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In Defense of Merlot PDF Print E-mail
Written by Bill Citara -- BT Contributor   
May 2013

Red, white, and you: Agreeable wine for $12 or less

Pix_Vino_5-13“I am not drinking any f---ing Merlot!”

In the annals of bad luck, that line from Paul Giamatti’s character, Miles Raymond, in the movie Sideways ranks right up there with finding a poisonous four-leaf clover, booking a last-minute cabin on the Titanic, and living in Detroit. The 2004 flick was as good for Pinot Noir as it was bad for Merlot, the former extolled as the Beverage of the Gods, the latter dismissed as a pathetic excuse for grape juice. Pinot Noir sales reportedly soared, while sales of Merlot sank like a concrete soufflé.

That the grape Miles so roundly dissed has a long and distinguished history, and that a wine considered to be among the finest in the world, Chateau Petrus, is almost exclusively Merlot, didn’t seem to matter. What did matter is that the comment reflected the disgust of many cork dorks with the sweet, fruity, insipid swill vintners at the time were churning out, like so many bazillion gallons of Welch’s.

Now, you’re not going be drinking any Petrus at our price point, since a single bottle of the most recent vintage of this magical elixir can cost upward of $2000. But it is nice to say that, even on the budget end of the wine spectrum where Vino lives, you can get Merlots of decent structure and varietal character that won’t make you look like an idiot or philistine if you pour them for friends.

For example, the 2011 Oustric from Bernard Magrez. It’s a very deep purple color -- almost inky -- but its French pedigree becomes obvious in the nose, where its juicy black cherry-berry fruit is given nuance by whiffs of oak, olives, and cloves. Taste it, though, and that seemingly inky fruit is lighter and less ominous than it appears, balanced by taut acidity and noticeable tannins.

Balance and nuance also mark another French product, the 2010 Chateau Bois Redon. A blend of 75-percent Merlot and 25-percent Cabernet Sauvignon, it displays some of the softness of the former and some of the backbone of the latter, all in a pleasing red and black cherry package with a lingering, tart berry finish.

Miles Raymond may not be drinking any Merlots like the 2011 Coastline from the Paso Robles region of California, or Washington’s 2011 Radius, but fans of big, fruity, full-bodied Merlots will like them just fine. The Radius is all plums and cherries and blueberries, with scents of vanilla, toast, and allspice. It’s on the sweet side of ripe, and its tannins are softer than a 1000-thread-count sheet, but if your idea of a good Merlot is biting into a piece of summer-ripe fruit, just tell Miles to piss off.

The Coastline’s aromas hint at that same uber-ripe character, but on the palate the wine backs off a bit, delivering more strawberry-raspberry flavors than blackberry and blueberry, with a pronounced stony-chalky character from Paso Robles’ calcareous soil. Both wines would be happy guests at your next backyard barbecue, where they could stand up to anything from burgers to ribs.

No surprise that a couple of domestic Merlots would go over to the dark (and fruity) side. What came as a surprise, though, were two thoroughly unimpressive South American Merlots. The 2011 La Playa from Chile got off on the wrong nostril with a blast of musty, vegetal, and raisin aromas. It tasted better than it smelled, with simple blueberry and blackberry flavors and a dollop of spice, but for $10, you can do a lot better.

An Argentine Merlot, the 2011 Portillo from Bodega Salentein, was disjointed and rough around the edges, as evidenced by a hotness on the nose and palate despite a (relatively) moderate 14 percent alcohol. It did deliver some appealing spice notes, but woody flavors and a sharp, puckery finish said, “Stick with Malbec.”

Finally, we come to my favorite wine of the tasting, the 2011 Perimeter. This Washington State product is not only a great deal at $10, but is the antithesis of the fruit-bomb Merlots that get Miles all riled up. Its fruit is clean and refreshing -- think fresh strawberries, raspberries, and red cherries -- with just a hint of oak. Nothing too complex here, but its well-integrated flavors, excellent structure, and lighter body mean it plays well with food. It’s one f---king Merlot I’d be more than happy to drink. Sorry, Miles.

 

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