“If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any fucking Merlot.” Miles Raymond, a high-strung wine geek, spat out these words in the 2004 movie Sideways. It should have been nothing more than a scrap of dialogue in a low-budget comedy. However, Sideways became a cult hit and Miles’s cheap shot was heard around the world. Merlot lost sales and shelf space, while demand soared for Pinot Noir, the film’s romantic lead. Although Merlot’s sales have rebounded, a stigma still remains: it is a vulgar varietal.
I have a confession to make: I love Merlot. Its cruddy reputation comes from the fact that it’s often used in cheap, shapeless wines. However, given even a little skill, Merlot transforms into a voluptuous beauty: fruity, rich and pliant. It has the thing I prize most in a wine — a rich, feathered texture. As it ages, this plush quality deepens into something like velvet.
The finest expression of Merlot is made in Bordeaux, where it is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot and the other varietal Miles belittles in the movie, Cabernet Franc. Bordeaux’s sub-regions on the left side of Gironde River favour Cabernet Sauvignon — the best of these wines are long-lived, intense and masculine. The Right Bank, however, is Merlot country and the sub-regions here such as Saint-Émilion and Pomerol can make stupendous Merlot with a feminine spirit. Some of the world’s most prestigious bottles are made here, including the famous Château Pétrus ($1,495).
This brings me back to Sideways. At the end of the film, the self-loathing Miles drinks his greatest treasure, a bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc. This is a Saint-Émilion that sells for over $7,000 in auctions today. It is a noble, but sadly over-the-hill bottle that symbolizes Miles as he faces his midlife crisis. Almost everyone overlooked the central joke in the film: Miles’s beloved wine is made of Cabernet Franc and fucking Merlot.
Into the Short Cellar
Katnook Es tate 2006 Merlot
$29.95, Coonawarra, Australia, Vintages #718528
This superb wine holds its ground with bottles two or three times the price. Mocha, sweaty leather and graphite nuance exuberant, juicy berry flavours. The 2006 is drinking well now, but it will age splendidly, acquiring a fleshy quality, a hint of buckwheat honey and even more elegance. 92/100
J. Lohr 2003 Los Osos Merlot
$21.95, Paso Robles, California
After three years in my cellar, this beauty aged perfectly. It displayed Merlot’s classic flavour of blueberry, plum and vanilla with a rich, satiny flair. Time had deepened the flavours, making the palate tactile and well integrated. Look for more recent vintages at the LCBO and age one yourself. 91/100
Merlots around the world
Merlot is a versatile grape that does well in warm climates, where it is fruity and full, or cooler locales, where it becomes light and elegant
Bordeaux, France: SaintÉmilion and Pomerol are famous for Merlot but can be pricey. There are bettervalue subappellations in Bordeaux, including Côtes de Francs and Côtes de Castillon.
Italy: Cool regions like Friuli have a Merlot that can be pleasantly dainty or daintily superficial. However, Tuscany makes a sensuous Merlot that is the envy of the world, like the 2006 Masseto ($399).
Ontario: Merlot is often grown in Niagara because it ripens easily. I’ve had great Merlots with potential for mid-term (4-10 year) aging from Kacaba Vineyards, Marynissen Estates and Creekside Estate Winery.
Matthew Sullivan is a civil litigator in Toronto. He blogs weekly here on lawandstyle.ca. The Short Cellar column also appears in the print edition of Precedent. Matthew can be reached at email@example.com. Follow along on Twitter: @shortcellar.
Photo by Josh Jensen