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A Winemaker's Journal

The Merlot Sideshow

By Elias Fernandez

For centuries Merlot has been a perfectly delicious, well-enjoyed wine grape, though typically more of a sidekick than a star. In Bordeaux it has long been blended with a fellowship of red grapes which include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot. (When you hear someone refer to a “Bordeaux blend,” it’s a mix of three or more of these varieties.)

In France Merlot doesn’t usually make up more than 50 percent of a given blend. The one beautiful exception is Chateau Petrus, the world’s most expensive wine, which is almost 100 percent Merlot. A case of the 2005 will set you back $24,000.

Leave it to the U.S. to turn this steady performer into a figure of controversy. When I first started making wine in the early 1980s, Merlot was a blending varietal, most often used to soften Cabernet Sauvignon. But a handful of wineries, including Shafer Vineyards where I work, realized that Merlot could easily stand on its own. We released our first Merlot, a 1983 vintage, in 1985.

By the late 1980s, Merlot was the most talked-about newcomer in the world of wine.

The American Merlot story became like the classic tale of the understudy who finally gets on stage and turns into an overnight celebrity. Unfortunately with the market apparently thirsty for an unending supply of this wine, it was soon over-planted, planted to the wrong vineyard sites and simply overproduced.

For Merlot this trend reaped especially adverse results because it is one of the most persnickety grapes you can cultivate. A bit too much frost early in the season, a day or two of rain, a spike in the temperature and Merlot simply doesn’t perform well. Unless you manage your vineyard with a lot of vine-by-vine attention, you can harvest many tons of underdeveloped and under-ripe fruit.

Consumers who were now swimming in this sea of new Merlot came to equate it with a wine that was thin and green that didn’t express the variety.

In fact Merlot can be a gorgeous wine. Just ask all those collectors who’re shelling out the price of a new car for a case of Chateau Petrus.

When the character Miles in the 2004 movie Sideways  said in no uncertain terms that he would not be drinking any [bleeping] Merlot, he simply expressed what many consumers were feeling.

Wineries across the U.S. suddenly found themselves with a lot of Merlot they couldn’t sell. Countless acres of Merlot vines were torn out and planted to new varietals.

Two years later, according industry research, the decline in Merlot has ended and sales are holding steady.

Now we’re at the start of a new phase in the American Merlot story. With the initial razzle-dazzle era out of the way, consumers are taking a new look at the Merlots that remain on the market. Many of them reflect the depth and lushness that Merlot is known for in other parts of the world. Finally it’s positioned to take its place as a great wine on our shores too.