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Merlot Makes it Big
LARGELY OVERLOOKED IN FRANCE, IT’S A NAME-BRAND PLAYER IN CALIFORNIA

By Thom Elkjer, Wine Editor

To anyone who started drinking wine in the last ten years, Merlot must rank right up there with death, taxes and Chardonnay on the inevitability scale. If you’re in a bar, restaurant, tasting room or grocery store, there’s bound to be a bottle nearby with “Merlot” on the label. Much maligned in the movie “Sideways,” Merlot has nonetheless become a staple of the American wine-drinking scene.

Not bad for a grape that’s almost anonymous in its home country.
That would be France, where Merlot is one of the five grapes officially permitted in the wine known as red Bordeaux. The others are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Because Merlot is the grape that most fully ripens during most years and because it most naturally complements the other red Bordeaux grapes, Merlot in France has always played a supporting role. That’s a polite way of putting it, anyway. Winemakers in Bordeaux put it more bluntly: “Merlot is an insurance grape.”

So how did Merlot cross over to California and become a mainstay under its own name? Originally, it was brought over by French and Italian immigrants, but its big break came when government regulations in the 1960s stipulated that you couldn’t name a wine after a grape unless at least 75% of the wine came from that same grape. Vintners who were crafting quality wines leapt at the chance to use this legislation to distinguish their wines from cheaper jug blends with romantic but meaningless names such as “Hearty Burgundy” and “Chablis.”

And now, in America, wines are almost always made with—and named for—a dominant grape variety. This is why they’re called “varietal wines” or simply “varietals.” With a relatively simple name (compared to, say, “Gewurztraminer”) and an approachable, easy-drinking personality, Merlot became one of the most popular varietals in the US.

How popular? A few years ago, winemaker Mike Westrick went to “Merlot in May,” an annual festival held at Sterling Vineyards in Napa Valley (it’s scheduled this year for May 20th). The winery hosted nearly 1,000 visitors, offered a tasting line-up of nearly 150 different Merlots—and opened Westrick’s eyes. “It was a great opportunity to taste the entire range of Merlot that’s out there,” he says. “People say Cabernet is king, but I don’t think you would find the same breadth of styles in Cabernet Sauvignon.”

This last January, Westrick became head of winemaking at Sterling, which means he’s now in charge of one of the top Merlot programs in California. Sterling makes exceptional Merlot from sites as specific as a single vineyard in Carneros (Sterling Merlot Winery Lake Vineyard) to regions as large as the Napa Valley and the Central Coast (Sterling Merlot Central Coast Vintner’s Collection).

So what can he add to the river of Merlot already flowing in California? One clue comes from his work at Stonestreet Winery, where he made one of the bigger Merlots around. “Sterling Merlot is already aromatically complex and has a lot of lushness on the palate,” he says. “I’ll probably go for a bit more size and fatness—but not for its own sake. It’s possible to make some really serious Merlot in California, but it should always be true to the character of the grape.

 


MAR/APR 2005
TABLE OF CONTENTS

FEATURE ARTICLES
FOOD & WINE
Grilled New York Steak
Sonoma Citrus Chicken Salad
Merlot Makes it Big
Chardonnay, Pick Your Passion
Winemaker: Danielle Cyrot
Winemaker: Ed Killian
Wine Picks - MERLOT
Wine Picks - CHARDONNAY
ON THE RADAR
SOCIAL TOAST
BITS & BITES


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