In the film Sideways, one of the lead characters goes off on a rant against Merlot. The character, a prototypical wine snob, denigrates Merlot because it is “red wine for beginners”: straight-forward fruit flavors, easy to drink with or without food, but lacking any real character.
I have two reactions to this. One is that Merlot can absolutely be a “beginners’ wine”, especially if it is grown in a warm climate and allowed to yield many tons of grapes per acre. Part of Merlot’s popularity, in fact, is that it is relatively unfussy to grow in a wide variety of climates and soil types. But, so what? For me, rule number one for drinking wine is to drink what you like. I can guarantee you that, if inexpensive Merlot is your favorite, that will not get you uninvited from my home, and after 35 years of drinking and collecting wines, including 12 years of retailing and importing them professionally, most people regard me as a “serious” wine person.
My second reaction, though, is that the wine snob (who does get his comeuppance) is displaying his ignorance. If yields are kept low, Merlots are among the greatest wines in the world. (Side note: most Merlots are blended with a little Cabernet Sauvignon, just as most Cabernets are blended with a little Merlot) Some of California’s superstar wineries built their reputations on great Merlots, reputations they deserve. And what French Bordeaux consistently commands the highest prices? Chateau Petrus, which is (depending on the vintage) 95-100% Merlot!
The only grape that has gotten more bad press from wine “sophisticates” in recent times is Chardonnay. I’ll tackle that in future posts.