Monday, March 17, 2014

Merlot lotta love

Merlot (mer loh) is often dismissed as a second rate Cabernet Sauvignon, but not only is Merlot delicious on its own, it is often used as a blending grape to make some fantastic wines.

Merlot is the most commonly grown grape in France and it helped put the Washington State wine industry on the map.

If you've dismissed Merlot in the past, do yourself a favor and give it a second chance.

Merlot makes a less tannic wine than Cabernet Sauvignon does.

Tannins come from grape skins, and
Merlot grapes are larger, and have thinner skins than Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, so Merlot grapes will yield more pulp for the same amount of skin than Cab does. 
In warm climates like Washington or California, Merlot comes to full ripeness, so wine made with those grapes will have smooth tannins, a velvety texture, and more alcohol than wine made from cool climate grapes. The fruit will be very evident, and you'll get lots of juicy, silky, lush cherry, raspberry, and plum flavors.

In cool climates, like France, the grapes will retain more acid, and Merlot from these areas won't have the lush fruitiness of warm climate grapes, and the wine might have a lighter body. Merlot grown in cool climates will have herbal flavors like green olives, black olives, bell pepper, oregano, or thyme.

Most wine produced in France's Bordeaux region is a blend of several grapes, and Merlot is the most widely planted grape in that area. 

Most of Bordeaux's Merlot plantings are in the clay soil north of the Dordogne river, and east of the Gironde river.

If you were to stand in the river and face downstream, this area would be on your right.

If someone refers to a Right Bank Bordeaux, they are referring to a wine from this area, and that wine will be primarily Merlot.

Open a bottle of Merlot and pour yourself a glass.

The first thing you're going to notice is the dark ruby color. 

Turn up the lights and hold your glass over a white piece of paper. Tilt your glass slightly. Merlot will have a slight orange or terra cotta tint at the rim. Cabernet Sauvignon won't have this tint, which will be less pronounced or nonexistent in blends.

Give it a sniff and take a sip. 

The next thing you're going to notice are the black cherry, blueberry, blackberry, and plum flavors and aromas.

You might also notice some vegetal or herbal notes. If you don't notice any, don't worry about it. Take another sniff.

If the Merlot has spent some time in an oak barrel, and it probably has, you might smell some caramel, coconut, dill, or vanilla. Maybe you'll be reminded of a cigar box or of freshly sharpened pencils.

While you're tasting Merlot, notice is how the wine is medium bodied. It's sorta half way in body between Syrah and Pinot Noir. Merlot from cool climates might be a little lighter bodied than Merlot from warm climates. 

Merlot is not lightweight, but not heavyweight. Merlot is not delicate, but not bold. Merlot is in the middle of the road, and that is not a bad thing. Being middle of the road is how Merlot is going to pair with a wide variety of food.

If we were at a party, Merlot would be the soft spoken, diplomatic sibling of the guy wearing the lampshade. 

If we were in high school, Cabernet Sauvignon would be the captain of the football team, while Merlot would be his smart, funny, athletic little sister. Both are popular, but for different reasons.

What kind of food pairs well with Merlot?

Merlot has a pronounced flavor, but not one that is big, bold, or overpowering. That makes Merlot perfect for roasted vegetables, meats, or poultry, perhaps with a mushroom sauce.

Merlot's midrange body and acidity help it pair with many sauces - just avoid the extremes: very heavy cream sauces or very acidic citrus sauces. 

You could use Merlot in cooking. As the wine evaporates, the tannins will concentrate, but Merlot has lower tannin levels to begin with, so this really helps you out when braising meat or making a sauce. 

Try braising beef short ribs in Merlot and then serving Merlot with the meal. I like to let braised meat rest in the braising liquid overnight. The meat seems to pick up even more flavor from the liquid.

Using lots of olives and thyme in a dish would help pair the food to the wine if the Merlot you've got has those flavors. Try this trick when pairing lamb with an Merlot from a cool climate.

I like Merlot with a cheeseburger. 

There isn't enough fat in hamburger to warrant a more tannic wine, and the kinds of cheeses that melt nicely on a burger also work well with Merlot, particularly smoked cheeses. 

I'm partial to Zippy's Giant Burgers in White Center, Washington, but Zippy's doesn't serve wine. They do, however, make a mean Salted Caramel milkshake. Zippy's also serves beer, or you could take your burger down the street to Big Al Brewing. The No. 11 Burger pairs well with Big Al's Irish Red.

But I digress.

Here are a few examples of Merlot:

These wines are good examples of Washington State Merlot. The velvety cherry and strawberry flavors are up front, and you'll find some cinnamon, coconut, and vanilla too. 

If you open a bottle of Merlot from California, you'll find that the wine has similar properties.

Napa Valley is warmer than Sonoma Valley, so the fruit will produce more sugar, so Merlot from Napa may have more alcohol, which gives a perception of sweetness and fuller body.

Most wines from Bordeaux are blends, but this one from Chateau Marsau is all Merlot. 

Notice that you don't get any of the fruitiness of American Merlots, and instead you have more herbal flavors. I taste olives, dried herbs, and number 2 pencils. This wine might not impress you if you drink it on its own, but the wine changes quite a bit when you pair it with food. 

Chateau Villars is in Fronsac, which is in the east part of Bordeaux, on the Right Bank, close to the more famous Saint Emilion.

This wine is about 75% Merlot, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc filling out the rest. 

When compared to the American Merlots, this wine has much less fruitiness, a little blueberry and raspberry, and far more earthiness. I'm reminded of damp earth, dried leaves, and sharpened pencils. This wine is unfiltered, which gives a little grittiness to the texture which underscores the wine's earthiness. I really like that quality, but you might not. This one was $23 at Bin 41 in West Seattle.

Corvus Cellars' Loceaux is a stellar 50/50 blend of Washington State Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Plenty of big flavors cherries, berries, and grilled steak, with a long finish. 

This is a nice example of how Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon complement each other. This is a splurge, but I thought it was worth it.

Hey, did you ever see the movie Sideways? Remember Miles, the guy who wouldn't drink Merlot?

In the movie, Miles has been saving a cherished bottle of wine for a special occasion. At the end of the movie, Miles opens that bottle of wine and drinks it by himself.

The bottle he opens, Chateau Cheval Blanc, is about 40% Merlot.

Have a great week!

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