The Magic of Merlot
By W Peter Hoyne
International Merlot Day is in November and it seems inevitable that we will be exalting this grape once again and revisiting its evolution. While many associate Merlot with our own personal experiences with this grape from California, there are many distinct personalities of this varietal from around the globe. Included in this long list is Merlot from California, Washington, France, Italy, Australia, Chile, Spain and other countries. Originating from the word “Merle,” Merlot means little blackbird in French. With its bluish-black color, Merlot can be a temperamental grape due to its early ripening ability coupled with its thin skins. This makes it more susceptible to spring frosts, disease and rot. Merlot can thrive in warmer climates but can also develop deep complexities in cooler growing regions. Given the right growing conditions and ideal soils, it can achieve its pinnacle in many wine-growing regions. Merlot will attract the soft-hearted with its sultry personality of fleshy fruit and velvety rounded tannins.
Merlot remains the second most widely grown grape in the world after Cabernet Sauvignon and feels most at home in France. This country is also the largest producer of this grape. Merlot made its debut in Bordeaux, France in the late 1700’s. Within Bordeaux’s Medoc region on the Left Bank, Merlot remains a blending grape softening the strength of Cabernet Sauvignon and adding a velvety texture to the core of the wine. Merlot achieved royalty status on Bordeaux’s Right Bank, planted in the clay and limestone soils of St.-Emilion and Pomerol. Wines in the appellation of St Emilion are typically composed of 60-70% Merlot, while in Pomerol the wines can be upwards of 80-90% Merlot.
A devastating freeze in France in 1956 destroyed Merlot vineyards. Producers responded by replanting the grape only to have it succumb to rot. After several years of poor vintages the French government banned the planting of Merlot between 1970-1975. Afterwards, the government decided to lift the ban on Merlot in 1975 due to its rising popularity and once again there was a resurgence of plantings. Since then, the wines from Pomerol became some of the most coveted and expensive Merlot-based wines from Bordeaux, including names such as Chateau Petrus, and Le Pin. Today, they fetch upwards of several thousands of dollars per bottle on the auction market, yet there are also many examples of affordable wines from Pomerol and Lalande-de-Pomerol that will make you a follower.
Oversees, the domestic scene for Merlot was a different story. It wasn’t until 1950 when French native Antoine Delmas brought French grape cuttings to California. Large producers such as Almaden and Inglenook had some acreage of this grape early on. After tasting a 10-year old Italian Merlot, Louis Martini introduced the first varietal Merlot from a blend of the 1968 and 1970 vintages. By 1977 Merlot had flourished with nearly 28 producers of this varietal in California. This number grew substantially by the late 1990’s with more than 200 producers. English native and American winemaker Peter Newton had been introduced to Merlot and the wines of Pomerol while at Oxford in the 1940’s. Upon returning to the US, Newton, with his passion for Merlot, founded Sterling Vineyards in 1969. Notable advancements within the California landscape were also made by Sonoma’s St. Francis Winery’s introduction of Merlot in 1971 and Gundlach Bundschu’s release in 1976. In a similar fashion, Dan Duckhorn traveled to France in the late 1970’s and became enamored with Merlot from Bordeaux’s Right Bank. He returned and founded Duckhorn Winery in 1976 with an emphasis on Merlot. With assistance from Sterling’s winemaker, Ric Forman, Dan secured Merlot from the prestigious Three Palm Vineyards in Napa Valley and released his first vintage from the this heralded site in 1978. The 2014 Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard Merlot rose to stardom in 2017 when the 2014 Three Palms Vineyard Merlot was named Wine Spectators #1 Wine of the year. Dan Duckhorn, in most books, has been revered as “Mr. Merlot.”
As with anything, there was a falling out with Merlot with the American public after the 1994 “Sideways” film. In the movie, Miles disparaged Merlot while praising the virtues of Pinot Noir. Ironically, some believe that the movie saved Merlot with changes in vineyard practices and winemaking, yielding a corresponding improvement in quality. It appears that Merlot has recovered among all age groups with increasing sales in the luxury market, over $20 a bottle.
In the State of Washington, French, German and Italian immigrants were responsible for the early plantings of grapes. The first commercial release of Merlot was in 1976. Successful strides were made by early efforts from L’Ecole No. 41, Woodward Canyon, Leonetti Cellars and others. It ranks as the second most widely planted grape behind Cabernet Sauvignon. Washington Merlots reveal amplified spicy components with complex structures and rich black fruits from their dark volcanic soils.
In Italy, Merlot was recognized in the late 1800’s, especially in the northern grape growing regions of Friuli and Veneto. It became idolized in the 1970’s within the coastal Tuscan regions of Maremma and Bolgheri. Merlot was bottled as a single varietal and used as a blending grape with Sangiovese in order to balance the acidity. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah were the international grapes used in creating the Italian category known as Super Tuscans. Massetto is among the most famous and expensive of all Super Tuscans and was introduced in 1986. It is crafted entirely of Merlot from a 16-acre parcel of blue clay on the Tuscan coast of Bolgheri, within the boundaries of Tenuta della Ornellaia.
Merlot has a relatively short history in Australia with the first vineyards being planted in 1965. The budwood was sourced from UC Davis in California. Merlot’s peak growth in the country occurred between 1987 and 1995. James Irvine became the pioneer of luxury Merlot in Australia. His family started planting vineyards in the Eden Valley of South Australia in the 1980’s. Irvine has won numerous awards for his Merlots and is respectfully referred to as the “90 year old King of Merlot.”
Within South America, Chile had a confusing history with its native grape of Carmenere, which was once thought to be Merlot. Carmenere was first introduced to France by the Romans and was widely planted in Bordeaux. In the vineyards, Carmenere was planted alongside Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and used together during blending. Carmenere cuttings from Bordeaux were brought to Chile in the 1800’s by vineyard owners who mistakenly believed it was Merlot. Carmenere and Merlot had looked alike with similar aromatic characteristics and softer tannins, although Carmenere possessed a bell pepper-like quality similar to Cabernet Sauvignon. Genetic testing in 1993 revealed that what was once thought to be Chilean Merlot was actually Carmenere. Today, Carmenere continues to flourish in its homeland of Chile and after changes in winemaking techniques and modernization has achieved its rightful place in the market.
Merlot can reveal many faces depending on where it is grown, but there is a sultry temperament and complex dimension to this wine that is hard to resist regardless of its origin. While it remains critical as a blending grape in some countries, it can glisten on its own while continuing to be fashionable and retains its celebrity status.