Sales of luxury merlots are increasing again, and restaurants are pouring more of it. Why? Because despite pop culture prejudice, it tastes good.
Merlot was once the fan-favorite red grape and wine. Then came 2004 hit movie Sideways, in which Miles, the pinot-noir-loving main character, trashes the varietal before heading into a bar: “If anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving,” he explodes. “I am not drinking any f*cking merlot.”
Interest in pinot skyrocketed, while the reputation of merlot tanked. In California, growers pulled out more than 10,000 acres of merlot grapes. Such is the power of Hollywood.
But wine fashions are fickle, and now velvety merlot is experiencing a comeback.
Sales of "luxury" versions of the red increased 5 percent over the past year, according to Nielsen, while a 2016 Wine Intelligence report found it was the varietal of choice for American drinkers of all ages. Restaurants sold 8 percent more merlots costing US$100 and up, according to Winemetrics 2016 Fine Dining Report.
Don’t thank hip sommeliers for this reputation rehab. Most are in love with every grape but merlot – and for the wine-geek Instagram crowd, the more obscure the better.
To me, the reason merlot was bound to return to favor was simple: it’s very often delicious. Its silky, cherry fruit and round texture give it an immediate appeal that tannic cabernet, its nearest wine rival, doesn’t have.
A grape's fall from grace
Merlot malaise was due to a lot more than Miles’s Sideways rant. Many California vintners responded to its popularity in the 1990s by rushing to plant more, often in places with the wrong soil and climate.
A lot of those wines were simple and boring, or the opposite – too sweet, or amped up like flavor-bomb cabernets, with so much oomph and alcohol that drinking them was like getting a punch in the mouth.
John Williams, winemaker and owner of Napa’s Frog’s Leap, is convinced Sideways actually saved merlot, as those who had jumped on the bandwagon to cash in on the trend ended up pulling out bad vineyards.
At its peak in California, merlot accounted for nearly 60,000 acres of vines; now it’s down to a little more than 44,000. In recent years vintners have swapped in more popular cabernet vines, since those grapes and wines sold for more; others dumped their merlot into mass market brands and basic red blends.
But wineries that had long been devoted to high-quality merlot doubled down on cool clay soils, gentler winemaking, and less aging in new oak barrels to preserve subtler aromas and silkier textures. They worked hard to make and market the good stuff.
Merlot’s home territory is Bordeaux, where it’s by far the most planted grape and is typically blended with cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc to soften its edgy tannins. It’s dominant in Saint-Emilion and Pomerol, where some wines, such as the legendary, wildly expensive Pétrus, are 100 percent merlot.
Merlot mania started in the 1990s. In 1990, Americans drank 800,000 cases of the stuff, but by 2000 the figure was 20.3 million, according to MKF Research Wine Trends Database. (It’s now 17 million.) Popularity spread the grape around the globe, from Chile to Italy to Japan, and today it’s right behind cabernet as the world’s second-most-planted red variety.
In fact, merlot is relatively easy to grow if all you want to make is simple, fruity reds. It ripens early in the season and isn’t prone to the kinds of vine diseases that plague other varieties, although it is more temperature sensitive than people realized – pleasing warmth but not summer heat is a vital ingredient to making a great merlot.