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THAT'S THE SPIRIT: Merlot is the 'comeback kid' of wine world

THAT'S THE SPIRIT: Merlot is the 'comeback kid' of wine world


In this warm weather, I should be drinking crisp, refreshing summer whites and roses. I must confess, however — and the pinot noir lover in me cringes a bit — but I have been drinking merlot.

My personal wine journey began in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where I became infatuated with pinot noir. On my dream vacation last summer, I toured the vineyards of Burgundy, France, where pinot noir is king. Aided somewhat by the cult wine movie, "Sideways," I have always been an anti-merlot person. So, why this sudden interest in merlot?

As my son, Tim, has been known to say, “You wouldn’t eat the same food every day, so why would you drink the same wine or beer everyday?” He is correct; I don’t eat the same food every day nor do I drink the same wine. It was time to get off my high horse and give merlot a try.

I frequently taste wine as part of my job in the wine business, and all of a sudden it seems I’m being offered some rather tasty merlots. This is more than mere coincidence. Merlot is “hot” right now; it’s the comeback kid of the wine world.

The disparaging comments of Miles Raymond, the merlot-loathing, pinot noir-loving main character of "Sideways," had a negative influence on merlot sales in the U.S. Prior to release of the movie, merlot was the second-highest-selling varietal in the U.S.

Although the movie was credited with the decline in merlot sales, sales of merlot were already falling behind chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon by the time the movie was released.

Merlot’s prodigious popularity in the U.S. generated an increasing demand for the wine. As a result, many eager growers began planting the grapes in less than ideal areas, resulting in the production of a substantial amount of forgettable merlot flooding the market. Thus an aversion to merlot was set in motion.

Fortunately, a core group of merlot-loving producers and growers remained that did not give up. In fact, "Sideways" may have inadvertently helped merlot make a come back by marshaling a return of well-produced merlot.

Merlot grapes produce a medium-bodied red wine with juicy fruit flavors of plums, cherries, blueberries, blackberries and currants, often characterized by tones of cocoa, black pepper, mint, tobacco and tea leaves.

It is a light to medium tannic wine, which makes it a pleasant introductory red wine. Merlot is often blended with cabernet sauvignon, which lends structure and ageability to the fruit forwardness of the merlot.

The merlot grape originated in the Bordeaux region of France and is grown and produced around the world. In Bordeaux, merlot is blended with cabernet sauvignon and/or cabernet franc to produce some of the most sought-after French wines.

Saint Emillon and Pomerol on the right bank of Bordeaux have perfect terroir for growing high-quality merlot. Both of these areas are known for their wine that is made from merlot, and fortunately for us, it is available at local wine stores.

Merlot is also produced in Italy, Australia, Spain and, of course, California and Washington. California merlot is fruity and smooth and is available in a wide range of prices. Merlot is the second-most planted grape in Washington, where the wine is characterized by medium body and dark fruit flavors.

Merlot has a pleasant, palatable taste that pairs well with food. Pair lighter-bodied merlot with tuna, salmon, chicken and turkey. A heavier merlot will pair well with steaks, burgers, lamb and roast duck.

Merlot is great with casual meals, too. Try it with pizza, vegetarian or Asian-inspired food that’s not too spicy, and soft cheeses made from sheep or cow’s milk, or pair merlot with mild blue cheese.

Merlot is a great sipper. Whether you are going out for a glass of wine or enjoying one at home, order or pour yourself a glass of merlot. These are a few I recommend that I’ve enjoyed recently.

  • Steven Vincent Merlot produced from California Central Coast grapes, is full-bodied with bold plum and berry flavors, toasty complexity and soft tannins.
  • The Velvet Devil Merlot by Washington winemaker Charles Smith really fits its name. Velvety dark fruits like blackberries and chocolate covered cherries alongside notes of anise and cedar are topped off with a touch of tobacco.
  • Avalon Merlot from Napa Valley is a wonderful value-priced merlot. This one starts with a beautiful ruby color in the glass followed up with dark berry notes, white chocolate and sweet cherry all rolled up in a medium-bodied, silky textured mouth feel.

I’ve just recently embarked on my journey into discovering merlot. If you’ve been “merloathing” like Miles and I have, it’s time to start “merlovin” instead.

Kathy Smith is a co-owner of Smith's Liquor Gallery and the Independent Ale House in Rapid City, and is a certified executive sommelier.

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