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Merlot Misunderstood

Merlot Misunderstood

Merlot Misunderstood

The other day I was talking to a colleague in the wine trade and the subject of "easy drinking" wines came up.
Specifically we were talking about wines that appealed to all palates, especially the beginner wine drinker.

Almost at the same time we both used a Merlot from the Languedoc in France as our example, although my use of it was a positive one and his not-so-much.
I have to give the person their dues as we were in an area not known for it's delicate and subtle wines.
We were in Madiran, where reds are big, bold and tannic and are what I call “hairy wines”. So I think a bit of bias had crept in…or had it?

Merlot has a bit of a poor reputation, a lack of respect if you will. 
Anyone who has seen the movie "Sideways" will remember the famous scene where drinking Merlot was categorically dismissed as something never ever to be drunk.
It was this scene that brought the modern spotlight and a bit of stigma onto Merlot.

I find it amusing that Merlot is dismissed as a "simple" wine when it's the prominent grape variety in world renowned and sought after wines from Saint Émilion and Pomerol. 

Merlot Misunderstood

Merlot is the predominant grape variety used in Pomerol.

To me it's not the grape variety but the style in which the wine is made that makes some drinkers run for the hills.
My colleague who scoffed at the Languedoc version basically meant that the Merlot produced there was made with the sole intention of becoming an easy to drink, middle-of-the-road beginner wine, appealing to the masses and sold by the box load. 

He was right, and it is, but it's incredibly drinkable, pairs easily with most foods and appeals to all palates.
A good result in my book, what's not to like about that?

Same grape but completely different wines depending on how it's made - it's the story we are seeing all around the world.

Most people with a bit of wine knowledge know that New World versus Old World wine making techniques are the reason for this. 
They are very different and make two very different wines and it's that which is confusing to those who are unfamiliar.

For those who don't know the difference I'll describe it in layman's terms.

Old World wine making uses old "recipes" and techniques that have been perfected over centuries, and the resulting wine has characteristics renowned for the region it comes from.
Many wines are blended vs single variety and there are often many subtle layers of flavour in the wine that are difficult to find unless you know how to taste and go looking for them.
These wines often can be described as "complex" because of that reason and beginner wine drinkers tend to describe them as too strong or too dry when their palates are overwhelmed by the complexity.

New World wine makes use of new technology during wine making process whether from machinery, chemically or simply using new techniques and theories.
Some of these processes bring out more fruit flavor or enable the wine to be drunk earlier by taking away some of the tannin.
Single variety wines are the darling of New World technology rather than blended.
The results are simple, fruitier, softer structured wines that are easily drinkable and particularly attractive to the novice wine drinker. 

I am completely generalizing here, there's more to it than that but in very basic terms that's the nuts and bolts.

Merlot Misunderstood

Same grapes producing completely different wines depending on the method of vinification used.

Merlot is one grape variety that has become very popular by using New World techniques. 

Ordinarily Merlot from Old World countries needs to be blended to give it structure and backbone and the fruit is lean as it’s typically grown in cooler climate areas where the fruit takes a long time to ripen.
In a bad vintage Merlot needs help to make it shine yet in a good vintage the Merlot grape produces a light, smooth wine with silky tannins.
It’s a middle of the road wine appealing to drinkers who find the stronger, fuller bodied wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Nebbiolo too much to take.

By growing Merlot in hot climates and using New World techniques wine makers have produced a very fruity wine with low tannin.
The structure is not complex and the wine is simple, almost always dependable vintage wise and has become incredibly easy to drink. 

Merlot is made successfully all over the world using NW techniques, most notably in Chile where there are some amazing results at affordable prices.
It is also made in the Languedoc, France by the bucket load, often sold in boxes and is a staple for everyday, easy drinking when you don't want to think about it.
 


So, why is Merlot misunderstood and why the poor reaction from my colleague when mentioning it?

Well I think it's not so much the Merlot grape variety, it's more the fact that it has been mass produced and people drink a lot of it while not really knowing (or caring) what they are drinking.
For the "wine lover"  it's hard to comprehend why people drink it when there are so many better wines available.

Merlot Misunderstood

While these two wines might be made from the same grape variety they are VERY different wines.

There's also a bit of stigma, a bit like the youngest child having to live up to their older siblings achievements.
The "old school" see Merlot as an inferior wine to the bigger, bolder, in-your-face wines although the "old school" are often the first to get excited when a bottle of Pomerol is opened.

Personally, I think it all works and whatever floats your boat wine wise is your own choice. 

There is a place for your bog standard mass produced Merlot, just don’t misunderstand and confuse what it’s purpose is.
It’s a glass of wine, rather like a glass of bog standard beer - does the trick and people love it.

I do think that wine education is key to helping novice wine drinkers move on and try different, more complex wines, whether it's the wine shop, magazines, tv, friends or whatever; I think education is key.

Sure there are other wines out there that are better but to compare a boxed Merlot to a Chateau Cheval Blanc just isn't possible.
Same grape, two totally different wines.

I certainly wouldn't describe Cheval Blanc as an every day drinking wine even though it is predominantly Merlot and I certainly don't have the budget to buy it every day. 
Although if anyone wants to prove me wrong by sending me some to compare I'll gladly accept it.

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