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Merlot: The Less-Popular Half-Sibling

I love the question “what do you do?” because a) I think I have the greatest job on the planet, and b) it opens the door for some fun discussion. A new acquaintance recently asked me for some red wine recommendations. So I asked about his preferences: “Cab, Merlot, Pinot Noir?” His response – which is a common one: “No, not Merlot. But Cab and Pinot Noir are good.”

I get it. I know you’ve all seen Sideways, and Miles made it very clear we are not to drink Merlot.

Well, sorry, but Miles was wrong.

In fact, if you remember, Miles was lamenting over that bottle of 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc, waiting for the perfect moment to pop it open. As it turns out – a bit of wine-nerd humor, here – Cheval Blanc is predominantly Merlot.

Merlot is a cherished wine grape in France, especially in regions of Bordeaux. And in Italy, rebel winemakers revolted against the government so they could start using the grape in Italian blends (along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc).

It is a well-planted grape, but for good reason: Its berries are fleshy and, compared to its half-brother Cabernet, are less tannic and ripen quicker.

But over time, Merlot has literally left a a bad taste in American consumers’ mouths. In the 1990s many producers hopped on the bandwagon, and a number of them produced lower-quality representations that grocery store shoppers came to associate with “Merlot.”

Sideways has also been credited with declining sales. (The movie? Because of that whack dude in the movie?!)

But as is proof in Bordeaux and Miles’ prized Cheval Blanc, Merlot has the ability to create out-of-this world varietal wines and is a workhorse blending grape. It’s often a silent partner in “Cabernet Sauvignon” wines. And on its own, Merlot can be every bit as mighty and bold as a Cabernet (making it a nightmare to identify in blind tastings… but that’s a another story for another day). Generally speaking, it is just a wee-bit less intense, tannic, and boozy.

So here’s my challenge this month: Find a $20+ bottle of Merlot, regardless of whether it is from Washington State, California, or St-émilion. Close your eyes, forget Miles and his crazy rants, and drink in a fresh, new perspective. It might surprise you.

Cheers to you!

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