I thought that I would write a short bit beginning today on a few wine grape types (varietals) and the general taste profiles to expect on each varietal.
We'll start with merlot, which joins chardonnay as the two varietals which have experienced great highs and lows in consumer appreciation over the past 30 years.
Merlot, once thought of as a blending grape usually used to "tame" hard-edged cabernet sauvignon, came on its own on the American wine scene in the late 1960s with its release from Louis Martini winery in Napa Valley. This, to my knowledge, was the first time a single, unblended, merlot made from an American winery was released. Immediately, the wine became a big hit with a certain segment of the industry: those who wanted to drink red wine but could not tolerate the angular, tannic, hard-edged and "bigger" releases.
The wine released was what merlot should be: soft, plummy, redolent of cassis and dark fruit, weighty on the plate and silky with soft, perfumed scents in the nose. Louis Martini hit it on the head and did not try to make this wine anything but what it was intended to be — a very approachable red wine which went well with a variety of cuisine or to be sipped on.
Not only was the wine approachable, but the winery, noted for its very fair pricing, kept the wine in line with the founder's philosophy of offering the average-income wine consumer a good deal. Although, in my opinion, Louis Martini winery has never produced great wines, the wines they do release are good to very good for the money spent and the merlot fit into this category perfectly.
The huge success of merlot as a single release from an American winery set off a flurry of activity which has not subsided to this day. The problem was and is that merlot began to be planted in sites not suitable for the grape to perform at its best. An example of this are the hot site merlots coming from the central valley in California where the alcohols were torrid and the acids very soft, making an insipid and very ill-formed glass of wine.
The other problem was the wash of over-cropped, mediocre merlot coming in from South America (although Chile has made some fabulous first-level merlot) hitting the shelves at low prices in cardboard stacks. Third, some producers were trying to make merlot into a superstar (especially in the mid-'70s) by using horrid amounts of new oak and pressing the devil out of the skins of the grapes to give the wine "some structure."
I think that in today's market, things are, once again coming into some balance as to what merlot should be released as, perhaps looking back to what Louis Martini had done so well in the 1960s — soft, elegant, structured, easy and long in the finish.
For American releases, look at the following areas for merlot:
Walla Walla — This region is coming out with some amazing merlot, most of it pricey, but quite good. Columbia Valley, Wash., is doing quite well with merlot, most of it less expensive than its Walla Walla sister, with some very good releases.
Southern Oregon — in our own backyard, in both the Rogue and Applegate valleys, we are doing some wonderful merlot. Devitt Winery in the Applegate is the quiet superstar, with the marvelous 2004, 2005 and 2006 releases.
Napa Valley — It is worth a trip to do a weekend in Napa for a merlot tasting. There are numerous, wonderful releases available to enjoy and the prices have moderated some over the last few years.
Lorn Razzano is former owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland and still works there part time. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.