not be something I’d usually drink on its own, but it pairs amazingly with food. Try a hearty dish, like a mushroom pasta in red wine reduction, or a rich tomato soup.
As this is the highest price point we’ve explored here, there may be options that deliver more value dollar for dollar – BUT this is a distinctive, rich and ripe style that is worth exploring to decide for yourself, and a very solid introduction to Argentinian Merlot.
These are just a handful of examples from a few regions you should explore, but there are countless others out there producing Merlot — Spain, South Africa, New Zealand, Bulgaria, China… and the list goes on.
We’d usually try to avoid bottles under $13 (or perhaps even slightly higher in regions that are inherently more expensive, like California), as that is where you really start to see low quality “recipe” wines dominate the space. But beyond that, be adventurous and you may find a hidden gem.
Now go out there and f*cking drink some Merlot!
Until next time, happy drinking people.
Isaac & Zach
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