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What happens when a wine falls from grace? You get a good bottle for $10
Slate ^ | 3/26/2002 | Kelly Alexander

Posted on 05/02/2002 7:33:59 PM PDT by ex-Texan

What happens when a wine falls from grace? You get a good bottle for $10.

By Kelly Alexander

Merlot, the Horror

Merlot, everyone's favorite red wine in the '90s, reached its trendoid apotheosis when it was name-checked not once but twice on Seinfeld ("The Rye," in January 1996, and "The Yada Yada," in April 1997, in which Kramer memorably uttered: "I live for merlot."). Yep, merlot was hot, it was happening, it was what we all wanted to drink—or what we all wanted to talk about drinking.

But, oh, how grape expectations pop. Due to massive overexposure, merlot, a perfectly respectable and delicious wine, has hit the skids in recent years. Usually, I don't feel bad about toppling food trends. In fact, I worked on a story in the January 1997 issue of Food & Wine that put merlot on a "tired trend" list. But I did get upset when I heard the following from a friend: Just the other day, my buddy was dining at Lupa, a restaurant owned by Food Network superstar Mario Batali. He asked for a glass of merlot. "We don't have merlot," the waiter sniffed, rolling his eyes.

Why the 'tude? How did a wine become a symbol of the passé? As someone who prefers '80s culture to '90s culture, I didn't jump on the merlot bandwagon when the stuff was hot; I was deep in unhip Chardonnay country, and I didn't care what anyone had to say about it. But after hearing my friend's story about the dissing of merlot, what I wanted to know was this: Does merlot really suck? Is it possible to get a good one? And, most important given these lean times, is it possible to get a good bottle of it for $10 or less?

But first, what is merlot? It's a red grape; in fact, it's the dominant grape grown in most of France's Bordeaux region. Merlot is often blended with other grapes to make wine, but sometimes it's left all alone. The most famous producer of French merlot wines is Chateau Petrus, whose 1990 bottling earned a perfect 100 score from Wine Spectator (it sells for about $1,700 a bottle).

Merlot grapes are also grown all over the world—with varying success—from California to Croatia, Argentina to Australia. The grape contains little of the astringent substance known as tannin that comes mostly from grape skins and, besides adding bitterness, helps preserve wine. Classic merlot has a fairly big body; its full taste generally needs strong food to stand up to it—lasagna, say, instead of sushi. Its taste should remind you of ripe red fruit.

Sometimes merlot has hints of smooth, chocolate flavor—usually what people refer to when they call it "velvety." Merlot is also often described as a "safe" wine, because its fruit is easy to taste and it goes well with many foods.

The Tasting

The setting: March, a restaurant awarded three stars by the New York Times, on Manhattan's Upper East Side. March is home to one of the city's most vaunted wine cellars, with more than 4,500 bottles.

The characters: Generously leading the tasting was Chuck Mason, general manager and assistant wine director of March. Mason looks a little like John McEnroe in a twinkle-eyed, spry way. Second was me. Third was my out-of-work friend Max, a comedy writer who never turns down the chance to drink. So, I had someone who knows nearly everything about wine (Chuck), someone who knows something about wine (me), and someone who knows nothing about wine (Max).

The method: Ten glasses per person, each labeled with a letter. Of those ten, two were from the United States (California and Washington), while the rest were international, hailing from Bulgaria, Argentina, Croatia, Chile, Italy, Romania, Australia, and France. Rose, the restaurant manager, hid corresponding letters underneath the bottles and then decanted for us. We tasters had no idea which wine was which as we sipped. First, we analyzed a merlot's color; next we swirled the wine in its glass to get an idea about its body; finally, we tasted … and then spat (well, most of the time). We didn't find out what the wines were until after we'd tasted and ranked them, at which point we discussed their relative merits some more.

The Players:

Wine: Balkan Crest Merlot, 1996
Country of Origin: Bulgaria
Price: $5.99
Comments: Chuck: "Good nose; I like the musty quality, but the color is not as blood-red as I'd like, and it's very dry."
Kelly: "This is as dry as dried paint. This is so dry I can't believe I just drank something."
Max: "Smells all right, but that's about it."

Not the Holy Grail of cheap Merlot. On to the next:

Wine: Gallo of Sonoma Merlot, 1999
Country of Origin: Unites States (California)
Price: $9.99
Comments: Chuck: "Can you write 'manure'? It's trying for chocolate, but not succeeding."
Kelly: "Essence of athlete's foot."
Max: "People who crushed this with their feet didn't wash their feet."

A rightful casualty of anti-merlot sentiment.

Wine: Bodega Norton Merlot, 1999
Country of Origin: Argentina
Price: $6.99
Comments: Chuck: "Almost a candy-apple nose … would pair well with food."
Kelly: "Smells like tart berries."
Max: "Tastes like every wine I order out at restaurants."

One to resurrect, especially considering the price.

Wine: Istria Merlot, 1997
Country of Origin: Croatia
Price: $9.99
Comments: Chuck: "One word: maderized" (Maderized is when a wine has undergone the process considered favorable in dessert wines wherein grapes rot and turn caramel-hued)
Kelly: "Looks like prune juice."
Max: "Next … "

Throw this on the pyre.

Wine: Santa Rita Merlot Reserva, 2000.
Country of Origin: Chile
Price: $8.99
Comments: Chuck: "Real bright color, horse blanket nose; but great fruit flavor."
Kelly: No comment. (I was too busy swallowing this one; I liked it.)
Max: "Hit me baby one more time."

This could be a contender.

Wine: Famiglia Boscaini Dirada Merlot, 2000
Country of Origin: Italy
Price: $7.49
Comments: Chuck: "Color's a little lighter than the one we just tried; nose is almost pine forest—but this more a quaffing wine."
Kelly: "Tastes like Beaujolais nouveau, not merlot."
Max: "This is some sissy wine masquerading as a merlot."

More fodder for the anti-Merlotists

Wine: Premiat, 1998.
Country of Origin: Romania
Price: $3.49
Comments: Chuck: "Finally, the elusive chocolate scent, but the nose isn't backed up in the taste."
Kelly: "Tastes so light it's like water."
Max: "Now I see why how those Romanian gymnasts stay so thin."

A tragic waste of $3.49.

Wine: Salmon Harbor Merlot, 2000
Country of Origin: United States (Washington)
Price: $9.99
Comments: Chuck: "Very specific nose, but I'm just not sure what it is. Lots of smooth, balanced fruit in the mouth."
Kelly: "Would be good with food or by itself; rich, dark color, too."
Max: "Would that be velvety? Indeed."

Potential, potential, potential …

Wine: Rosemount Estate Merlot, 2000
Country of Origin: Australia
Price: $9.99
Comments: Chuck: "Jammy nose, but dry finish."
Kelly: "The nose promises more than the wine delivers."
Max: "Who cares what it smells like when it's this dry?"

Solidly middle of the road. Definitely maybe.

Wine: Divin Merlot, 2000
Country of Origin: France
Price: $9.99
Comments: Chuck: "I love the dark color, and the fruit on the nose."
Kelly: "I wish it had more fruit."
Max: "Boring."

Just acceptable enough to advance to the next round.

The result: For the final round, we were left with four players. We threw out France and Australia, which proved nearly identical and, though pleasant, unexceptional. In the end we went with the Washington. Chuck said that if he were selling the Chilean to customers he'd have to explain its distinct nose, but the Washington wine would be just what the customer was expecting. The top four, Divin Merlot, 2000; Rosemount Estate Merlot, 2000; Salmon Harbor Merlot, 2000; and Santa Rita Merlot Riserva, 2000 were all solid wines and excellent bargains to boot. But more important than these specific winners was the metaphysical victory that was mine: I proved that you can get a good merlot—and for ten clams. I imagine Kramer would approve.

KEYWORDS: goodwinecheap; merlot
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There was a time when I had a 'wine cellar' of sorts flled with good to great wines and many great bargains. French, California and Italian wines. A few Germans, too. So which California winery was the best ? Debate that all night but I was fond of Ridge and Cakebread and a dozen others.

Now I am happy to find a good wine from Oz, or Chile, or the West Coast ..... Happy to see dinner guests smile at $ 10 a bottle, too.

1 posted on 05/02/2002 7:33:59 PM PDT by ex-Texan
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To: ex-Texan
Never liked Merlot, particularly the cheap stuff which had a "woody" taste to me. I regularly drink Cousiño Macul or Santa Rita Cabernet from Chile, although I've lately grown fond of Ephrath Vineyards Pinot Noir from Oregon. All of these wines, BTW, retail for under $15.

Now if only we could get our girlfriends to stop buying Pinot Grigio...

2 posted on 05/02/2002 7:42:39 PM PDT by Clemenza
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To: ex-Texan
Ick. Wine, chocolate. Gross.

On a bet, I will drink Eiswein - If it is our anniversary, and my wife wants some. Otherwise, gimme a BIER!

3 posted on 05/02/2002 7:44:48 PM PDT by patton
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To: slugbug
Sterling Merlot is a favorite for my sweetie and me!
4 posted on 05/02/2002 7:50:32 PM PDT by Teacher317
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To: patton
Red wine like beer is an acquired taste. Years ago I did a lot of backpacking in the Sierra's with a writer friend and we took our kids up to introduce them to the outdoors. We would pack in a bottle of wine each, and then let them cool off a bit in a mountain stream ...., then pop open and let them breathe. Start a campfire, watch the wood snap and spark against the dark sky, and decide which wine was the best.

Red wine tastes much better and has a better bouquet in the thinner air high in the montains.

On a hot day, gimme a beer.

5 posted on 05/02/2002 7:58:13 PM PDT by ex-Texan
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To: ex-Texan
Delicato Shiraz and Merlot are inexpensive and taste good to me. So what if I like brake fluid, too.
6 posted on 05/02/2002 8:03:45 PM PDT by stboz
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To: ex-Texan
Personally don't care much for merlot. Think it does better in a blend with other grapes. However, anyone interested in exceptionally well made single variety merlot should check out the following wineries: Whitehall Lane, Leonardini Vineyard, Newton, Coppola, Shafter, Forman, and Truchard. All are in Napa and Sonoma.

A good article about current trends in merlot growing can be found here. Wine enthusiasts will also find St. Helena viticulturalist Richard Nagaoka's "Ask the Grape Doctor" series of articles interesting too.

7 posted on 05/02/2002 8:04:41 PM PDT by Grim
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To: ex-Texan
We are getting some very drinkable california merlots in the discount stores for as low as $2.99. -- Vendange, Oak Vinyards '99 -- I'm sort of leary of buying buy the case though, as I have no idea if these cheap merlots will age well.

Anyone know?

8 posted on 05/02/2002 8:13:13 PM PDT by tpaine
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To: ex-Texan
But first, what is merlot? It's a red grape; in fact, it's the dominant grape grown in most of France's Bordeaux region.

A highly suspect statement, IMHO. Robert Parker estimates that the average formula for red wines in the Médoc (a subregion of Bordeaux which includes the great majority of its most notable wines) is on the order of 60-65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20-25% Merlot, and 10-15% Cabernet Franc.

9 posted on 05/02/2002 8:14:18 PM PDT by southernnorthcarolina
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To: ex-Texan
Merlot and Gamay Noir are good basic safe wines to serve with red meat.

I had avoided red wine for years because it gave me a headache except for Beaujolais Nouveau.

Trouble is the Nouveau arrives in November and should be consumed by Christmas. (Otherwise you can use if on fish & chips.)

Every November we party on escargots and nouveau.

Then one day when I was shopping for a wine to serve a guest. The vintner suggested a red. I complained that the only red that did not give me a headache was the nouveau. She suggested that I should try other new wines as my headaches came from drinking aged wines. She suggested a Gamay Noir or a Merlot.

It is not what one would ordinarily think of serving a guest, but they are both good conservative choices and they don't cause headaches.

For watching a ball game or a cricket match, beer or ale is better than wine, but wine is a staple with evening meals.

My cardiologist also recommends a glass of red wine as being good for the heart.

10 posted on 05/02/2002 8:14:53 PM PDT by Clive
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To: ex-Texan
Spent much of last year downing Beringer's Founder's Estate 1998 Merlot. Couldn't get enough of it. We've exhausted the supply around these parts. Thought it an exceptional wine for around $11.00. Haven't found anything to replace it yet.
11 posted on 05/02/2002 8:15:42 PM PDT by St.Chuck
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To: ex-Texan
Great bit of writing, that. Well done.

But I hate wine, and schockolade - well, never mind.

12 posted on 05/02/2002 8:15:56 PM PDT by patton
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To: Great Dane, coteblanche, liliana
13 posted on 05/02/2002 8:16:09 PM PDT by Clive
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To: ex-Texan
Merlot is a pleasant grape with (usually) rather weak tannins. I think it became so popular because 1) it's so much easier to pronounce than some others (Comte Georges de Vogue Musigny anyone?) and 2) its soft, fruity taste ensures that you can give it to women to drink without fearing they will wrinkle up their noses and go 'Eeeww! This is so sour!'.

I hardly ever drink it, except in Bordeaux-style blends. There are a few famous Merlot-only bottlings including especially Chateau Petrus and also the Ornellaia Masseto from Tuscany. I had a bottle of the 1995 Masseto last year in Florence and it was one of the best things I ever drank. Well worth the $150 it cost me.

However, these great wines are exceptions to the rule of flabby, undistinguished Merlots on every restaurant list. Give me a good Cabernet or Shiraz any day.


14 posted on 05/02/2002 8:19:04 PM PDT by ccmay
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Comment #15 Removed by Moderator

To: tpaine
I have never saved a Merlot .... Years ago I fell in love with hearty Zinfadels from Napa Sonoma and Mendocino. Most people buy the cheaper Zins but when you buy a really complex Zin they taste much better with age .... Ridge Wines at one time made the very best. They had an estate bottled Zin that started with a berry flavor and deepened while you drank it ....

We are talking now about estate bottled Ridge wines from the mid-1980's. Sold for about $ 20. Bet you can't buy one of those now for less than $ 200. If you can find one.

16 posted on 05/02/2002 8:22:00 PM PDT by ex-Texan
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To: ccmay

Call ME cheap - I would not pay that for dinner.

Of course, being half-scot and halb-deutsch, I am tight with a penny, and militant about it.

17 posted on 05/02/2002 8:22:56 PM PDT by patton
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To: EggsAckley
18 posted on 05/02/2002 8:26:56 PM PDT by ex-Texan
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To: ccmay
Jordan Cabernets are always good. For a delightful little everyday wine, we've come to like a Texas Cabernet, St. Genevieve from the Cap Rock.

The Rosemount Shiraz just won a gold medal at the Dallas Morning News Wine Tasting.

19 posted on 05/02/2002 8:27:49 PM PDT by sinkspur
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To: ex-Texan
Well, the taste buds of the chattering classes finally catch up to what everyone in the wine business has known for hundreds of years: with rare exceptions like Petrus and Cheval Blanc, Merlot does not make a particularly complete or complex red wine.

That's the reason it has been primarily a blending wine, for color and sometimes body, especially in Bordeaux where it ripens earlier (and more reliably and -shh... is easier to get away with chaptellizing) than the more complex Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec grapes.

If you look at the 1855 classification, which has its faults, but is reasonably accurate, you will find that most (3 out of 5) of the top wines (First Growths) are from Pauilliac -- where Cabernet predominates in the blends (Mouton is up to 85% Cab), the exceptions being Margeaux and Haut Brion. Other than Cos D'Estornel (St. Julien), most of the 'super seconds' are also Paulliac: think the two Chateau Lalandes and that perennial 5th growth favorite, Lynch Bages.

In California, merlot was virtually unknown before 1970, when some people decided to bring it in as a blending grape to make more Bordeaux-like Cabernets.

Merlot became popular because of the ignorance of one man: Robert Parker. This self-taught "expert" did not (and to this day I would argue does not) understand Cabernet, and its life cycle, which requires a lifetime of study and a certain 'feel' for it. When he started tasting in Bordeaux, he was not enamoured of Paulliac wines because they were not straighforward and, in those days, built to be drunk at the age of ten or older, rather he was attracted to the simple, fruiter, less complex, less ageworthy wines of Pomerol and St. Emilion, where merlot dominates. Parker almost singlehandedly created the demand for merlot. It worked, because it requires no effort of understanding on the part of the drinker. But with any sophistication, one tends not to like merlot: a typical (pretty good) merlot has a fruity, decently grapey nose, and a good entry into the mouth. In the better merlots, the middle palate (the taste in your mouth as you hold the wine in your mouth) is good, but in most, the middle palate is very flat tasting. And with rare exceptions, merlot has a short, uninteresting finish. The reason the finish is poor is a lack of adequate tannin.

In my life, I have found but one Merlot (other than the biggies from Bordeaux) that I could drink with pleasure: 1985 Matanzas Creek. I actually bought three cases (1 in mags all aging nicely) of it.

20 posted on 05/02/2002 8:33:07 PM PDT by CatoRenasci
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