Merlot (mehr-LOW)

Very similar in flavor and texture to cabernet sauvignon, merlot is easily confused with it in blind tastings. Indeed, the two share the same father—cabernet franc. But merlot’s mother is the grape magdeleine noire des Charentes; while cabernet’s mother is sauvignon blanc. In the regional French dialect of Bordeaux, the name merlot means “little blackbird.” Merlot’s aromas and flavors include blackberry, cassis, baked cherries, plums, licorice, dark chocolate, mocha, and so on. What merlot usually lacks is cabernet sauvignon’s occasional hint of green tobacco or dried mint. Much is made of merlot’s relative roundness, plumpness, and lack of tannin compared to cabernet sauvignon. I think the idea is largely misleading. When merlot is planted in rocky, well-drained soils in top appellations, it can be every bit as structured, commanding, complex, and tannic as cabernet sauvignon. The problem is that too often wine drinkers compare fairly innocuous, inexpensive merlot (sure it’s soft; maybe limp would be a better word) with expensive cabernet sauvignon from a top site. That’s apples to oranges. Like cabernet sauvignon, the most famous region for merlot has historically been the Bordeaux region of France, where merlot (not cabernet sauvignon) is the leading grape in terms of total production. Merlot in Bordeaux is planted mostly outside of the Médoc and is especially renowned on the so-called “Right Bank”—in the appellations of Pomerol and St.-Emilion. Here, merlot too is almost always blended with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and possibly malbec and/or petit verdot. There is one extremely famous exception to the blending notion—Château Pétrus (from Pomerol), one of the most expensive wines in the world, is 99 percent merlot. In addition to rich, complex, structured merlots from top regions, another compelling style of merlot also exists: I’ll call it the sleek style. Northern Italy has many such merlots, as does Long Island in New York State. But some of the best in this style come from two places: Chile and Washington State. The sheer number of exciting, deeply concentrated merlots coming from Washington State is astounding and growing larger year after year. In Chile, merlots like Casa Lapostolle’s “Cuvee Alexandre” show the riveting potential this grape has in the New World.


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