Much like chardonnay, merlot enjoyed a surge in popularity a few decades ago and then fell out of favor among wine afficionados. Consumers never really stopped ordering it, but it was considered boring; the 2004 release of the movie Sideways, in which the central character rages against the varietal, didn’t exactly help merlot’s image.
“For years, it was a fad to make merlot in a soft, almost candied and innocuous style with no edge or excitement—it was dumbed down,” says Steve Bowman, co-owner/sommelier at Fairsted Kitchen in Brookline, MA. “Fortunately, that’s fading, as wine makers and drinkers remember why merlot is one of the world’s noble grapes.”
For instance, the 2010 and 2011 Chateau Maro de Saint-Amant, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux merlot served at his year-old restaurant has “a very dark, dry expression,” says Bowman. “It’s truly a merlot for cabernet lovers.”
Priced at $12 a glass, the merlot has plummy black fruit and showcases gravely, loamy soils and drying tannins. “We love being able to showcase another side of the grape that’s only known for its genteel side. This shows it as firm, dark, austere and serious,” says Bowman.
He adds that this wine pairs well with roasted red meat and darker fall flavors, especially cumin-dusted lamb ribs. “The spice of the ribs pick up the earthy barrel spice of the merlot, and the tannins cut through the gamey lamb fat,” Bowman says.
The Sonoma Valley KC Jones Merlot Surfliner—which was recently discontinued from the menu due to distribution problems—is a New World contrast, offering ripe fruit, with vanilla and spice flavors that paired well with braised oxtail.
“Customers really appreciated being able to try something aged and individualistic,” Bowman says. Too often with by-the-glass wines, “the economics dictate that we pour only young, very fresh wines that would benefit from a few more years of age,” he notes. “This was a rare treat.”
Favoring the Extremes
“For the most part, customers favor the extremes of merlot,” says Daniel Franks, wine director at Chez Melange in Redondo Beach, CA. “Either they’ll have a glass of house merlot, or for those in the know, they go big, such as ordering a glass of Twomey by Silver Oak. If we put a mid-level merlot on the list, we never sell it.”
The 2010 Twomey, which Chez Melange sells for $25 a glass, is a full to very full-bodied Sonoma red, Franks says. “It’s borderline jammy, but not in the sense of a zinfandel, just very thick fruit.” This wine, he says, has well-balanced acids and a velvety body “without succumbing to punching you in the face.”
Leonetti Cellar’s rich merlot is hard to drink without food, Franks says. The Walla Walla, WA, wine is plum driven and spicy, and is “viscous, velvety and thick on the palate,” he says.
It also has a smokiness that’s often inherent in Washington wines, Franks notes. Chez Melange serves this merlot primarily during the winter months; it’s priced at $35 a glass.
About 70% of the restaurant’s wine sale are by the glass. Hitching Post from Santa Ynez Valley, CA, is the leanest of Franks’ merlot picks. The wine features plum character and round fruit, though low tannins.
Priced at $12 a glass, Hitching Post is often the house wine/merlot at Chez Melange. “It’s easy drinking, and not a ton of complexity, which is good for a house merlot,” Franks says.
Washington State Wonders
The Northwest is a big focus for merlots, especially Washington state, says Jason Gordon, general manager/wine director for Pazzo Ristorante in Portland, OR. “The flavor is bigger fruit, rich and velvety, without the high alcohol and sugar content of some of the California merlots.”
Washington wines are akin to those from Italy, and the components are better integrated, he says. “There’s not so much fruit, but more of a roundness, and it’s less tannic. They’re not quite as fruit heavy, or as alcoholic as those in California.”
The 2011 Wahluke Slope merlot from Seven Falls, WA (priced at $10 a glass), is fruity, but not overripe, and it’s balanced, Gordon says. The alcohol is not overstated, and the wine has a little dustiness—like baking powder or spice.
It pairs well with the restaurant’s pork loin, which is dusted with sea salt and romanesco gratinado. “The romanesco is creamy, so you need some acid to cut through it, and a lesser-priced merlot wouldn’t do it,” Gordon says. “You need a wine with enough structure and body to stand up to the gratinado, but not so big to overwhelm the pork.”
Another Washington State merlot, the 2011 Seven Hills from Walla Walla, “is built for strength; it’s a very powerful, rich and layered wine,” says Todd Martin, owner and wine director at The Shed at Glenwood in Atlanta.
“The complexity is amazing for such an inexpensive wine,” says Martin, who prices the merlot at $11 a glass. “The fruit is good, and the concentration is enormous. It’s extremely quaffable.”
The Shed often pairs the merlot with a smoked pork chop that’s marinated in a citrus brine, cold-smoked then seared in a hot pan and finished in the oven.
While Martin admits merlot has suffered from some bad press in the past decade, he says it will always have a place on his menu. But it does tend to be an older demographic that opts for this varietal, he notes.
“My merlot drinker is not swayed by press or movies,” Martin says. “They have experience with the old world wines, and understand merlot is one of the kings of the grape world.”
Dialing Back the Tannins
Gary Wollerman, owner of GW Fins in New Orleans, likes to have one merlot from Napa Valley and one from Sonoma. Why?
The Napa merlots are darker, with more spice, he says, while those form Sonoma are grown closer to the coast, and generally a little lighter and less earthy.
For example, the 2012 Flora Springs merlot from Napa Valley has some cocoa, and dark cherry flavor, while the Ferrari-Carano from Sonoma Valley is fruitier and floral, with more aromatics. Both merlots are priced at $12 a glass; neither has a lot of tannins, Wollerman says.
“Really big, strong tannins in a wine are becoming less desirable, as is heavily-oaked wine,” he says. “People seem to be looking for better balance in all of the components.”
GW Fins is a seafood restaurant and the menu changes nightly. Wollerman will pair merlot with fuller-flavored dishes, such as blackened swordfish with fried shrimp or wood-grilled Scottish salmon, because of the smoke flavor from the wood char.
Versatility and Accessibility
There’s a lot of oomph to the 2009 Jason-Stephens merlot, since it’s aged for 36 months in oak, says Susan Dove, general manager and CMS certified sommelier at Trellis in Chicago. The oak also imparts vanilla flavors and gives the wine from Santa Clara Valley, CA, a velvety texture.
“People might say this leans more towards a cab- drinker’s merlot,” she says. Jason-Stephens is a blend of 95% merlot, 2% cabernet sauvignon, 2% malbec and 1% petite verdot; Trellis sells it for $9 a glass. The restaurant switches in the 2010 Rutherford Hill merlot from time to time, “which is a little more restrained,” Dove says. This Napa Valley wine features more red fruit as opposed to the Jason-Stephens’ darker fruit. It pairs well with the restaurant’s shaved leg of lamb sandwich, since it stands up to bold flavors.
The 2012 Trig Point merlot from Diamond Dust Vineyard, in Alexander Valley, CA, has a dustiness to it, along with rich fruit, medium tannins, black raspberry and a hint of vanilla. “This wine has a good, condensed, rich-fruit content without being sweet or overpowering, and it has a solid structure that holds up well with a salty and meaty burger,” Dove says. “It also has a slight black pepper note that complements the dish.”
About 60% to 70% of Trellis’ wine sales are by the glass; all three merlots are priced at $9 a glass.
“Merlot can be such a versatile grape, and I think a lot of people are coming back around to it,” Dove says. “They look to merlot for the accessibility, and it’s very easy to drink.”
Amanda Baltazar is a freelance writer based in the Seattle area whose specialties include food and beverages.