Merlot Don’t Get No Respect
Virginia’s Piedmont is home to hundreds of acres of Merlot vines, yet this globally ubiquitous variety continues to fly below the radar. Merlot is an enigma, It has a reputation of producing easy, utilitarian, fruit forward wines, yet the highly acclaimed (and very expensive) Chateau Petrus, is 100% Merlot in most vintages.
There is great potential for Merlot, especially in the cooler climes of the Piedmont. Regrettably, winemakers may have taken the easy path, making simple, serviceable Merlots. Last year a small group of local winemakers took a pilgrimage to Bordeaux with the sole focus of better understanding and improving our Merlots. We were missing something and needed to go to the source. As is usually the case, the secrets were uncovered in the vineyard rather than the cellar.
Merlot is a relatively easy vine to grow. In the 1980’s our winters were much colder. Merlot is not very cold tolerant. During this decade, fear of winter damage was the greatest obstacle to Merlot’s popularity amongst growers. Better site selection and milder winters have all but eliminated these concerns and most Piedmont vineyards include Merlot in their vineyard mix.
Just because a vine is prolific doesn’t translate into producing high quality wine. I refer to Merlot as the Goldilocks vine. It shines in the growing seasons that are just right: not too hot, not too wet, and not too dry (I have yet to see a vintage in this area that is too cool for Merlot).
Merlot likes the cooler, clay soils which we have in abundance. Unlike it’s common blending partners, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, Merlot does best with a constant supply of water throughout the growing season. If it becomes stressed the vines quickly shut down and even start prematurely dropping leaves. This is a disheartening sight for any grower in mid-summer. Clay soils retain water giving Merlot the reserves it needs to survive long dry periods. However, too much water results in big, swollen berries, tight clusters, and rampant vegetative growth that are not precursors for high quality winegrapes.
Merlot does not like hot summers (or even too much sun according to one Bordeaux grower). The French refer to a heat stressed vine as experiencing ‘blockage’. I have observed wilting Merlot and thriving Cabernet side by side during some of our heat spells. Merlot seems to produce the best quality on cooler sites (north or east facing and higher elevations) and clay based soils in the Piedmont.
The first and most important winemaking decision is when to pick. This is tricky with Merlot as the window can be narrow. Perhaps the biggest mistake New World winemakers have made is to pick too late. There is a bit of machismo in us all to see who can wait the longest and bring in the grapes with the highest sugar readings. Merlot is a very efficient sugar producer. Unfortunately, high sugar levels in grapes translate into high alcohol. This can often result in dried out, flabby wines with no finesse. Picking too early can produce wines that are thin, tart and astringent. The Goldilocks moment of picking can give wines of balance, freshness and complexity.
In the cellar, moderation is again the mantra. Gentle extraction during fermentation preserves fresh fruit and avoids the bitterness that Merlot can sometimes give. Merlot’s tannins are usually not as powerful nor as fine-grained as Cabernet Sauvignon. Tannins come from the skins and seeds so the more time, movement and warmer temperatures during fermentation, the more extracted the wine.
Merlot likes to age in barrels, but too much new oak can easily overwhelm it. Its loveliness can quickly be buried in wood flavors.
Merlot is a chameleon wine that defies classification. At the two ends of the spectrum, we have the Sideways maligned fruity, simple and often boring New World Merlots one expects when ordering by the glass pours at chain restaurants. At the other end we have the icon wines of Bordeaux’s right bank (Pomerol and St. Emillion). These are highly structured wines with firm tannins requiring years if not decades of aging. So where does Virginia’s Piedmont Merlot fall?
We don’t know. It’s too early in our evolution. At the risk of sticking my neck out by prematurely over generalizing, we could be evolving two styles: southern (Charlottesville) and northern (Northern Virginia). The Charlottesville region has a longer history with Merlot. As Merlot is rarely bottled without some blending, we often see Cabernet Franc as its partner. This St. Emillion inspired partnership can produce supple, round wines. In the northern Piedmont there may be more of a nod to Bordeaux’s left bank as Cabernet Sauvignon is more at home on some of the steeper, rocky slopes along the Blue Ridge. Cabernet Sauvignon has firm tannins that can either complement or dominate the suppler Merlot.
Vintage plays a major role in determining style. My favorite Merlot vintages are cooler harvests such as 2009 and 2012. The hot 2010 vintage resulted in rather backward, alcoholic wines if winemaker’s weren’t paying attention.
Because of Merlot’s wide berth of styles, it is difficult to generalize food pairings. One is always safe with red meat. Most Merlots are less structured than their Cabernet stable mates. This makes them friendlier to vegetarian dishes. When in doubt, go to mushrooms. Their fleshy texture and earthy flavors complement classic Merlot styles and will enhance more fruit driven New World versions as well.