Mastering the Mis-interpreted Merlot

Experts gather to discuss the growing Merlot market

by Stacy Briscoe
Masters of Merlot seminar and tasting held Nov. 2 at CIA Copia in Napa, Calif. Panel of experts (left to right): Chris Carpenter, winemaker, Mt. Brave & La Jota Vineyard Co.; Cleo Pahlmeyer, president, Pahlmeyer; P.J. Alviso, Vice President of wine growing, Duckhorn Vineyards; Ted Edwards, winemaker, Freemark Abbey

Napa, Calif.—The Masters of Merlot seminar, held Nov. 1 at the Culinary Institute of America brought together a panel of experts to discuss the nuances of the grape variety, its ability to thrive in Napa Valley and the importance of educating the consumer.

“Many of the greatest wines of the world are made from Merlot,” said moderator Anthony Giglio who is a wine writer and author. “It is a variety with great history and heritage that perhaps needs to be better understood.”

Merlot is the most widely planted grape in the Bordeaux region and, according to the International Organization of Vine and Wine, the second most widely planted wine grape in the world behind Cabernet Sauvignon. And yet the story of Merlot is akin to the kind of drama one may have been exposed to in high school: From the French Paradox to the “Sideways effect,” it took one rumor to make Merlot off-the-charts popular, and one statement to ruin its reputation.

“In my roles as a writer and educator I taste all sorts of wines with just about anyone who will listen,” Giglio said. “Merlot often comes up in the context of, ‘do you drink Merlot?’ as if asking for approval. The answer, of course, is yes.”

Giglio said now is the perfect time for a “Merlot moment,” to showcase that, when grown in the right place, Merlot can show its pedigree just as well or better than any other variety. Napa, he said, with its mosaic of ideal soils and climates ideal for Merlot, offers a diversity in styles and expressions and has proven a prime growing spot for the variety.

Importance of location
Ted Edwards, winemaker for Freemark Abbey Winery since 1985, said the winery has been making Merlot since the 1960s, predominantly blending it into their Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon until 1985. “I had too much Merlot (in 1985) for my Cabernet Sauvignon blend,” Edwards said. “So I approached the managing partner, Chuck Carpy, and asked him what to do. He said bulk it out.”

But Edwards presented Carpy a glass of 100% Merlot and some math. “I said, ‘Look, if we bottle this great quality Merlot as a separate item and sold it at a retail price of $10, we could make an extra $50,000,’” Edwards said. So they did — and the wine sold out in two weeks, according to Edwards. After that, the two decided they should produce a single-varietal Merlot as part of the Freemark Abbey portfolio and dedication to Bordeaux varieties.

However, Edwards added, this was during the “growth spurt” for Merlot of the late 1980s, when the red wine was high in public demand. In response to that demand, Merlot plantings increased significantly through the early 2000s.

By 2006, according to California Department of Food and Agriculture’s vineyard acreage reports, bearing acreage of Merlot hit a high of 51,570 acres but fell to 48,648 in 2007. Acreage continued to decline in subsequent years and remained flat at around 40,000 acres since then.

“Unfortunately, Merlot was planted in a lot of places that were not conducive to making great Merlots,” Edwards said, referring to the warmer regions in central California, Sierra Nevada foothills and a cooler place like Carneros.

The panel of experts, which also included P.J. Alviso, vice president of winegrowing for Duckhorn Vineyards, Cleo Pahlmeyer, president of Pahlmeyer and Chris Carpenter, winemaker for Mt. Brave & La Jota, all agreed that Merlot is a “finicky” variety to grow. The vines can be over-vigorous; grapegrowers need to constantly monitor soil moisture and vine stress. The thin-skinned grape is susceptible to environmental influences, often prone to rot; leaf management is important during every stage of growth. And it’s sensitive to extreme temperatures, with a tendency to shatter; growers must be aware of temperature fluctuations and respond appropriately.

During the tasting, Edwards presented the Freemark Abbey 2015 Bosché Vineyard Merlot. Located up against the Mayacamas Mountains separating Napa and Sonoma counties, the Bosché Vineyard, according to Edwards, is an idyllic spot to grow Merlot. Situated along the Rutherford Bench, the area enjoys deep gravelly loam soils and a high water table during winter and spring. “That (water table) drops as we get into veraison. Perfect timing to stress the vines, creating great Merlot,” he said.

Indeed, the single-vineyard wines presented of which the winery representatives were most enthusiastic were those grown in terrain consisting of rocky, lean soils: 2015 Duckhorn Vineyards Three Palms Vineyard Merlot; 2015 Pahlmeyer Merlot; 2015 Mt. Brave Mt. Veeder Merlot and both the 2015 Howell Mountain and W.S. Keyes Merlots from La Jota Vineyard Co.

That being said, Edwards and Alviso both admitted they enjoy blending Merlots from various regions. “Duckhorn sources from nine of the fourteen AVAs in Napa,” Alviso said. The benefit of blending, Alviso said, is that there’s more opportunity to include the best of the vintage into one wine.

The two also spoke about the benefits of blending other varieties into a varietally labeled Merlot. The Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot consists of 85% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot; the 2015 Freemark Abbey Napa Valley Merlot consists of 89% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Petit Verdot and 1% each of Malbec and Cabernet Franc. “But,” Edwards added, “I think the blend still needs to reflect the aromas and flavors of Merlot.”

Finding a market niche for Merlot
Carpenter pointed out that in today’s marketplace, wine consumers have many choices, and it’s the lack of education about those choices that makes them miss out on a wine as significant as Merlot. “It’s like expounding on the difference between blues and rock and why each form of music should have a showcase and a place in your listening time,” he said. “Merlot is the blues to Cabernet Sauvignon’s rock, and to not experience it as its own expressive choice is to miss out on something that is as enjoyable as other ‘noble’ varieties are.”

Though California’s Merlot plantings have decreased, it seems, according to the panel of “masters,” that those plantings are more purposeful, the winemaking, more mindful.

“Merlot has its own tonality, flavors, structure and ageing characteristics that are unique to it in really positive ways,” Carpenter said. “The great thing about the winemakers who are concentrating on Merlot is that they are approaching it with the same meticulousness and passion as those that are making the great Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs that have dominated the market for some time now.”

Merlot is still a tough sell in the larger, off-premise wine market. According to a Wines Vines Analytics report based on data by the market research group IRI, Merlot was the only major varietal to see a sales decline falling 6% to $563 million in the past 52 weeks ending July 15.

But consumers could be seeking out higher quality Merlots from better sites as direct-to-consumer shipments of Merlot increased nearly 10% in the last 12 months ending in July. The total value of all Merlot shipments increased from $65 million in the 12 months ending April 2017 to $72 million in the same period ending April 2018. Merlot’s average bottle price also increased from $30.53 to $32.46.

Perhaps the “good” news is that while Miles’s crass statement in Sideways may have initially tarred Merlot’s reputation, it also caused grapegrowers and winemakers to seriously rethink their Merlot vineyard sites and winemaking methods. And with the expanding DtC marketplace, buying higher quality Merlot is easier for consumers who can comfortably and confidently drink “a f---ing Merlot.”

Posted on 11.09.2018 - 10:48:40 PST
Italy makes some mouth-watering Merlot- full bodied and luscious.Villa Russiz Collio is one example. My 7 acres of Merlot is on long term contracts with 2 of Paso Robles' premier wineries.