The friendly grape
Merlot commands a firm second place in overall acreage planted in our world and is only surpassed by cabernet sauvignon.
Cabernet is smaller and therefore has a larger skin-to-pulp ratio that results in more tannic wine that takes time to resolve itself and settle down. The plumper merlot is usually ready to enjoy at an earlier age, as the tannins are less pronounced. Let’s say that cabernet can be stern and merlot friendly.
I recall an incident not long ago when I was tasting a few bordeaux reds with a group that was studying to pass a set of wine exams. I commented that the wine in my glass was rather timid. All eyes bore down on me as if to say, “What is he going on about?” So, I had better apologise right now before I am thought badly of for conveying mannerisms to the juice of a grape! It is just my way.
We carry many inexpensive merlot wines — Barefoot bottles and magnums, Gallo Family bottles and magnums, Dark Horse, Pasqua and so on — and I posit that it is their soft and easygoing nature that makes them so in demand for casual enjoyment. I will lead off with Chile and that fateful November 24, 1994, when a French ampelographer (look it up) was strolling through a merlot vineyard in Chile. He noticed a problem and promptly let his Chilean hosts know that the vines were not merlot but an ancient, and virtually extinct, bordeaux grape known as carménère. Cuttings had travelled from France well over a century before.
Well, once they got that sorted out, they started to produce some fine carménère, now allowed time to ripen and, much better, early harvested merlot. True story.
Our 2019 Cono Sur Bicicleta Reserva Merlot is a soft and serious Chilean wine with violet, red colouring. Cherries and raspberries, as well as hints of cacao, tobacco and mocha join with a palate that is smooth, balanced, juicy and round with delicate tannins. The pedal bicycle on the label is there to represent the way the workers travel through the vineyards that they are so environmentally conscious about. $17.65 (Stock #7834).
The 2018 Veramonte Reserva Merlot is an organic Chilean wine with intense aromas of blackberries, plums and blueberries mingled with subtle hints of cedar and spice. Fresh red berry fruit flavours are complemented with subtle elegant oak character, leading to a long persistent finish. The merlot grape variety produces some of the most-valued wines of the world, when grown on the appropriate terroir. Casablanca, cooled by the snow-capped Andes, has proven to be one of the world's premiere terroirs for merlot. $19.50 (Stock#6194).
Now we forget about pedal cycles and hop on our Harley-Davidson Fat Boy and cruise up the Pan American Highway some 5,000 miles to California.
We are in the Paso Robles region and can try the 2018 J. Lohr Estates Los Osos Merlot that is medium-dark in colour with a red hue. Varietal aromas of black plum and violet meld with the light barrel signature of baking spices and toasted pastry. A generous fraction of malbec in the blend accentuates bright fruit tones and contributes notes of pomegranate and hibiscus flower. This wine is lively and bright on the palate and cascades to a lengthy, red-fruit finish. $27 (Stock#7997).
Of all the wines that we list from Napa Valley, 2018 Stags’ Leap Winery Merlot is our only version of this grape. Canadian critic Natalie MacLean really loves it and awards it 94/100 as she writes: “Still loving this lush and full-bodied merlot from Stags' Leap Winery. The 2018 vintage reminds me of chocolate-covered cherries with rich dark berry, spiced plum and nutty flavours on the palate with bright acidity to match. Tannins are fine and rounded”. $64 (Stock #6342).
On the Pan Am Highway again all the way to Washington State to visit the Charles Smith winery and taste their 2019 The Velvet Devil Merlot that receives a 90-point score and this opinion from MacLean: “The Velvet Devil 2019 Merlot is amazing value from the cool-climate Washington wine region. Dry, medium-bodied with zesty acidity, look for ripe plum, cassis, blueberry, wild strawberry, mocha and savoury herb flavours vibrant and plushy on the palate. A crowd-pleasing merlot which includes 10 per cent cabernet sauvignon and 1 per cent malbec. Enjoy with burgers and ribs from the grill.” $24.70 (Stock #8058).
Now we must go to where it all began, possibly as far back as 2,000 years ago. Today merlot dominates in the Saint Emilion and Pomerol areas on the eastern side of Bordeaux. Merlot is planted there as this is where the first threat of winter frost manifests itself and these early ripening grapes can be safely harvested and in the winery.
The vineyard that gives us 2016 Chateau Teyssier St. Emilion Grand Cru dates to the 15th century and merlot vines account for 90 per cent of it. Critic James Suckling gives it 91 points and adds, “Quite fragrant blue flowers and plums lead to a very vibrant and plush palate that has approachable, smooth and polished tannin texture. Drink or hold.” Jeb Dunnuck comments: “The 2016 Château Teyssier is a beauty. Black cherries, mulberries, cedary herbs and dried flower notes all flow to a medium-bodied, balanced, vibrant wine that has some tannins to shed, but it offers beautiful purity of fruit.” $46 (Stock #8314).
Let’s end with a true “garage wine” from the British “garagiste” Jonathan Maltus. A mere 1,000 cases are produced of 2016 La Forge St. Emilion Grand Cru that I have followed since he bought the vineyard in 1998. The Wine Enthusiast has this to say: “Dense and with big fruit grown on the plain of Saint-Emilion, this is a juicy, spicy wine, hinting at chocolate. Bold tannins, concentration and opulent black fruits suggest good potential. Drink from 2021.” It is 92 per cent merlot and 8 per cent cabernet franc. $62 (Stock #8291).
• This column is an advertorial for Burrows Lightbourn Ltd. Contact Michael Robinson at email@example.com. Burrows Lightbourn has stores in Hamilton (Front Street East, 295-1554) and Paget (Harbour Road, 236-0355). Visit www.wineonline.bm