Merlot: The Little Blackbird You Hardly Knew
Despite becoming a European superstar only decades after being discovered in Bordeaux in the 1780’s, despite currently being the second most grown grape on the planet, and despite holding a place in American history complete with Hollywood drama, merlot still sometimes suffers from a reputation of being bland. At least among some American consumers.
In truth, merlot - the grape, its past, or the wine - is anything but.
Bordeaux is home to Merlot
The story of the development of the wine trade in Bordeaux is one that reaches back for centuries. A short, sufficient outline doesn’t do it justice because too many world-changing events and their ensuing nuances have be glossed over. But the tale is fascinating - rife with swamps, port wars, and pirates. And those are just the early years. More recent times brought vine devastation, disease, and planting bans. Throughout, scandalous and sophisticated players, like Eleanor of Aquitaine and various popes and kings, were pulling the strings behind the scenes.
Merlot found a home in the US after vines were planted in California in the mid 1850s. While today it grows in almost every wine producing country in the world, California is a particularly noted for it, especially in the Napa and Sonoma AVAs, themselves as world-renown as Bordeaux. Since the end of Prohibition in 1933, merlot has been a part of American drinking culture.
So if the grape’s past were to be made into a movie, would the tagline be ’A Scrappy Little Grape Rises Above Seemingly Insurmountable Beginnings to Become an American Star’?
The ‘Sideways Effect’ was REAL
The effect that the 2004 movie ‘Sideways’ had on the fashionability of merlot is a cultural phenomena. Sideways is a not-very-good movie, based on a not-very-good book of the same name that people think is about wine (it’s not) where the Miles the protagonist, a depressed writer with a drinking problem, famously screams, “I’m not drinking any f*** merlot!” Miles’ ex-wife had a love for merlot. He therefore hated it and was trying to drink his away depression over losing her, and his wine of choice for doing that was pinot noir.
Although I didn’t think this was a good movie, A LOT of other people did - so much so that it was nominated for five Academy Awards, won Best Adapted Screenplay and was the launching point for the film careers of Paul Giamatti (Miles), Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh. The book has four stars and thousands of reviews on Amazon.
Sideways was released in October 2004 and stayed in theaters until May 2005. Between January 2005 and December 2008, merlot sales dropped 2%, largely accredited to Miles’ hatred of it and to that quote in particular, which Director Alexander Payne called the most memorable of the film. Respected wine magazine Decanter ran articles such as ‘Sideways Effect Grips America’ (Feb 2005) and ‘Sideways Effect: Confirmed’ (Nov 2008). In 2005, the San Francisco Chronicle stated ‘Suddenly, America’s favorite red wine is also its most uncool’. There is no shortage of domestic and international articles on the subject ranging in tone from skeptical to amused to scholarly, and printed as recently as 2018 in publications including the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, NPR, the Wine Economist, New York Times, and the Journal of Wine Economics.
All of this is to say that the term ‘the Sideways Effect’, now a part of cultural lexicon, was a very real, measurable event. To be fair, sales of California Merlot had begun falling prior to the movie’s release, mostly because there was a lot of crappy, bulk wine on the market, and the biggest sales drops were seen at the $10-$20 price range. “I’m not drinking any f*** merlot!” resonated for a reason though, and sent the industry reeling. Ten years later, in 2015, Wine Business and Wine Intelligence confirmed that consumer sentiment for merlot was back, although Winemaker Jim Duane at Seavey Vineyard stated in April 2018, “When you go to pour merlot for people in the tasting room they will actually put their hand over the glass,” while discussing anecdotal proof of remaining reputational bias against the grape.
The positive side of the Sideways Effect is that sales for California Pinot Noir grew by 16% during the same time period that merlot bashing was all the craze, and at a rate of 9% annually through 2017. But that is another story.
What Merlot actually is
Merlot is a thin skinned, early ripening red grape that grows in large, loose bunches in clay-based soils and cooler, more humid growing environments. DNA profiling has shown it to be the offspring of cabernet franc and Magdeleine Noire des Charentes, meaning it’s a sibling of cabernet sauvignon (because of the cab franc parentage), and it is often blended with cabernet sauvignon. ‘Merlot’ most likely comes from the Old French word for ‘young blackbird’ i.e., ‘merlot’, a diminutive of merle (blackbird), and that is probably because of the color of the grape.
The wine it produces generally gives notes of red and black berries and bramble, with medium to medium-high acid, and tannins that are softer than those of cabernet sauvignon. Winemaker Aaron Potts of Blackbird Vineyards in Napa provided my favorite description: “[Merlot is a] lush complex wine that smells like violets.” Spot on.
Some styles of merlot, particularly from France and sometimes Chile, can show greener, more herbaceous notes, and this can be desirable or undesirable depending on the consumer.
Merlot as a blending grape provides fullness, softness, and juicy berry and plum flavors while smoothing the usually more-astringent tannins of its favorite partner grapes, such as cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc in Bordeaux blends, syrah in Languedoc blends, cab sauvs from colder estates outside of Paarl and Stellenbosch in South Africa, and in tannat from Uruguay. Merlot often provides the basis for Supertuscans and blends from Umbria and Friuli in Italy.
As a single varietal, it retains these soft, juicy characteristics and can easily handle oak. Popular examples and Winelala-recommended single varietal merlots are Napa Valley’s Duckhorn, Washington State’s L’ecole’s Number 41, and Perusini’s Collio Orientali.
Why You Should be Drinking Merlot Instead of Oh, Say, Anything Else
Merlot is one of the greatest grapes in the world, and is in some ways the very definition of wine. It is a benchmark of style, as are many of the famous regions that precede it: ‘Right Bank Bordeaux’, ‘ Napa Valley’, ’Sonoma County’, ‘Italian Supertuscan’. Likewise, if you’re looking to branch out to lesser-known and smaller regions, choosing merlot can hedge what might be a risky bet. At a high-end meal for example, ordering merlot from South Africa, Uruguay, Bulgaria, or Romania can be cool, interesting, and different, while still being safe enough to deliver the satisfactory sensory experience that only a wine that has succeeded through the centuries can.
Miles was wrong, and like so much fake news, his uninformed, half-of-the-picture rantings were circulated and acted upon with too much outside enthusiasm, despite the market needing some rightsizing in the bargain-price range. At the end of the film, Miles brings out a bottle of his most prized and wonderful wine, a 1961 Cheval Blanc, that he has been saving to drink at his best friend’s wedding. I’m sure this is ironic, but Cheval Blanc is a Premier Grand Cru Classé A producer in St. Emilon, located on the famous Right Bank of Bordeaux. A little research uncovers that the 1961 is a blend of 58% cab franc and 42% merlot. In the end, Miles was drinking merlot.
Practical Next Steps
I’m always frustrated when I read great articles or books that inspire me, then I realize that the inspiration is only in a general sense and that I don’t know what to actually do next. So I’m not going to leave you hanging. If you haven’t already begun trying to decide when your next opportunity to have a glass of wine will be, start doing so.
Beyond that, beyond just your next glass of wine, which will obviously be merlot - start actually investigating merlot. If it’s a wine that you often skip or even subconsciously associate with being uncool or dated, or if you’re one of those people who puts their hand over your glass when someone is trying to pour it for you - give it a couple of chances. Try merlots from different countries, different vintages, different producers, and different price points. Drink mindfully and notice what you’re experiencing. We listed a couple recommendations above but you don’t have to start there. Start your own journey and conclude on merlot’s enduring legacy. And share what you think! Is the little black bird justified in being so historically triumphant since bursting onto the worldwide stage?