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Boyd on wine: Merlot’s slow climb back

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In the 2004 movie, “Sideways,” when confronted with the prospect of having to settle for merlot instead of pinot noir, a contemptuous Miles (played by Paul Giametti) recoils in disgust, spitting out, “I’m not drinking any f#&*ing merlot!”

Who knew that when that now-memorable. throwaway line was uttered, sales of pinot noir would take off while appearing to torpedo merlot.

Over the intervening 14 years, the taste for red wine has changed a lot, with sales of cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir continuing to go from strength to strength, while the demand for merlot was be stuck in a rut.

Industry observers scratch their heads and wonder if merlot will ever recover from the post-2004 slump. Some are asking, though, if merlot is still suffering a sales slump.

In Sonoma County, merlot accounts for just over 4,000 acres of the 60,000 acres of the county’s wine grapes, although the acreage has dropped slightly since 2015. One of Sonoma’s best-known merlots comes from St. Francis in Sonoma Valley.

Bob Baldridge, chief financial officer with St. Francis, said that merlot sales have been up and down, but are now holding steady.

“The last two to three years, merlot sales have grown a few percent a year, after being down for a few years,” he said. St. Francis produces 35,000 cases of its Sonoma County merlot and 1,000 cases of the reserve merlot.

St. Francis merlots won two silver medals at the 2017 Sonoma Harvest Fair Wine Competition, while golds and double golds were awarded to Cline Cellars, Imagery Estate, Kunde, Muscardini Cellars, Hook & Ladder, La Storia, Praxis Cellars, Seamus Wines and Taft Street for their merlots. At the 2018 North Coast Wine Challenge, Sonoma County merlots winning gold medals include Ferrari-Carano, Frei Brothers and Imagery Estate.

At Santa Rosa’s Bottle Barn, wine specialist Jordan Wardlaw reports that merlot sales are on a slow uptick.

“Sales are slowly moving up,” he said. “But merlot still doesn’t hold the market share of pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel.”

Best-selling merlot

Wardlaw said the best-selling merlots in Bottle Barn are made by Kendall-Jackson, Benziger and Fifth Hill Sonoma Mountain Red Pickberry Vineyard, a Bordeaux-style blend with a high percentage of merlot. Other popular Sonoma merlots are made by Gundlach-Bundschu and Matanzas Creek.

Across the Mayacamas Mountains, Markham Vineyards has been making merlot in the Napa Valley since 1980, with winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls bottling her first Markham merlot in 2001.

Reflecting back to the early 2000s, Nicholls said that Markham didn’t see any dip in merlot sales in the wake of the “Sideways” movie. “In fact, 2005 was an enormous vintage, and we made and bottled all we had from that vintage.”

Today, Markham makes 50,000 cases of merlot and Nicholls said they sell all of it.

Markham is not the only Napa winery to enjoy success with merlot. Other Napa favorites include Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot and Duckhorn’s high-end Three Palms Vineyard Merlot, with an asking price of close to $100. Duckhorn sells all of the merlot it produces annually.

Shafer Vineyard, a marquee red winemaker in the Stags Leap District of the Napa Valley, doesn’t have a varietal merlot, but its popular TD-9 blended red contains 56 percent merlot.

Downstate, merlot has been making a comeback in the Paso Robles area. In the 1990s, merlot was over-planted and produced in Paso Robles, but now merlot acreage is about 6 percent of the area’s total wine grape acreage. Paso Robles boasts over 200 wineries, with 14 producing merlot, including Castoro Cellars, Bianchi Winery, Robert Hall and Peachy Canyon.

Rich and powerful

What is it about merlot that keeps wine drinkers coming back for more?

In the 2010 book, “The Finest Wines of Bordeaux,” Master of Wine James Lawther said at its best, merlot is “rich and powerful, with deep color and expressive fruit.” I would add that merlot has the soft inviting fruit of pinot noir, supported by the firm tannins of cabernet sauvignon, making it an ideal transition wine.

In Bordeaux, merlot is one of five red grapes that make up noted chateau red blends, the others being cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot.

One of the reasons that merlot is so widely planted in Bordeaux is its adaptability to a wide range of soils.

Although merlot is susceptible to spring frosts (not usually a problem in Northern California), growers are thankful that it ripens earlier than cabernet sauvignon. Cabernet sauvignon dominates the blends of left-bank Medoc reds.

Merlot, the most planted variety in Bordeaux, plays a secondary role to cabernet in the Medoc. Petit verdot plantings in Bordeaux are becoming quite rare, due to the worry of it being a late-ripening variety that is subject to stress. Malbec, once widely planted in Bordeaux, now is rarely used in the regions’ best reds, but it has found a new home as a super-star grape in Argentina.

Main red grape

Across the Dordogne River, in the right bank Libourne regions of St. Emilion and Pomerol, merlot is the main red grape, backed up by cabernet franc. Pomerol’s Ch. Petrus, perhaps the world’s most renowned merlot, has been 100 percent merlot since the 2010 vintage.

In general, right bank regions are warmer than their neighbors across the Dordogne. The diurnal difference is ideal for blends of merlot and cabernet franc. Blends are the rule on both sides of the river, so unlike in California, you won’t see a varietal cabernet franc from Bordeaux. But even in California, where varietal cabernet francs are to be had, sales are sporadic.

What sets cabernet franc apart from other Bordeaux red varieties is a defined fruitiness that is often described as a combination of sweet spice and blueberries. Cabernet franc is lighter in flavor and color than cabernet sauvignon, qualities that make it a good component in a blend.

At Santa Rosa’s Bottle Barn, Wardlaw said that although the cab franc sales are “Sonoma-Napa centric,” with popular brands including Acorn and Lang & Reid, the biggest cabernet franc sellers are from Chinon and Bourgueil, two Loire Valley wines made from cabernet franc.

So, if you are looking for a softer, fruitier red wine than cabernet sauvignon, ignore Miles’ narrow view and go for a merlot. Or, for something different, there’s cabernet franc from California.

Gerald D. Boyd is a wine and spirits writer based in Washington state.