Merlot - Was Miles Right?
Copyright 2006 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed June 5, 2006. For more information go to wineloverspage.com
"If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any #%*$ing Merlot!"
Perhaps the most widely quoted wine-related line from the movies since Dracula's legendary "I never drink ... wine," this laugh line by the twitchy, neurotic character Miles in Alexander Payne's 2004 comedy "Sideways" has been blamed for knocking sales of Merlot, well, sideways almost as much as the wine-country road movie set the market for Pinot Noir on fire.
As I wrote in the April 18, 2005 Wine Advisor, Miles didn't really hate Merlot. The most mythic bottle in his collection was 1961 Cheval Blanc, a great Bordeaux that's one-third Merlot and two-thirds Cabernet Franc, another grape that Miles said he didn't like.
Indeed, Merlot is a classic French wine grape (its name is said to stem from a medieval French word for "blackbird"), and it's a major player in the Bordeaux varietal blend. But wine "geeks" like Miles and, well, like a lot of us, I guess, tend to shun Merlot because it has become one of the most popular cheap, mass-market wine varieties. And in its least-common-denominator form, there's a lot not to like. Much of it is sourced from greedily over-produced vineyards and vinified in a crowd-pleasing style, soft, sweetish and blowzy.
And even when it's made well, Merlot arguably shines best in blends - as it is most often used in Bordeaux - where its strengths and weaknesses play off against other varieties in a thoughtfully composed cuvee.
Still, it would be foolish to shun all Merlot just because of a funny line in a movie. In an effort to rehabilitate its reputation, we're taking on Merlot as the topic for June in our interactive wine-education feature, Wine Tasting 101. You're invited to taste and talk about the Merlot of your choice, starting with a California or U.S. West Coast Merlot if you can get it. Those in other parts of the world who can't easily find American Merlot are welcome to substitute any Merlot from other cool-climate regions, but we are encouraging all-varietal (or at least varietally labeled) Merlot rather than Bordeaux-style blends.