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The problem with Merlot (in California)

This is broken off the thread entitled "Best Merlot" -- see http://www.chowhound.com/topics/480608

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Steve Timko wrote: "There can be good merlot, but I think the big problem is the grape itself. Unless you get a really good climate and soil, it's just a blending grape"

Herein lies the problem with Merlot in California.

Merlot has been planted with Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux for centuries, and in fact, there is more Merlot planted in Bordeaux than there is Cabernet Sauvignon. None of the classified growths, or any other well-known château, produces their Bordeaux wine without at least some Merlot in the blend; several do not use any Cabernet Sauvignon.

But Cabernet Sauvignon is a member of the "Royal Family" of grapes. (Tradition holds that Caberenet Sauvignon is the "King of Red Wines," while Pinot Noir is the "queen"; Chardonnay and Riesling hold these roles on the white side of the spectrum.) And certainly beginning as early as the mid-19th century, Cabernet was the "king" here in California, with plantings located in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Santa Clara Valley, in both Napa and Sonoma counties, and even in the Sierra foothills. It was also planted as early as the 1830s in what is now downtown Los Angeles.

So California has a long tradition of producing Cabernet Sauvignon.

The very first varietally-labeled Merlot wine produced in California was the Louis M. Martini Winery "Edge Hill Selection" Lot 1968-70 Merlot. A few months later, Sterling Vineyards released their 1969 vintage Merlot. Both these wineries made excellent wines from Merlot, and both these wineries made tremendous marketing mistakes upon releasing these wines to the public. In an attempt to explain to Americans what seemed like a brand new grape, both wineries described Merlot as "a blending grape -- the French use it to blend into Cabernet Sauvignon to soften it up and make it smoother."

Now one can indeed make the argument that it's actually Cabernet that is blended into Merlot, but given the familiarity the American public already had with Cabernet, that wasn't going to work very well. The problem lies with the three-word phrase, "a blending grape." Immediately that casts a shadow upon Merlot as an inferior grape only good for blending* and not really good on its own.

And what's wrong with a blending grape? Well, nothing EXCEPT that -- given the American system of varietal labeling -- we have the perception that wines are 100% varietal, when in fact relatively few grape varieties actually show their best when produced as pure, unblended wines (this is the "Ivory Soap Syndrome"). After all, California's best wines are those named after a single grape, while those inexpensive "jug wines" carry names like "Burgundy," "Chablis," or "Rhine Wine."

Keep in mind that back when both these wines were first released, a) this was long before non-varietally labeled wines like "Insignia," "Dominus," or "Opus One" ever saw the light of day; and b) the minimum required grape content for varietal wines at this time was only 51 percent.

So Merlot was handicapped from the very beginning with the epithet "blending grape," and had to work hard to overcome that image. And it did, BUT . . .

Because of its softer mouthfeel, it wasn't long before it joined Chardonnay as everyone's house wine/"by-the-glass" pick. The problem was there wasn't enough Merlot planted in California to satisfy the demand.

As a result, wineries were demanding more and more Merlot. The prices were high -- in many cases, they were higher than Cabernet -- and so growers rushed to plant more. That, unfortunately, takes time, so the immediate solution was to overcrop -- to increase the tonnage per acre and satisfy the wineries' demand for more grapes. That this had the added benefit of getting more money from existing plantings was also a big plus.

What happens when vineyards are overcropped? The quality of the fruit goes down. The intensity of flavor diminishes, and the resulting wine is dilute, weak, watery, and --well, yucky. But no one complained, because Merlot was the #1 selling red wine in restaurants, you couldn't keep it in stock, and thousands of cases were being poured by the glass!

The result became a decline in the overall quality of Merlot wines in California. Sure there were still some individual wines that were great, but by and large it was getting pretty dismal. Prices fell, and -- well, yuck!

So in order to explain the sinking quality of Merlot in California, people brought out that old epithet and said, "Well, you know it's just a blending grape -- what did you expect?"

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Q: Why do you think Miles was so "anti-Merlot" in the film "Sideways"?
A: For several VERY good reasons!

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This problem has never affected Washington State, mainly because there are no large wineries (a la Kendall-Jackson, Glen Ellen, Charles Shaw, etc., etc.) in the state and so there was never the same sort of pressure upon Washington's growers to overcrop their vineyards. This is a key reason (but not the only one) why the overall quality of the Merlot wines produced in Washington State is so much higher than the overall quality of those made in California.

Just my 2¢ -- worth far less -- keep the change.

Cheers,
Jason

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  1. Jason, thanks for that info. I've always avoided Merlot for exactly those reasons, thin, flabby, etc. But this post and the previous thread, where the "best" Merlots are discussed, has really got me rethinking how I look at it.

    1. Thanks a lot for that primer on this recent American history of Merlot. I usually avoided it and recently had some good merlots, which made me wonder why it is so much maligned. I had a great one from South Africa at a good price about a year ago and wish I knew then how hard it would be to find good merlot again.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Icantread

        You know the old Yogi Berra line about that restaurant (or was it a bar?) that was so popular that, "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

        That's kind of like Merlot. It's still selling, but no one seems to drink it. ;^)

      2. Speaking to Merlot's popularity, I remember tasting wine at a retail store in Claymont, Delaware. A customer standing next to me at the tasting table was offered a taste of a red wine by the store rep. The customer responded, "oh, what is it, Merlot?" The rep says "it's Montepulciano from the Italian region of Abruzzo". The customer then follows up asking, "So what is it, Merlot?"

        1. In addition to Jason's discussion of overcropping, I think Merlot in much of California suffers from not being planted in the right places. My overall opinion of 100% CA Merlot is that while it may taste good while it's in your mouth, it falls totally flat at the finish. There are exceptions, such as St. Supery's Merlot (the favorite varietal of the current winemaker) but not too many.

          OTOH, when you take the grape to Long Island or to Washington State, it becomes another animal entirely! Kinda like Malbec in Argentina.

          Jason, wouldn't you consider Columbia Crest and Chateau Ste. Michelle "large wineries?" imho both make some really tasty Merlots.

          1 Reply
          1. re: ChefJune

            CSM, and its sister winery, Columbia Crest, are large by Washington State standards, but far less so by California standards.

            The KJ label alone sells 3.5 million cases of wine, and the "KJ Family" (ranked 9th in the US in total volume with 5 million cases) owns 14,000 acres of vineyards. In contrast, while Ste. Michelle Wine Estates is right behind at 10th (4.2 million), Chateau Ste. Michelle itself is much smaller than KJ, and the combined acreage of all 22 wineries is 4,200 acres (both in Washington and California).

            Neither of these wineries' "regular" Merlot wines would be my personal pick as a "favorite" Merlot of mine, but both are regularly in my list of "Recommended Merlots" and - IMHO -- offer great QPR (quality-price ratio) to the customer, i.e.: great bang-for-the-buck.

            I think that, taken as a whole, Washington Merlots are consistently better than California Merlots, but there are specific individual wines produced in both states that are indeed excellent.

            Hope that makes sense.

            Cheers,
            Jason

          2. It's actually the other way around! Pinot Noir is the King - powerful and sensuous - it fills your whole body down to your fingertips. Cabernet Sauvignon is the Queen, making a a more subtle cerebral wine that engages your mind.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Scuppernong

              For YOU maybe, but a) great Pinot Noir/Burgundy is seductive, not powerful and overwhelming, and certainly not as tannic and abrasive as Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux can be; and b) your "gender reversal" goes against at least 150+ years of writing on the subject. But -- hey -- who am I to disagree with some who (presumably) likes Scuppernong?

              1. re: Scuppernong

                Pinot Noir powerful (!?), yeah, I can't quite wrap my head around this concept, I do have an array of boutique Syrah blends in my small cellar with 15.9% alcohol, something like that is definitely "powerful" at least for my palate. Pinot (I admit not me favourite variety) definitely has 'female' qualities for subtleness and delicateness.