Wine & Spirits

TASTING NOTES: David Lawrason raises a toast to Merlot, that great forgotten grape

Merlot has become the great forgotten red grape since being mercilessly panned in Sideways. David Lawrason believes there may be a resurrection in the offing

Illustration by Kyle Brownrigg

Once a wine hits mainstream success, it tends to fall out of favour with wine critics, sommeliers, and even some winemakers themselves. This has been the fate of merlot, one of the world’s most widely planted red grapes.

When mellow merlot became so widely popular in the 1990s, the wine opiners began to look down their collective noses at it (it happened to chardonnay too).

This gave rise to a famous line in the 2004 Academy Award-nominated movie Sideways in which the lead actor threatens to leave a restaurant if his companion orders “a fucking merlot.”

Since that low blow, merlot has wallowed, bruised and dejected, in the shadow of pinot noir (the star of the same film) and, to some degree, syrah. Merlot is still out there on the shelves (so someone is buying it), but wine pundits continue to ignore it.

I have decided to break the silence after finding myself actually enjoying merlot of late. To me, a good merlot is a mid-weight, middle-of-the-road red — not too light, not too heavy. The aroma is generous but not too intense, with ripe red fruit — raspberry, perhaps — and a bit of warmed fruit compote. It should also have a dried herb-tobacco note in the shadows. Ideally, the wood has been nicely digested by fruit, offering echoes of spice, smoke, and vanillin. The texture should be fairly soft but not soupy, the tannins gentle, the alcohol subsumed. And when the wine is of excellent quality, the flavours should stay focused and travel long into the finish. It’s a wine that can fit easily into casual situations but at times soar to great heights.

Here is a global selection of excellent and/or good-value merlots. Those who are geographers may notice that many come from regions near 40 degrees latitude, both north and south, the world’s temperate zones. Let’s call it merlot of Middle Earth.

Jackson-Triggs 2010 Black Series Merlot
$13.95  • Niagara Peninsula, Ontario  • 87 points

This is a fragrant, well-made merlot from the best Niagara vintage yet for this grape variety. There’s no great depth or complexity, but the blackberry, tea, fennel, and light cedary-smoky scents are spot-on and mindful of bordeaux. It’s mid-weight and fairly fleshy, with a dry, twiggy, and warm finish. Best now to 2016. LCBO 109959.

Les Jamelles 2011 Merlot
$12.95  •  Languedoc, France  •  87 points

One of the better inexpensive merlots from the sunny south of France, this style was created in the 1990s to compete with merlot success in California. It captures the essential raspberry jam and tea flavours in a typically mid-weight, soft, and agreeable style but with a bit more fruit and less earth than many French merlots on the market at this price. LCBO 245324.

Concilio 2010 Merlot
$12.95  •  Trentino, Italy  •  86 points

Northeast Italy has long been a haven for light, usually unoaked merlot. This example from the higher altitudes in Trentino is fresh, fragrant, juicy, and charming, with raspberry, currants, leafiness, and earthiness. It’s light but has some creaminess and substance, finishing with pleasant firmness and bitterness. Chill lightly. LCBO 293506.

Cono Sur 2011 Bicicleta Merlot
$9.95  •  Central Valley, Chile  •  86 points

Merlot was once confused botanically with carménère. This one packs in considerable complexity, depth, and nicely focused merlot character for the money. The nose is generous, with toasty tobacco and licorice notes around the raspberry fruit. Expect a slightly meaty finish. LCBO 457176.

Oyster Bay 2011 Merlot
$18.95  •  New Zealand  •  86 points
This is the largest-selling merlot from New Zealand in a challenging vintage that makes it leaner than in other years. It has a reserved nose, with typical berry floral and tea aromas, plus considerable oak. It’s mid-weight, fairly gentle, fresh, and spicy, with some tartness and tannic grit. LCBO 692343.

This story appears in the April edition of Ottawa Magazine. Buy the magazine on newsstands in April, or order your online edition.