IF the wine world has a whipping boy these days, it's Merlot -- even Hollywood got its licks in when Miles Raymond lashed it in "Sideways." It's been cast aside for the "it" wine of the moment, Pinot Noir; no one would be caught dead drinking, or even liking, Merlot.
Now, it's true that there's a whole lot of bad Merlot in the world, much of it from California, but some of the greatest wines in the world are made with this noble grape -- including Cheval Blanc, the prized possession Miles finally chugs from Styrofoam.
Cheval Blanc comes from St.-Emilion on Bordeaux's Right Bank, which with Pomerol produces some of the world's greatest Merlots. Excellent Merlots also come from Washington state, which in less than 30 years has proven to be a formidable terroir for the grape -- not surprising when you take into account that it shares the same range of latitudes as Bordeaux.
And now in California, where years of indiscriminate plantings have resulted in millions of cases of Merlot mediocrity, growers have isolated a few special places where the grape thrives.
In fact, one California region, Carneros, might soon rival the Right Bank as a place where the Merlot is much better than not bad: It's legitimately great.
In this country, Merlot vines were planted in the 1980s as a lighter-bodied, more approachable variety than the massively tannic Cabernets of the era. Consumers embraced the alternative. Few growers, however, realized how temperamental Merlot vines were. Vines responded poorly to extremes of heat, drought or moisture; on the other hand, if the vines weren't stressed, if the soils were too rich or the site too balmy, the vines gave back huge canopies and exceptionally boring fruit. Soon there was a sea of insipid wine out there with nothing to be said for it other than that it wasn't Cabernet.
The Cabernet comparison has never been a fair one. Merlot sets, flowers, colors and ripens two to four weeks earlier than Cabernet. It's relatively thin-skinned and large-berried, yielding a mellower, less tannic wine in the glass. It's invariably perceived as less powerful than Cabernet -- but to dwell on its lack of power is to miss its real strength: pliancy.
Where Cabernet has the structural fortitude of an old oak, Merlot gives, like a sapling -- strong yet supple, firm and flexible. This is why it makes for such a marvelous blending grape, but on its own it can be dense and rich, plainly red-fruited, with an inimitable texture that is at once chewy, dusty and tender.
Chateau Petrus, from Bordeaux's Right Bank commune of Pomerol, is arguably the world's greatest Merlot. It's known for its concentration, the tightly coiled, almost smoldering intensity of its fruit flavor and, above all, its graceful longevity. What makes this wine great is the particular geology of its tiny vineyard.
Much of Pomerol is situated on a bench overlooking the Dordogne composed of glacial sand and gravel deposits. But Petrus lies atop a small patch of clay. Petrus soils are particularly dense, ancient and poor in nutrients. Vines are tiny; yields are correspondingly small -- not minuscule exactly, but balanced.
Petrus offers a clue as to what makes for a great Merlot site: conditions that curb its growth. Given generous nutrients, Merlot acts like an adolescent on permanent growth spurt.
"If you've got vines growing in some nice rich loam, you're going to get great leaves and really boring fruit," says Tom Rinaldi, winemaker for Provenance Winery in St. Helena, Calif., and former winemaker for the original Merlot powerhouse, Duckhorn Wine Co.
Where so many California vintners have planted Merlot willy-nilly, a stalwart few like Rinaldi have been scouring Napa Valley for the truly lousy places to put it in the ground.
Wine, where and how
TAKE Bob Foley, the winemaker who oversees the stratospheric vineyards of Pride Mountain, an estate that straddles the Sonoma and Napa valleys. Poised at the apex of Spring Mountain, at 2,100 feet, it is one of the highest Merlot vineyards in California. Foley says the soils are so poor "we can't even get weeds to grow." But Merlot works in the swales where soils have collected.
"The vines collect a bit of water," he says, "and gather some intensity during cold autumn nights." The result is one of California's more powerful, dark-fruited and voluptuous Merlots.
Meanwhile, on the Napa Valley floor, brothers Sloan and John Upton located "a mountain vineyard that's vertically challenged," which is how Rinaldi describes their Three Palms Vineyard near Calistoga, a vineyard carved from the tumbledown tailings of an ancient stream that's as arduously rocky as any patch of ground in the valley.
Grapes from the hard-working, small-yielding vines of this vineyard go into wines like Duckhorn's Three Palms, a structured, chewy and intense wine with cherry and plum flavors and tannins as fine as brick dust.
Merlot planted on mountains produces wines of indisputable power and intensity; but Rinaldi points out that power isn't necessarily Merlot's best feature.
"These are serious wines," he says, "with unbridled energy and real in-your-face tannins; but they're really more Cab-like, and you have to ask yourself if you want your wine to be bruising or do you want it to be more charming and approachable?"
The latter, to Rinaldi and others, is the promise of Carneros. Short of arguing that California has a Pomerol of its own, Carneros evokes the Right Bank in its marine influence and its geological complexity.
Once a region of great promise for Pinot Noir (where its success has been intermittent), it now appears that the region's signature elements of soil, sunlight, wind and fog all play to Merlot's gentler, suppler qualities. And a handful of careful growers, such as Andy Beckstoffer, Larry Hyde, Lee Hudson, Doug Hill of Beau Terroir and the Truchard family, have learned to draw out these qualities in the vineyard.
Michael Havens has been making Merlot from largely Carneros sources under his own label since 1984. He notes that the loamy clay soil of Carneros -- not unlike those of Pomerol -- is where Merlot often finds its best expression. The reason, he believes, is that clay soils are stingy with water.
"It's a thin-skinned grape," Havens says, "and if it's too hot or dry, the vascular system of the plant will suck moisture out of the berries" -- leaving you to make wine with raisins. But clay holds onto its water, he adds. "It metes out water at a slower rate."
For Rinaldi, there's something special about the quality of light and heat in Carneros; the marine layer in the atmosphere cools the vines and softens the light, diffusing its intensity. "The sunlight there is cooler," he says. "You get lots of light, but not as much heat; photosynthesis, but no heat spikes, nothing cooks."
Another factor is wind, and Carneros is exceedingly wind-whipped. It's hard to measure, of course, but Havens is certain wind plays a role in concentrating the fruit. "Wind is definitely an underappreciated factor," he says. "It slows down certain metabolic processes but not others."
All of these elements work together to prolong the development of flavor, slowing the fruit's progress from veraison to harvest, from hard green pellets to ripe juicy berries. Havens calls it his fruit clock, a clock with no numbers, only flavor attributes. High noon, for Havens, is ripe fruit, perfectly balanced, red in hue, not too sugary. High noon, for Merlot, is a regular occurrence in Carneros.
The Havens and the Provenance wines are quite different from each other, as are the Merlots from Arietta, Neyers and Truchard, to name a few wineries that champion Carneros fruit. But what they have in common is a texture -- dense, substantial, yet pliant -- that hints at the elements of wind and the clay these vines endure, far more willingly than any tannin-girded Cabernet would reveal.
Havens uses an odd word to describe the wine's texture: "polenta." It's a funny choice, but the word does get at Merlot's unique, absorbing give in the mouth -- a weight that bends as it rests on your palate.
Rinaldi has his own word for it, noting that it's a word common to the lexicon for Right Bank wines: "I think we're finally starting to attain a kind of opulence," he says. "We figured out the power and the aggressive, clean flavors. I think we're learning the opulent factor."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)Getting serious about Merlot
If Chateau Petrus is the pinnacle of Merlot expression, you can expect to pay pinnacle prices for the stuff: It's $2,499.99 at Wally's in West Los Angeles. For those of us with slimmer wallets, here are excellent, more affordable choices from France and California.
2001 Clos de l'Oratoire, St.-Emilion. Winemaker Stephane Derenoncourt's beautifully crafted grand cru wine marries succulent black cherry aroma and flavor with exotic spices, cocoa and fine red earth. On the palate, it's firm and cleanly delineated, dark and earthy. At the Wine House, West Los Angeles, (310) 479-3731, and the Wine Merchant, Beverly Hills, (310) 278-7322, about $40.
2000 Esprit de l'Eglise, Pomerol. The second label from the Clos l'Eglise estate (planted to 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc), this is a firm, compacted wine at the moment, with scents of cedar, olive and blackberry; after a day, the fruit brightens to black cherry. Marvelously dry, with cedar and black cherry flavors and firm dusty tannins. Available at the Wine House, about $40.
2001 Havens Merlot, Napa Valley. Composed primarily of fruit from three Carneros vineyards, the aroma of the 2001 is like catching wind of a sprig of fresh thyme in a bowl of Bing cherries -- a dark and succulent scent lined with bright green herbs. Its flavors are deep red cherry, but it's the texture you'll remember: rich, succulent, firm and lasting. Available at Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, (949) 650-8463, and Larchmont Village Wine, Spirits & Cheese in Los Angeles, (323) 856-8699, about $24.
2002 Provenance Merlot, Carneros. From Andy Beckstoffer's vineyard, which is a stone's throw from the tidal flats on the silty loam of Carneros; it has a red cherry scent and forward flavors of black cherries with a hint of vanilla. There's a dusty feel to the tannins and a texture as fine-grained as clay. Available at John & Pete's Fine Wines in West Hollywood, (310) 657-3080, and Vendome Liquors in Studio City, (818) 766-5272, about $30.
2002 Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard Merlot, Napa Valley. Giving off scents of tobacco, earth and plums, this wine's plum and black cherry flavors are given dimension from a fine dusty minerality that lasts through the long finish. Still youthful and tight, it's certain to have a long life in the cellar. At Wally's, (310) 475-0606, and the Duke of Bourbon in Canoga Park, (818) 341-1234, about $80.
2003 Pride Mountain Merlot, Napa Valley. From a vineyard that straddles Napa and Sonoma, this powerful full-bodied Merlot just pulls back from the brink of maximum ripeness. It leads with a fine, almost floral top note and rich preserved cherry fruit. The flavors are hedonistic, all black cherry fruit until the finish, which carries with it a rich dollop of chocolaty oak. At Twenty-Twenty Wine Merchants in West Los Angeles, (310) 447-2020, Duke of Bourbon, and Red Carpet Wines in Glendale, (818) 247-5544, about $50.
2001 Clos Pegase Mitsuko's Vineyard Merlot, Carneros. A gentle, well-composed wine with scents of red cherries and fresh-cut mint, its warm black plum and brown sugar flavors are given contour with fine-grained tannins; it's rich, but carries its weight nicely. Good balance and a succulent finish. Available at Gelson's Markets and Hi-Time Wine Cellars, about $25.
2002 HdV, Carneros. The joint project of Larry Hyde and Aubert de Villaine, this blend of 90% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon tastes and smells like a red berry compote, bright and mildly spicy. Succulent and juicy, it's enlivened by firm acidity and anchored by fine tannins. In an era of red blend beasts, this is refreshingly light on its feet. At Duke of Bourbon, and John & Pete's, about $60.
2002 Arietta Hudson Vineyard, Carneros. John Kongsgaard and Fritz Hatton's blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc is an extravagant, muscular wine in a super-macerated, highly extracted, over-the-top style. Its aromas are sugar plum and black cherry, with hints of beef consomme and caramel. Chewy, dense and forward on the palate, it's powerful stuff. At Wally's, Twenty-Twenty and Woodland Hills Wine Co., (818) 222-1111, about $85.
-- Patrick Comiskey