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MERLOT & the love to hate

In the 90’s it was all the rage. From businessmen to 20-something socialites, everyone loved Merlot. Grape growers planted it like mad, and the market boomed. But then along came Sideways, a Hollywood movie that vilified Merlot, and suddenly the party was over. It wasn’t cool anymore. Just like Chardonnay, it was trendy to hate it. And now it seemed like there was a Pinot lover on every corner. I find all this so tiring.

But Merlot will always be one of the best grape varieties, and true wine lovers remain perplexed by the market’s fads. Its quality potential is up there with the best in the world, showcased by wines like Chateau Petrus. So whilst Pinot Noir is now the current popular choices, Merlot isn’t going to go away any time soon.

Grape growers love Merlot. Surprisingly, it is the most widely planted grape in Bordeaux, and you’ll find plenty of it in the south of France, northern and central Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and both North and South America. It’s even the most planted grape in Romania, and you’ll be able to quench your thirst with it at dozens of wineries in Bulgaria. Can’t wait.

Growers love Merlot because it ripens a week or two earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon. In frost prone areas, or places that can get serious downpours in the Fall, that extra week or two can make the difference between a successful vintage and a wash-out. 1998 in Bordeaux is a good example of this. It’s was a spectacular vintage in St.Emilion and Pomerol, but the Cabernet-dominated vineyards of the Medoc were not so lucky. It started pouring with rain before the grapes were fully ripe.

Another reason for its popularity amongst grape growers is because it can yield a bumper crop. I know that wine is all about the romance to those who drink it, but when you’re trying to make money out of producing it then yield becomes one of the most critical factors. Some varieties, like Pinot Noir, tend to produce lackluster wines when cropped above 4 tons per acre, but not so with Merlot. And as a grower, I want to produce as many grapes as possible, at quality levels suited to my commercial goals.

Merlot is also tolerant of a variety of different soil types, and doesn’t mind being planted in heavy clays. This is the primary reason why it thrives on the so-called Right Bank of the Bordeaux region, which is dominated by clay and limestone. But you’ll also find it producing some superb wines in the silty loam soils of Washington State, and some Okanagan wineries even have it planted on pure sand. So when it comes to soil types Merlot seems to be less picky compared to various other varietals.

So if you’re contemplating planting a vineyard in a warm area then Merlot is often on the list of potential candidates. It’s popular, you can grow lots of it, it’s not so fussy about soil types, and it will even ripen early for you. Hey, it might even turn out to be great quality and sell for big bucks.

But grape growing issues aside, much of the final quality will depend on how it’s made in the winery. At the top estates in the world you’ll typically see it treated to a lengthy maceration of 2-4 weeks, with the goal of extracting plenty of flavor and tannic structure. It takes well to oak, particularly French, and can be matured for 2 years in barrel before bottling. Although it has a reputation for being soft and smooth, high quality Merlot can require at least 5 years in bottle before it comes around to showing its potential quality.

On the other hand, if you are making Merlot for the cheaper end of the market, then you’d typically go for a much shorter maceration, perhaps just one week or so, to limit the tannin extraction. And instead of those French oak barrels that can run you $1,200 a pop, many wineries opt for wood chips, which cost a fraction of the price but don’t give quite the same result. Obviously the marketing department is not inclined to tell you their wine is matured using their finest oak chips. Once it gets into bottle you can open these types of wine immediately, and they are usually more pleasant to drink than a Cabernet of the same age.

You’ll often find Merlot blended with other grapes, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, but also potentially Malbec and Petit Verdot. This can be done for both premium and inexpensive wines, and is the way a winemaker can sculpt his product to the house style, layer in complexity, or adjust it to meet market demands.

So the quality of Merlot can be all over the map. You can buy a bottle at the gas station in the U.S. for peanuts, or you can go a little crazy and load up on a new vintage of Petrus at $3,000 a bottle. But the glut of uninspiring Merlot, along with the impact of Hollywood movies that have slandered the grape has caused its popularity to wane. Despite this current fashion for other varietals, when it comes to truly fine wine, there’s never been any question that Merlot is amongst the very best grapes.

After all, the finest wines can age for over 50 years. True, they don’t have quite the same longevity as Cabernet Sauvignon, but they certainly do have better ageing potential than Pinot Noir and most others. So when it comes to stocking the cellar for the long haul you’ll certainly want to consider the finer Merlots as an option.

So what should you buy? Well, the great wines of St.Emilion and Pomerol on Bordeaux’s Right Bank are still the benchmark. Pomerol is the classic appellation because the wines typically have a higher percentage of Merlot in them, usually around 80%, with just a splash of Cabernet Franc and maybe Sauvignon. These are usually tiny estates, producing a few thousand cases of wine, and hence the prices can be stratospheric. Enter stage left Petrus, Le Pin, Vieux Chateau Certan, La Conseillante and a dozen others. One of my best ever bottles was a 25 year old Petrus. I finally understood what all the fuss was about. It left everyone almost speechless.

But the top wines of St.Emilion are spectacular too. Ausone, Angelus, Pavie, Le Dome, and so many others. These tend to be slightly less opulent than Pomerol, but are always dense and concentrated all the same. If you can wait for 10 years or so you’ll see the deep ruby color turn a shade of brick red, the nose open up to reveal a spectrum of complex nuances that can include fruitcake, licorice, black cherry, chocolate, coffee, tobacco, vanilla, mushroom and wet earth. They’re to die for.

If you are intent on drinking a French Merlot but only want to spend $20 then the south of France is your best option. Since the 1990’s there have been huge plantings of this grape in the so-called Pays D’Oc. But the wines, whilst deep and full bodied, tend to have much less complexity than in Bordeaux and are more suited to a casual BBQ.

In north eastern Italy there is a surprising amount of Merlot, but I wouldn’t be in a hurry to buy these. They tend to be light in every way – color, body and ripeness levels. Instead, buy the Super Tuscans that have a heap of Merlot in them. Masseto and Tua Rita are the benchmarks, 100% Merlot, but expensive. My personal favorite is Luce, which is a blend of Merlot and Sangiovese, and is a very fine wine for around $100.

If budget cuts have you searching for a deal on European Merlot then you probably can’t beat the prices of Hungarian, Romanian and Bulgarian wines. It’s surprising just how much is planted here, and the prices can be under $10 a bottle.

If I was looking for a high quality Merlot from the New World then I would be heading for the California and Washington sections of the store. Duckhorn in Napa made a mark with some gorgeously rich and plummy Merlots, and now the grape is widely planted in California. These wines tend to have less earthiness than their Bordeaux counterparts, and burst with ripe berry fruit and the warmth of higher alcohol.

In Washington State Merlot is the most widely planted grape, and it typically plays a role in many of the finest wines. These are under-rated by consumers, but not under-priced. The local demand in Seattle for the best wines results in prices being in the high $70’s+ in western Canada.

South America, especially Chile, can produce some exceptional Merlot, both in terms of value for money and absolute quality. Sena is a benchmark amongst the famous labels, but I’m also impressed with the likes of a basic Errazuriz Merlot for just $15.

New Zealand is a sleeper that has recently shown what it can do with Merlot. A few years ago the best wines from Hawke’s Bay on the north island were put up against the finest wines of Bordeaux, and guess what? The Kiwis stole the show. But I’m more inclined to drink Pinot Noir from New Zealand, just like you would be to drink Shiraz from Australia.

One of the nice things about Merlot is that some of them can be drunk without food. They don’t have the astringency of most Cabernet and so they can slip down without much “bite”. But really these go so much better with red meats, and so whether it’s a steak, roast beef, a leg of lamb or a burger you’ll enjoy them much more than flying solo.

WINE — FOOD PAIRING

Chateau Petrus , Pomerol A nice inheritance

Chateau Le Bon Pasteur, Pomerol Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding

Chateau Grand Mayne, St Emilion Steak Frites

Tua Rita, IGT Toscana Pasta in a tomato sauce

Duckhorn, Napa Leg of lamb

Woodward Canyon, Washington State Stew

Errazuriz, Sena, Chile Bison                     

CABERNET SAUVIGNON, The Emperor of Red Wines

If I had to pick a favorite grape, which is like picking a favorite child, then it would have to be Cabernet Sauvignon.

In the final analysis Cabernet makes more great wines than any other variety. I can hear the mutterings of dissent. So I’ll present my case.

The argument is that Cabernet makes more great wines than any other variety. Aside from Bordeaux and Napa, it’s easy to rattle off famous names like Coonawarra and Margaret river in Australia, some of the great Super-Tuscans, the icon wines of Chile, and you could even make a case for Washington State, pockets of Spain, Hawkes Bay in New Zealand, parts of Sonoma, and, wait for it…., Lebanon. The same can’t be said for the other classic red varietals, including Pinot Noir.

Granted, many of these wines are blends of Cabernet with Merlot, and perhaps some Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, or even Shiraz and Sangiovese. But at their core, it’s Cabernet that dominates the blend.

If price is a gauge of quality, then Cabernet Sauvignon holds the world record for the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold. When the hammer came down at the Napa Valley Auction, the cult Cabernet from Screaming Eagle went for a whopping $500,000 for a single large format bottle. People will pay more for Cabernet than any other varietal, the rare Burgundy aside.

Still not convinced? The Grands Crus of the Medoc and Pessac in Bordeaux are the most classic wines in the world and dominate the fine wine market. Wine enthusiast’s line just to get their hands on a few bottles of Chateaux Latour, Mouton, Haut Brion, Margaux and many many others. You can’t say the same for any other variety, not even Burgundy to the same degree.

In terms of ageability, the prize goes to Cabernet. Wine critics devote pages of poetic prose to describing the nuances of old vintages like 1961, 1945 and 1929, or perhaps the 1900. There are not too many Pinots, Syrahs or Merlots that can age for 100 years.  

So what is it about this grape that makes such outstanding quality wines? In their youth they are intensely colored, with a very deep ruby that can have shades of blue, black and purple. The nose typically shows intense aromas of fresh blackcurrant, cedar, chocolate, coffee and sometimes mint. The palate is always dry, rich and full bodied, with structured tannins providing backbone. The greatest wines show superb length, with an after-taste lingering for hours. The whole experience can be breathtaking

But it’s with age that Cabernet really shows its breed. The bouquet develops and become more nuanced, with notes of forest floor, wet earth, and sometimes a beautiful spice. On the palate the tannins soften, becoming smoother and more velvety, yet the wines can remain powerful and concentrated for decades.

It’s a cliché, but quality does start in the vineyard. Whilst Cabernet is fairly mobile, being planted in dozens of countries and regions, it prefers warmer climates. If I owned a vineyard in England, northern France or Germany then Cabernet wouldn’t be on the list of possibilities. My Cabernet vines would opt for Napa Valley, where they could bask in the sunshine. The cool nights are important too, helping to retain acidity and freshness.  

Cabernet can be planted on a variety of soil types, but for top quality wines the key is to find sites that have low fertility. The Medoc has a high proportion of gravel. Coonawarra is famous for their red clay soils, known as terra rossa. Poor soils can lead to great wines.

The berry size is small, and the skins are relatively thick. This contributes depth of color and the tannic backbone. When cropped at low levels, such as two tons per acre, there can be immense concentration of flavor. Some of the hillside vineyards in Napa, like Howell Mountain, have such poor soils that the yields are a fraction of the sites on the valley floor.  

The grape also ripens late, usually a few weeks after Merlot, which can be a challenge in areas prone to rain during the harvest. But when the weather stays warm and sunny, this extra ripening time allows for additional flavor development.

In the winery, the great wines usually see extended maceration. The grape juice is pumped over the skins for 3 weeks or more, extracting all the goodies from the berries. One of the great arts of making Cabernet, and all red wines for that matter, is knowing when to stop the maceration because excessive extraction can potentially lead to harsh tannins.

And then come the French oak barrels, although wineries like Silver Oak in Napa have proven that American oak can produce top notch wines too. In Bordeaux the barrel ageing time is usually between 18 to 20 months, although it can go longer. This is a winemaker’s personal preference, and Heitz Cellars in Napa shows that spectacular wines can result from 36 months aging. Some wineries go for 100% new French oak, and others prefer far less. There’s no right or wrong here. It’s just a stylistic preference.

So what should you buy when searching for these classic Cabernets?

The so-called Left Bank of the Gironde in Bordeaux is the benchmark for collectors. In great vintages like 2000, 2005, 2009 and 2010 it’s hard to go wrong. Obviously the 1st Growths are spectacular but expect to pay over one thousand dollars per bottle. But you can buy wines that are much less expensive and arguably just as good quality. My favorites are Ducru Beaucaillou in St Julien, Pichon Lalande in Pauillac, and Smith Haut Lafitte in Pessac.

Napa Valley has stolen my heart. It’s not just the wines, but it’s also the wonderful hospitality and beautiful weather from May until September. It’s so difficult to pick out favorites without listing 50 wineries, but Heitz Cellars, Stags Leap Wine Cellars, Shafer and Chateau Montelena are on my short list. And if you go to Napa, make sure you visit Spring Mountain Vineyard. It’s like a journey into the Garden of Eden.

Wine critics love to compare Bordeaux and Napa, but frankly they are quite different in style. Napa is more about richness, ripeness, power and concentration, with softer, plushier tannins, and fresher fruit aromas. By contrast, Bordeaux is typically drier, more tannic, not quite as full bodied, and has a more earthy character.

In Coonawarra in South Australia, it’s the fun-loving Ian Hollick whose wines stand out as my own favorites. Coonawarra makes some of the finest Cabernet in the New World. The wines can have very perfumed cassis aromas and minty flavors. They are typically much less expensive than both Bordeaux and Napa, and so they score additional points for their value for money.        

In Chile, it’s the classic Cabernet from Don Melchor, owned by Concha y Toro, which never fails to impress. If you think that only great Bordeaux can age for 10-20 years then think again. This wine proves that Chilean wines can have style, grace, and individuality. You just have to get over the fact that Chile is mainly in the cheap and cheerful category.  

In Tuscany, Sassicaia is one of the benchmark Super-Tuscans. Sassicaia was the winery that started the whole super-Tuscan movement, along with Tignanello, when they made a wine that did not conform to Tuscan wine regulations because it was based on Cabernet Sauvignon. The Italian authorities refused to give it the more prestigious DOCG designation, and relegated it to Vino da Tavola status, making it the world’s most expensive “table wine”.

And then there’s Torres in Spain, whose Mas La Plana can give anyone’s Cabernet a run for their money. Bob Betz in Washington State makes Cabernets that will blow your socks off, and merit the very high ratings his winery consistently receives.

The list could go on. But you’ve probably got enough recommendations to keep you from becoming dehydrated anytime soon. You could call Cabernet the King of wines, and the wine of Kings. But there are others who make this claim, namely the superb sweet wines of Tokaji in Hungary. So perhaps Cabernet is more like “The Emperor” of wines, because at the very pinnacle of quality there’s nothing else like fine Cabernet.

WINE — FOOD SUGGESTION

Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou, Bordeaux — Leg of Lamb

Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, Bordeaux — Filet Mignon with frites

Heitz Cellars, Martha’s Vineyard, Napa Valley — Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding

Hollick, Coonawarra, Australia — Aged Cheddar Cheese

THE MAGIC OF VALPOLICELLA

Trust the Italians to use the same grapes to make four completely different styles of wine under the Valpolicella banner. First you have the mainstream Valpolicella, which is light and fruity. Second, you have a fuller bodied and richer version called a Ripasso. Then you have a monstrously dense blockbuster called an Amarone, and finally a relatively rare sweet red desert wine called a Recioto.

Maybe the Italians got bored. Maybe they wanted to broaden their portfolio for commercial purposes. Or maybe they got tired of wine snobs criticizing simple Valpolicella and decided to come out with a massive, full bodied, high alcohol Amarone. You almost need a knife and fork when you crack open an Amarone, which is surely amongst Italy’s great wines.

Unlike in most of the New World, there is a real history to production here in north-eastern Italy. Grapes were grown by the ancient Greeks who cultivated the hillsides. The wines were enjoyed by the Courts in the 6th century, and noted for their special powers.

Over the years, Valpolicella became so successful that producers sold everything they could make. Inevitably, growers increased the yields on their vineyards so they could produce more, but the quality of the wines began to slip because the grapes lacked concentration. The local authorities also granted permission for growers to cultivate new areas, which were generally on the fertile plains. These areas were not well suited for high quality vineyards.

So in some respects, Valpolicella became a victim of its own success. The large volumes of simple wine masked the exceptional quality of the best producers. But on the other hand, the reasonable pricing of the wines (usually sub $20) was a bonus for consumers, and the light bodied fruity style made straight Valpolicella the perfect pizza wine. You can chill it, you can drink it within hours of release, and it’s often the house wine at the millions of Italian restaurants that have helped showcase the country’s wines at export.

At the opposite end of the spectrum to straight Valpolicella you have Amarone, which is a stunning wine, revered amongst wine lovers, and made in the most bizarre and unique way. The growers harvest the ripest and healthiest looking bunches from their vineyards, the rest being for regular Valpolicella production. They then take these perfect bunches and spread them out on straw mats, and sometimes they even tie a piece of string to the stems and hang them from the ceiling in a warehouse, or their kitchen, as the case may be. There are not many other winemakers doing this elsewhere in the world…

Over the next five months the grapes then shrivel into raisins, which means the water content evaporates and you are left with a sweet concentrated flavor of dried fruits. The grapes are then fermented, and because they are so rich in sugar the alcohol degree ends up being around 15% and the wines still taste very slightly sweet. After long ageing, they are released onto the market and can be enjoyed for a few decades thereafter.

Amarone is a thrill. The color is almost black, the viscosity coats the glass, the bouquet is heady with notes of dark chocolate, prune, raisin and stewed fruit. The palate is explosive, rich and full, with the high tannins masked by the massive concentration. On the finish the warmth of the alcohol screams for a log cabin, a roaring fireplace, and an iPhone that’s out of range. Many of them cost around $60+ dollars. Of all the more premium wines I’ve shared with people, I’ve never seen someone turn their nose up at an Amarone.

But if you want something a bit more moderate, both in terms of price and quality, then buy a Ripasso. In terms of style, this is halfway between a straight Valpolicella and an Amarone. A Ripasso is a Valpolicella that has been refermented on the skins of the Amarone. This gives it more weight and extract, boosts the alcohol, and makes for a much richer style of wine. Many of them cost between $20-$30 and so they are good value, and make for a perfect match with lasagna.

The last style of Valpolicella is called a Recioto. This is basically a sweeter Amarone, where the ferment has been stopped in order to leave more residual sugar. This is a perfect match with Christmas cake or blue cheese.

Recioto is a unique red wine with an exciting taste. When you drink it you get a burst of energy, and it sends tingling sensations across your taste buds. The combination of sweet dried fruit flavors and black forest cake are to die for, and typically at less than $50 for a bottle it’s one of the world’s buried treasures.

So there are plenty of styles to choose from when it comes to wines from Valpolicella. But what they all have in common is the use of the Corvina grape and it’s cousins, usually complemented by Molinara, Rondinella and others.

Masi is probably the most famous producer, but there are dozens of others to look out for including Bertani, Tommasi, and Allegrini. I always look for the words “Classico” on the label, indicating that the wine was produced from vineyards in the original planted area, which is considered to be the best. And if you’re going to crack a bottle of Amarone, then be sure to decant it for an hour or so, to let the genie out of the bottle.

UNDERSTANDING WINE SCORES

Robert Parker, for many years the world’s leading wine critic, explains on his website that “scores are important for the reader to gauge a professional critic’s overall qualitative placement of a wine.” He goes on to say that “no scoring system is perfect” and “there can never be any substitute for your own palate.”

And that just about sums it up. The bottom line is that wine buyers are faced with an overwhelming amount of choice and it is useful to get some guidance from a professional critic. A wine that scores 95-100 points is a classic, 90-94 points is outstanding, 85-89 is very good, and 80-84 points is just considered to be good. Beyond that, well, you don’t want to know.

But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that the point scoring system is very controversial. Some major critics refuse to use it. They think it’s impossible to give a numeric score to something likened to art. Giving points to wine is like giving scores to Picasso’s great works. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Another important reason for not using the 100 point system is because even professional tasters can be inconsistent in their ratings. Dr. Vino, a wine critic, attended a tasting of top flight Bordeaux with Parker himself where all of the wines were tasted blind. The result? Parker’s gave the highest score to a wine that he had scored the lowest in his most recent publication.

Dr. Vino’s published article does give weight to the argument that there is inconsistency even amongst the top critic’s. At the same tasting, Parker identified several Medoc wines as coming from the Right Bank.

The 100 point system also causes confusion amongst the more inquisitive consumers. It’s perplexing that a wine costing hundreds of dollars per bottle can be rated the same as one costing just $15 or $20 dollars. The major critics state that they taste wines within their peer groups. But where exactly does a peer group start and stop?

Take New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as an example. Would you class wines costing between $15-$20 as a peer group, or is it more like $15-$30 as a price range? The latter price range would be more advantageous to the more expensive wines, at least in theory.

Another argument against the 100 point system is that every wine seems to get at least 85 points. In fact, the ratings start at 50 points and if a wine is particularly poor then the review may not get published. Today, a score between 85 and 88 isn’t worth much to a winery or the trade. It’s the 90 pointers that make an impact.  

But there’s also the related issue of how tough the scorer is relative to another critic. Some wine critics rarely give over 90 points to a wine, whereas others seem to be running out of points.

The “anti-point” contingent argues that the major critics, who make markets with their scores, have become so powerful that producers are making wines just to suit their palates. There is some truth to this claim. This can result in homogeneity of wine styles, where all red wines look very dark in color, have gobs of sweet fruit, and no shortage of power and concentration. This is a shame, because part of the richness of wine is the celebration of its diversity.

But the bottom line is that the 100 point system is the most consumer-friendly and it helps the wine industry too. If a winery scores highly then the cash register will start ringing. The major trade buyers are more inclined to list it because they know it will help sell wine. And sales representatives, Sommeliers, and retailers love it because it gives third party endorsement to what they are saying.

Keep in mind that it’s usually only the better quality wines that get scored. The wines that sell massive volumes at inexpensive prices are not usually rated, and this seems wrong, given that this is where the majority of consumers are looking for advice.

I believe that the major wine critics act in the best interest of the consumer, and are trying to simply give some guidance to the best of their ability. A score is easier to understand than a flowery tasting note. Numeric scores immediately give an indication of the relative quality of the wine. And essentially it’s that, an indication of quality, but it’s not a perfect system.

But finally, I would caution the consumer. Tasting wine and scoring wine is tricky business. The critics can be wrong, sometimes very wrong. The actual tasting skills of some critics is debatable. And lastly, they may be tasting and scoring wines in very challenging conditions. At some of the major competitions a critic is often asked to score 100 wines before lunch. Absurd…