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Merlot: A Wine to Warm the Cockles of the Heart
On November 17, 1991, CBS "60 Minutes" commentator Morley Safer narrated a piece entitled "The French Paradox," which proclaimed that moderate consumption of red wine was a significant part of the answer to the riddle of how the French could eat foods thought to be harmful to the heart, smoke heavily and exercise very little, and still sustain nationally low rates of heart disease. Because of the show's vast television audience, the segment was a journalistic bombshell that had -- and continues to have -- an enormous impact on American wine-drinking habits.
Within a few weeks after the broadcast, retailers across the country reported massive depletions in red wine inventories, even in areas, such the Deep South, which up to then had been but marginal markets for wine. While much of that initial consumer frenzy was focused on inexpensive red jug wines, it soon moved on to moderately priced "fighting varietals," Cabs, Merlots and Zins in the $4.99 to $6.99 range.
The chief beneficiary in this veritable "sea change" in American wine-buying habits was Merlot, which these new-to-good-wine consumers found to be a much more user friendly wine than ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon in terms of tannin levels and delicious, fruity flavors that didn't require much, if any, cellaring before being eminently drinkable. Here was a wine the consumer could pick up at the supermarket and drink that same evening with dinner.
Since 1992, the essential conclusions of "The French Paradox" have been confirmed and supported by dozens of published scientific studies. As late as January 1997, for example, a study published in the American Medical Association's Archives of Internal Medicine concluded that while heavy alcohol consumption increases the likelihood of death from cardiovascular disease, moderate consumption -- two to six drinks per week -- may lessen the risk among men. And at least two recently published books offer insight more easily understood by the average American as to the health benefits of daily consumption of moderate amounts of wine: "The French Paradox & Drinking for Health" by Gene Ford (1993, Wine Appreciation Guild; $8.95 paperback) offers very cogent health-related arguments for responsible drinking, including more than 270 scientific references; and "To Your Health!" by David N. Whitten, M.D., and Martin R. Lipp, M.D. (1994, Harper Collins West; $18 hardbound), presents the conclusions of two physicians who weigh the health benefits and risks of moderate, regular wine consumption against those of other food products and compare the advantages and disadvantages of a couple of glasses of wine a day with various strategies for lowering cardiovascular risk.
Consumer demand for more and more Merlot since 1992 has led to the widespread increase in acreage devoted to the varietal, either by new plantings or by budding over other varietals to Merlot. Consequently, there is now more Merlot being produced than ever before, with no end in sight. Even the grape shortage in California during the last three years hasn't affected the ever increasing number of bottles of Merlot on retailers' shelves; any domestic shortfall to meet consumer demand is offset by an increase in imports of inexpensive and moderately priced Merlot from Chile and France.
Can there be too much of a good thing? Perhaps with Merlot the answer is yes -- or at least could be yes -- if some disturbing trends involving domestic production continue to manifest themselves. Specifically, while there is an encouraging amount of reasonably priced, good-to excellent Merlot coming out of California and elsewhere (particularly Washington), there's also a more-than-insignificant amount of indifferent and/or over-priced stuff finding its way to market. And in the ultra-premium category of Merlot -- the pricey, collectors' wines -- prices have reached incredible heights, surpassing in many instances even the stratospheric levels heretofore attained only by Cabernet Sauvignon.
It seems that some producers, both domestic and foreign, intent on satisfying consumer demand for early-drinking, comparatively inexpensive red varietal wine, are offering vapid, uninteresting Merlots that are often eclipsed in quality by generic jug red wine. Other producers are intent on buffing up the product with lots of new oak, which leads inevitably to higher bottle prices, which are not made any less painful by pretty Italian glass and intricate, artsy-craftsy labels.
The bottom line for consumers is that in navigating this sea of Merlot, it is prudent to refer to published wine evaluations for some indication of the quality levels of various brands, as well as good values for the money. Thus armed, the next step is to make your own taste evaluations before buying in quantity.
Over the last couple of months, the Vintners Club has held two separate blind tastings of 12 Merlots each. The vintages ranged from 1992 to 1995, with prices between $7 and $42. The results confirmed that there are good values under $20 in the Merlot market, but that sometimes low cost means below-average quality. They also demonstrated that while some high-priced bottlings may be worth the investment from a collector's standpoint, other expensive bottlings are unacceptably overpriced.
The results are here set out in a different format than usual, with wines paired according to their ranking (the two first-place wines, two second-place wines, etc.). This offers an editorial opportunity to examine the results from more than the usual tasting notes perspective. The first wine listed will always be from tasting No. 1190, the second from tasting No. 1185, allowing the reader to evaluate the rankings from an additional perspective of a wine's performance vis-a-vis others on a specific occasion (the way the results are usually set out in "Vintner's Choice").
1992 Beringer Merlot, Bancroft Ranch, Howell Mountain, Napa ($28.50)
1994 Chateau Souverain Merlot, Alexander Valley ($13)
This pair of first-place finishers demonstrates the best aspects of the current Merlot market. The Beringer Bancroft Ranch is expensive and worth it, offering a forward nose of smoky oak, black cherry fruit and pleasant spice, which is replicated on the palate in nicely concentrated fruit accented by the smokiness. Its medium-full tannins argue for a couple of years of aging, but the wine can be enjoyed now with hearty fare. At less than half the price, the Chateau Souverain exhibits fragrant scents of vanillin oak and ripe black cherry fruit, which come through on the palate, where the ripe tannins give the wine backbone. A great bottle of wine right now and a very fair price.
1993 St. Francis Merlot, Reserve, Sonoma Valley ($20)
1993 Meridian Merlot, California ($16)
Another situation where wines far apart in price offer true value in their respective categories. The St. Francis Reserve is as dark and opaque as the Beringer Bancroft Ranch Merlot, and just as rich and concentrated, with wonderfully ripe black cherry-cassis fruit and nicely integrated oak. A collector's wine that will reward a couple of years in the cellar. Meridian is part of the Beringer family of wineries, and, as such, has access to vineyards in various growing areas of the state for its Merlot when the crop isn't sufficient in its home base, San Luis Obispo County. Here, the South Central Coast's mildly herbal signature can be found in the nose and flavors, but the fruit is sweet and delicious. Altogether, a generous, bargain-priced Merlot ready to drink now.
1994 Lambert Bridge Merlot, Dry Creek Valley ($18)
1993 Cakebread Merlot, Napa Valley ($26)
Between these two, I found the Lambert Bridge the more interesting wine, perhaps due to its 1994 vintage, a better year than Cakebread's 1993 growing season. Lambert Bridge's Merlot shows a fruity, varietal nose of black cherry fruit enhanced by a hint a glove leather. Smooth, with medium tannins, the wine is elegant and tasty with a pleasantly oaky finish. The Cakebread style tends to emphasize oak, so at this point, the wine's fruit is somewhat overshadowed by smoky oak. Medium-full tannins argue for aging the wine, but perhaps the fruit level will never catch up with the oak here. In this pairing, the Lambert Bridge offers the better value.
1994 Ravenswood Merlot, Sangiacomo Vineyard, Sonoma Valley ($20)
1993 St. Francis Merlot, Sonoma County ($18)
Almost the same price and sharing the same general growing area, these two wines are primarily distinguished by their vintages, with the nod clearly going to the Ravenswood for its ripe cherry-berry fruit, vanillin oak and nice depth of flavor. The St. Francis, in contrast, seems less generous, with medium-full tannins and an astringent note that makes the wine seem a bit out of balance.
1994 Benziger Merlot, Sonoma County ($15)
1993 Napa Ridge Merlot, North Coast ($10)
The Benziger is just slightly more complex, offering pleasant scents of vanilla, black cherries and mint which are replicated on the palate, which is smooth and moderately rich. Napa Ridge Winery, another member of the Beringer wine family and a producer that has made great strides in quality in the last couple of years, can access many vineyard sources, which in the case of this Merlot made up for the comparative weakness of the 1993 vintage. These two wines are equally ripe and rich and ready to drink, although the Napa Ridge shows signs of being able to gain added complexity with a couple of years of aging. When found at full discount, the Napa Ridge Merlot is a steal; even at full price, it's still a great bargain.
1993 Robert Sinskey Merlot, Los Carneros of Napa Valley ($19)
1994 Creston Vineyards Merlot, Paso Robles ($10)
The Sinskey is certainly the bigger wine in terms of its tannins and oak, but the Creston at about half the price is an excellent bargain for its ripe, rich black cherry-cassis fruit and smooth, elegant mouth-feel -- a warm-climate wine that's ready to drink now. The Sinskey Merlot is the more complex of the two, exhibiting aromas of black cherries, orange peel and a hint of mint.
1993 Orfila Vineyards Merlot, Ambassador's Reserve, San Diego County ($25)
1994 Swanson Vineyards Merlot, Napa Valley ($22)
Yes, indeed, there is a red wine growing area in San Diego County, and the Orfila is a good example of what can be accomplished here. Compared to the Swanson, it's much more herbaceous, showing a strong green-olive streak in aroma and flavor, along with one-dimensional, although tasty, berry-cassis fruit. Easy tannins also separate the Orfila from the Swanson, which is built for the long haul. The Swanson also shows much more oak, and the fruit descriptors are more towards the red fruit (raspberry, bing cherry, red plum) portion of the spectrum. In this duo, the Orfila is comparatively overpriced for what it offers.
1993 Kendall-Jackson Merlot, Grand Reserve, California ($42)
1993 Kendall-Jackson Merlot, Vintner's Reserve, California ($15.50)
Remarkable coincidence brings these two K-J Merlots together, permitting a comparison of winemaking styles, since both wines are blends involving fruit from several growing areas from the same vintage. The Vintner's Reserve offers a straightforward Merlot showing cassis-black cherry fruit, medium tannins and adequate depth; a good value for the money, especially when it is found discounted at supermarkets. The Grand Reserve, with all due respect, is vastly overpriced based on what it offers. The shy fruity aromas enhanced by cinnamon spice and toasty oak notes are pleasant and lead to flavors that exhibit varietal cherry-like fruit, but which lack the depth necessary to enable the wine to improve with cellaring. This is disappointing given the conclusion from its price level that it is intended as a collector's wine meant to be aged.
1992 Charles Krug Merlot, Peter Mondavi Family Reserve, Napa Valley ($21.50)
1993 Chateau Ste. Michelle Merlot, Cold Creek Vineyard, Columbia Valley, Washington ($28)
The Krug wine comes in a fancy, tall, Italian glass bottle with an intricate, newly designed label, but for all the glitz, there is remarkably little substance at this price level. Slightly herbaceous in the nose, which suffers a bit from volatile acidity (giving the wine a vinegary edge), the wine's flavors are simply fruity, although a bit sour and not particularly generous. The Chateau Ste. Michelle vineyard-designated Merlot is, on the other hand, a complex wine that exhibits fragrant, appealing scents of smoky oak, vanilla and vibrant cassis-black cherry fruit. Medium-full body and moderately hard tannins are balanced by lots of ripe fruit, enabling the wine to age nicely. A fairly priced wine for the collector.
1994 Rutherford Hill Merlot, Napa Valley ($15)
1993 Vichon Merlot, Napa Valley ($19)
This pairing offers a good opportunity to compare two Napa Valley Merlots priced about the same, distinguished by vintage. The 1994 Rutherford Hill is soft and fleshy on the palate with ripe cherry-cassis fruit and a hint of green olive herbaceousness; the nose is a bit closed in for now. In contrast, the 1993 Vichon has a more pleasant nose of vanilla custard and cherry-berry fruit, but has nowhere near the fruit of the 1994 Rutherford Hill. By comparison, the Vichon shows much more oak and tannin, and may characterized as inelegant and better suited for robust food.
1993 Arciero Merlot, Paso Robles ($12)
1993 Columbia Crest Merlot, Columbia Valley, Washington ($10)
A good chance to compare appellations in the same vintage with wines of equivalent value. Paso Robles is one of California's warmest growing regions, producing ripe, rich, fruity reds, sometimes with an herbaceousness note. The Arciero Merlot conforms to this model, with the addition of a chocolate-y note in the nose. Not particularly exciting wine, but no flaws, either. The cooler Columbia Valley in Washington tends to yield lighter, elegant reds with good-to-excellent acid levels. The Columbia Crest departs from the model a bit because of its slightly weedy character, both in the nose and on the palate, probably due to young vines. Other than that, it's a good example of this appellation's production at this price level.
1995 Wildhurst Vineyards Merlot, Clear Lake ($12)
1994 Bel Arbors Merlot, Vintner's Selection, California ($7)
You get what you pay for here: uncomplex, young-vines Merlot with light body and unexciting flavors; the kind of wine the French might call vin ordinaire and what we'd call jug red (or maybe a "fighting varietal" that's seen too much canvass). The Wildhurst can't be recommended, even at this price, because of an unacceptable green vegetal component that shows up in the nose and interferes with the flavors.
Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.