As undisputed star of the 1990s varietal red wine boom, Merlot plantings in California soared from 2,000 acres in 1985 to more than 50,000 today.
Merlot (which means “young blackbird” in French) is softer than its Cabernet cousins, low in acid and low in tannin (thanks to fat berries and low seed-to-pulp ratio). “Smooth” is the adjective most often used to describe Merlot.
Historically, Merlot was a blending wine used to tame Cabernet Sauvignon in French Bordeaux blends and soften Sangiovese in Italian reds. Because Merlot tends toward vigorous growth—Merlot vines must be pruned to achieve best results—and ripens at least a week earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and other grapes, winemakers often regard Merlot as “vineyard insurance.”
Merlot burst from a blending star to a star in its own right with the varietal revolution (naming and basing wines wholly or primarily on a single grape variety). Pinot Noir is lighter, more velvety, and more difficult to produce. Syrah is darker and richer. Cabernet Sauvignon is sterner and more full-bodied. Merlot hit the right taste note for developing red wine drinkers, the reason the main character in the movie Sideways mocks Merlot.
The movie character has his opinion, but Merlot remains one of the great grapes of the world, making a versatile wine that blends well and is a popular varietal in its own right. One of the rarest and most famous wines in the world, Château Pétrus, is almost pure Merlot. Ignore picture show wine snobs, Merlot can be marvelous.
• McManis Merlot. Oaky, creamy, $12
• 14 Hands Merlot. Plush berries and cherries. $11
• Hawk Crest Merlot. Stag’s Leap second label; supple, rich on palate. $14