Wine — The Highly Drinkable (Mostly) Merlot

Tarting up the mainstream grape with blends

By Tim Protzman

If you like merlot, then you’ll love wines made from mostly merlot.

Merlot is a softer gentler grape. When young it’s fruity and lively with a cherry soda hint to it. In a well aged merlot, the fruit is more subdued and there’s a layer of chocolate, licorice and the pleasing absence of an alcoholic after burn. You can taste a well aged merlot change- literally- in your mouth. Different parts of the tongue react differently to each sip and send their individual signals to the brain. But some grapes hide a secret. They’re dull. Many wineries used that dullness as an attribute. They blend several grape varieties together and merlot acts as moderator in the little group discussion that goes on in the wine bottle, keeping the other wines from getting too boisterous.

Merlot gained its popularity by being light and tannin-free. It’s easy to drink by the glass with or without food. It goes well with bar food and for a little while it was next big thing.

It’s the perfect wine for people who don’t drink a lot of wine and it’s widely available from many producers. It’s a comfort wine; consistent and satisfying. Merlot should get a special accommodation for turning so many people on to wine for the first time. But many of those first enthralled by merlot’s charms got bored. They’re still big merlot fans, but they’ve moved on to the blends.

The French have long known that merlot could tame more savage grapes, and most expensive Bordeaux’s contain a percentage of merlot. Chateau Mouton-Rothschild uses merlot to balance the aggressive cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc grapes found in its ultra premium wine. The 2000 vintage of Mouton-Rothschild runs $329.99 a bottle and is 80percent cabernet, 13percent merlot and 7 percent cabernet franc. Every year since 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild has commissioned an artist to decorate its label. The 2000 vintage has a picture of a ram, which was modeled after a medieval drinking cup owned by the Rothschild family. The bottles become collectors items as much for the artwork as the wine. Past artists include; Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol.

Two more affordable examples of blended wine are;

Chateau Tour Coutelin 1996, from the Saint Estephe area in Bordeaux. At $20.49 a real bargain, even this year, as prices for all good Bordeaux’s inflate. This wine’s blended from 30 percent merlot, 55 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent cabernet franc and 5 percent petit verdot grapes. This wine has aged well and is presenting chocolate, tobacco and currant flavors, softened over time with a smooth finish that will develop more and more in the next five years. Great with beef, but also lo mein, roasted chicken with a red wine based sauce and pork.

Chateau Boyd-Cantenac 2000, from the Margaux region. Boyd-Cantenac, even though it’s classified as a Third Growth wine, is a bit of an underachiever. In a bad vintage year the wine’s somewhat forgettable, but a 2000 vintage at $32.99 looks pretty good, especially when it’s on the shelf next to a $369 dollar bottle of 2000 Chateau Margaux.

The wine is approximately 60 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent merlot, 8 percent cabernet franc and 7 percent petit verdot and presents layers of fruit; dried cranberry,  grape, quince with a touch of cardamom spice and a pleasingly, velvety finish. You can drink it now, but it won’t reach its optimum range until 2008 through 2014. Traditionally served with rabbit, roast duck and other game birds, but nice with Cornish game hens and a wild rice stuffing.

Until recently the great wines of California were single varietals. My favorite Californian wine ever was a 1993 Far Niente that I picked up picked up in an airport wine shop in Cincinnati. The wine was dusty and forgotten- and priced at $49.99, quite a bargain. It was 92 percent cabernet sauvignon and the rest was merlot and little bit of petit verdot. The rule of thumb is the better the cabernet sauvignon harvest, the higher the percentage of that grape.

In the ’80s, California wine producers created a new kind of wine; Meritage (rhymes with heritage). Meritage indicates a Bordeaux-style blended wine. Opus One, is an example of Meritage, however the word does not appear on the label since the wine production started before the word was invented. The wine is 84 percent cabernet sauvignon, 7 percent merlot, 5 percent cabernet franc, 3 percent malbec and 1 percent petit verdot, and while well within the legal definition of cabernet sauvignon, it chooses to identify itself as a Bordeaux style blend.

Opus One is produced as a collaborative effort by Domaine de Baron Phillipe de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi. If you can get it for under $100 you’re doing good.

Some cheaper but tasty alternatives:

Lyeth 2001 Sonoma County Meritage. 74 percent cabernet sauvignon, 11 percent merlot, 15 percent cabernet franc. A great vintage and a well-crafted wine. Cherry fruit nose with elderberry and sour cherry tastes and some structure, $13.99

Guenoc 1997 North Coast Meritage. $22.99 great wine. With structure and depth from a great year. Deep and rich with a small amount of  tannins and some dark caramelized fruit flavors.

Hahn 2002 Meritage- $17.99 Uses mostly merlot (Mostly Merlot- sounds like some ultra-perky TV weathercaster) cabernet sauvignon, malbec, petit verdot and cabernet franc. A pretty good vintage, but this wine will be better a year from now.

Norman Vineyards 2001 Paso Robles “No Nonsense Red” Meritage. $21.99. A big fruity wine with fig and strawberry flavors and a delightful low-tannin finish. Mostly Cab with merlot and a portion of cabernet franc.

Extra tip for merlot lovers: the wines of the Saint-Emilion region of France. They’re less expensive and have the comforting taste loved by merlot aficionados.

Tell Tim your wine stories. You can reach him at

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—Tim Protzman

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