The 2004 movie Sideways did a number on Merlot, hurting its reputation and suppressing sales. But was that impact justified? Did we judge Merlot too harshly? Is it time to let Merlot rejoin the cool kids table?!? In this episode, we give Merlot a fighting chance to win back a place in our hearts - and our cellar. We admit we are not the biggest fans of Merlot, but can one of these wines change our mind? We selected three highly rated wines, all under $20, and two from the Bordeaux region of France, to see if we could find a Merlot that convinced us that it is deserving reconsideration. And guess what - we found one!!! We also talk a bit about the history of Merlot, and the so-called Sideways effect. Wines reviewed in this episode: 2016 Ronan by Clinet, 2018 Santa Ema Reserva Merlot, and 2019 Chateau Mayne-Vieil Cuvée Alienor.
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Episode 76: Is Merlot Making a Comeback? (An underdog story? Wines from the Right Bank of Bordeaux) 00:00
Hello! And welcome to The Wine Pair Podcast. I’m Joe, your sommelier of reasonably priced wine, and this is my wife and my wine pairing partner in crime, Carmela. And we are The Wine Pair!
Ok, a quick orientation for those of you who may be new to the podcast - in each episode we learn about, taste and give our honest review of three wines that are reasonably priced - meaning under $20 each - and should be easy for you to find. And, our podcast is made for people like us - people who love wine, but want to learn more about wine, find new wines to explore, and just feel more confident when we talk about and order wines. So, if that sounds like you, you are in the right place - and, we invite you to taste these wines or a Pinot Noir from your stash along with us while you listen as a fun way to participate in the podcast! And we are proud to say that we are officially recommended by the editors of Decanter Magazine from their October issue, who call us fun, irreverent, chatty, and entertaining.
Alright, Carmela. We are going out on a limb here today, and facing down a wine that has suffered in reputation for many years, ever since Paul Giamatti’s character in the 2004 movie Sideways said “If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!”
I had never really been a big fan of Merlot, and so when I heard that line, I was like “hell yeah! that ‘s all about me.” And, in fact, one of our first episodes was called F that Wine Merlot - a series that was short-lived - where we talked about wines we don’t like - so we are part of the problem. And, I will also say that one of our lowest rated wines ever was in that episode - the Bogle Merlot, that we rated a 2 and poured down the sink. Literally.
But I am curious if you have any other or new thoughts or reactions or opinions on Merlot?
Believe or not, that movie actually had a big impact on wine sales - at least in the US - and in particular on the wines Merlot and Pinot Noir. From an article I found on the interwebs by Shelby Vittek in New Jersey Monthly - a magazine where I usually get most of my information - ha ha ha - she talks about “the Sideways effect.” The article says this - and you can find the link in our show notes if you go to our website and click on this episode and then click on the show notes
“When Sideways premiered in 2004, merlot made up close to 20 percent of California’s red wine market. A few years later, it dropped to 13 percent. In the same period, pinot noir sales grew 16 percent. This so-called Sideways Effect has been thoroughly researched by universities and wine associations.”
So, this was a real thing, and the reputation of Merlot suffered a great deal because of that one line in that one movie. Which is probably not fair, because, afterall, one of the greatest wine regions in the world is Bordeaux where some of the most famous and expensive and sought after wines are produced - and Merlot is and continues to be a backbone in the blends that are made there, and in fact, some of the most famous wines are only made from Merlot - and we’ll talk more about that later.
But, if I am being honest, there was also a lot of crap Merlot being made, particularly in California. I mean, when something becomes popular, people come out of the woodwork to produce it. And if I am still being honest, which I am, there continues to be a lot of crappy Merlot being made, so it is not by accident that Merlot fell on some hard times. And like a lot of things like fashion and food and art, wine goes through its cycles of what is popular at any given time. Again, I think about Prosecco. 20 years ago, most people had never heard of it. Now it’s everywhere.
So, we are going to talk a bit more about the history of Merlot, discuss whether it is making a comeback, and then we are going to taste and review three Merlot wines that are highly rated and very reasonably priced to let you know if we will continue to live by the mantra espoused in the movie Sideways, or if it is time to move on and bring Merlot back to the cool kids table . . .
But first . . . we have to do our shameless plug, right Carmela? First, we want to start by saying THANK YOU for listening to us and for supporting our show, and if you have not had the chance to do so yet, now would be an awesome time to subscribe to our podcast - it is a free way to support us, and then you never have to miss a show! - and a huge thank you to all of you who have subscribed already - we really really appreciate it!
And, another great way to support us for FREE is to leave a nice rating and review on our website or on Apple Podcasts or other podcast service so we can continue to grow our listeners.
You can also follow us and see fun pictures of the wines we are tasting and trying today on Instagram at thewinepairpodcast, and you can contact us on our website thewinepairpodcast.com with any questions or ideas you have.
And, as we do every week, we’ll tell you someone we think you should tell about The Wine Pair Podcast - and we have something new for you all - we are adjusting our approach focus on a cue word. When you hear this cue word in the next week, we want you to think of The Wine Pair Podcast, and immediately tell the person you are talking to that they need to listen to our podcast - and the word this week is Merlot. And now, all week, you are going to hear people saying Merlot, because that’s the way these things work, and you will need to tell them about us!
ARTICLES and LINKS
Topic: A Brief History of the Reputation of Merlot 08:47
So, let’s talk a little bit about the history of Merlot, and some of the ups and downs of its reputation. Now, I did mention that some of the most highly regarded wines in Bordeaux are made solely from Merlot, but that is not a common thing, and the regions those Merlot only wines are from were relatively obscure until pretty recently.
In reality, Merlot has always been considered more or less a blending grape, and not a grape that you would necessarily set out to create into a wine by itself. The wine that sort of changed the reputation of Merlot was the 1990 Chateau Petrus from Bordeaux which is made of 100% Merlot and earned a perfect 100 score from Wine Spectator. THat’s not common, ok?!?
But, the origins of Merlot are a little more humble. Merlot was first mentioned in France in the 1780’s, and it was used primarily as a blending grape and was considered a “secondary grape” meaning that it was really not meant to be bottled on its own. Like that friend that always hangs around by that you never really let drive anywhere.
Outside of Bordeaux, there was not a ton of Merlot being grown until the 20th Century, where it started to be planted more in Italy, California, Switzerland, and Spain. However, between the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, Merlot was almost wiped out altogether in France due to a series of really bad events, starting with a frost in 1956 that wiped out the crop, and then because of a rot that killed the plants for the next 15 years. In fact, from 1970 to 1975, France banned all new plantings of Merlot.
So, Merlot, at least in France, almost didn’t come back.
However, from the mid-1970’s and through the 1980’s, Merlot started to explode in popularity, not just in France, but also in places like California and Washington state, where it was starting to be bottled as its own varietal, and via blends like Super Tuscans in Italy.
By 2004, when Sideways came out, Merlot was the third most grown varietal in the world. But, as I mentioned, there was a large amount of Merlot that was being grown that was of poor quality especially in California, often described as soft and flabby. Like me.
But even so, the truth is that Merlot never really went away. It is still the second or third most planted grape varietal in the world - the reality is that the only thing that was really damaged by Sideways was its reputation. But, there are many articles coming out now talking about the resurgence of Merlot in both quality and quantity.
In fact, in 2019 a YouGov poll ranked Merlot as the #1 red wine in the US by popularity, so reports of Merlot’s demise may have been premature.
Now, if you are really looking for what is considered the best Merlot, and you don’t want to pay $1,500 or more for a right bank Bordeaux, look for Merlot from cooler climates. Those that are made in cooler climates are said to be more complex with softer fruit flavors.
Of course, what you consider to be superior or inferior is a matter of taste, and as we often say, we don’t expect you to agree with us always, but we do think you can use our taste as a comparison to yours to determine what you may like or not like.
So, on that note, I think it’s time to learn a little more about the specific wines we are drinking today. Whaddya say?
ARTICLES and LINKS
Merlot Wines We Chose for This Episode 14:58
As usual, all of the Merlot wines we have chosen for this episode are under $20, and all of them should be relatively easy to find - and I know that because I bought them all on wine.com.
I also was pretty specific in what I was looking for when I bought these wines, too, to make sure that we gave Merlot a fighting chance in this episode. Because, again, it is not our favorite wine. First. I wanted to find wines that had high ratings, over 90, from what we consider to be reputable reviewers, which means a rating from James Suckling, who we consider a hack, was not included.
Second, I wanted to choose wines that were from the home of Merlot, so two of our wines are from Bordeaux, and one is from Chile which has a reputation of making very good Merlot.
I will also say that finding 100% Merlot based wines from France, or from Bordeaux, is tricky, because they rarely tell you on the bottle what grapes are in the wine, so you do have to do a little research.
The first wine we are trying today is called Ronan by Clinet, and it is from Bordeaux France, and is a 2016, but was only $12.99, so if it is any good, that is a good deal! Decanter gave this wine a 93, and Jeb Dunnuck, another well known US reviewer, gave it a 91.
Ronan by Clinet was created in 2009 by Ronan Laborde the CEO of Château CLINET in Pomerol which is one of the oldest vineyards in Pomerol. They are known for making pretty darn good wines - and they are not cheap at $100-$150 or more right out of the gate.
They created the Ronan brand in order to make what they call an “approachable” wine that still has some of the class of the prestigious winery. Maybe it is the gateway wine to the more expensive Clinet Bordeaux blends, but it is definitely what you would call their daily drinker.
It is 100% Merlot, and while the winery is in Pomerol, the grapes do not come from Pomerol. I could not find out a ton else about how it is made, but I am assuming that it, and all of these wines today, will have been aged in oak, and this wine as I understand it was aged for 2-3 years before it was released in 2019.
The second wine we are drinking is from Chile and is one you should be able to find at a lot of wine shops and grocery stores, and it is called Santa Ema Reserva Merlot, and the vintage we are drinking, the 2018, got a 90 point rating from Wine Spectator. Another review source that I trust.
Santa Ema is considered to be a pretty good winemaker in Chile, and they have been around for about 100 years. The grapes were crushed and fermented in stainless steel tanks for 7 days and underwent malolactic fermentation, and then they were aged in barrels for 8-10 months in a blend of French and American oak.
Now, according to my buddy ChatGPT, who is never wrong, by the way, Chilean Merlot wines often have rich flavors of dark fruits like plum, blackberry, and cherry, and can also have flavors of spices, chocolate, and tobacco. They tend to be medium to full-bodied with smooth tannins and a velvety texture.
The last wine we are tasting today is called Chateau Mayne-Vieil Cuvee Alienor, and it is also from Bordeaux, France from a specific area called Fronsac which is on the right bank which is the classic area in Bordeaux well known for its Merlot. This is our most expensive wine at $17.99, our highest alcohol wine at 14.5%, and this 2019 that we are drinking today got a 92 rating from Wine Enthusiast who says the wine should be ready now in 2023.
The vines this wine is made from are said to be over 45 years old, which would put them right on the cusp of when France was allowing Merlot vines to be planted again.
Beyond that, I could not find out a ton of specifics on this wine, so I think we should just get to tasting. What do you say?!?
I am excited and maybe a little afraid to try these, and if you have a Merlot with you, or some other wine you love, crack it open and taste and drink along with us. Two Bordeaux Merlots, one from Chile, all different vintages - this should be a great way to see if we think Merlot is ready to make a comeback!
ARTICLES and LINKS
Merlot Wine Pairing Tasting and Reviews 22:28
Wine: Ronan by Clinet
Region: France, Bordeaux
Professional Rating: D 93, JD 91
What we tasted and smelled in this Merlot:
- On the nose: A little hot, dirt, earth, matchstick, smoke, wood, dark berries, black cherry, blackberry, spicy, black pepper, cayenne
- In the mouth: Very tannic, not as oaky as expected, good mouthfeel and body, dries out nicely, blackberry bramble, berry and the leaves, ripe blackberry with a little dirt on it, rich, crowd pleaser
Food to pair with this Merlot: Red meat, steak, grilled steak, roast, cookout wine, burger, grilled sausage. Great with food.
As a reminder on our rating scale, we rate on a scale of 1-10, where 7 and above means that we would buy it, and 4 and below means that we are likely to pour it down the sink, and a 5 or 6 means we are likely to drink it and finish it, but we are probably not going to buy it.
- Joe: 8/10
- Carmela: 7/10
Wine: Santa Ema Reserva Merlot
Region: Chile, Maipo Valley
Professional Rating: WS 90
What we tasted and smelled in this Merlot:
- On the nose: Sweeter smelling, black licorice, anise, plum, tart, astringent, hot, sharp, spice, natural gas, sulfur
- In the mouth: vinegar, jammy, super fruit-forward, tannic, but lingers too long, grape skin, sediment, tart, astringent, rubbing alcohol, very California style
Food to pair with this Merlot: Creamy cheese, pizza, macaroni and cheese, something fat and creamy. Not as food friendly
- Joe: 5/10
- Carmela: 5/10
Wine: Chateau Mayne-Vieil Cuvée Alienor
Region: France, Bordeaux, Fronsac
Professional Rating: WE 92
What we tasted and smelled in this Merlot:
- On the nose: A bit astringent, earthy, gasoline, anise, black licorice, hot pepper, cayenne, plum.
- In the mouth: Like the last one, but smoother refined, and more complex, probably needs more time in the cellar, European style of astringency, chalky, wood, news to mellow
Food to pair with this Merlot: Red meat, stew, roast, grilled vegetables, potatoes au gratin, scalloped potatoes
- Joe: 6/10
- Carmela: 6/10
Which one of these are you finishing tonight?
- Carmela: Ronan by Clinet
- Joe: Ronan by Clinet
Taste profiles expected from Merlot 40:11
- Wine Folly: Cherry, Plum, Chocolate, Dried Herbs, Vanilla
- WF: Right Bank Bordeaux: Cherry, New Leather, Cedar, Incense, Bay Leaf
- WF: Other flavors - blackberry, strawberry jam, fig, fruit cake, anise, violet, clay pot or potting soil, baking spices.
- Ronan by Clinet
- D: Expressive nose full of ripe red fruits and floral scents. The smooth, sappy red berry fruit is smooth and detailed, succulent, with tannins that are massy and chewy though also have a slightly chalky edge giving more texture and flavor detail. A 100% Merlot made by the same team as Chateau Clinet in Pomerol with a collection of growers across Bordeaux. Perfect for drinking, though with life in it yet.
- JD: The Merlot-dominated 2016 By Clinet (there's 5% Cabernet Franc) THIS IS NOT TRUE, THE BOTTLE SAYS 100% MERLOT is a charming, already delicious effort that gives up elegant notes of chocolate-laced plums and dark fruits, notes of leafy herbs and truffle, medium to full body, and a layered, charming mouthfeel. It's a terrific Bordeaux to drink over the coming 7-8 years or so.
- Santa Ema
- WS: A focused style, with intense dried green herbal flavors flanked by cherry and red plum notes. The crisp, minerally finish is firm and savory.
- Empire Wine: Deep violet-ruby red. Very fruity with notes of plums and blackberries accompanied by intense and unmistakable notes of caramel, vanilla, and chocolate. Smooth, with ripe tannins, good structure, and very good balance.
- Chateau Mayne-Vieil
- WE: This luscious, spicy wine has rich, integrated tannins and a dense texture. Dark black-plum flavors are concentrated and superripe. The wine will be ready from 2023
- Invino: Big, generous, upfront, and rolling deep with juicy black cherries and ripe plums, plus kirsch, pencil lead, star anise, and oolong tea. Rich, dense, and mouth-filling to the last drop.
A good challenge if you are not a Merlot lover. We found a really good Merlot we like, so a good lesson that you can’t judge a wine just on the name. We do think Merlot is making a comeback, at least with us!
Outro and how to find The Wine Pair Podcast 42:57
Ok, so, Carmela, it is just about time for us to go, but before we do, we want to thank you very much for listening to us - AND if you haven’t done so yet, now would be the perfect time to subscribe to our podcast AND also a fantastic time to leave us a nice rating and review on our website or Apple podcasts or other podcast service - and it is an awesome and free way to support us and help us grow listeners.
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Alright, with that, we are going to sign off, so thanks again, and we will see you next time. And, as we say, life is short, so stop drinking shitty wine.