Merlot is the perfect wine for difficult times | Came

Sideways has an oddly persistent hold on the imagination of the global wine trade, even 16 years after the release of the Oscar-winning buddy flick, set in California wine country. It is rare that a month goes by without some merchandising somewhere mentioning it. As I started writing this article, an email arrived from London merchant Jeroboams quoting the most famous line from the film. “If someone asks for merlot, I’m leaving!” declares the sack wine geek Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, sad. (This being the genteel world of London’s fine wine trade, the next line, “I’m not drinking any bloody merlot,” was left up to customers to fill in for themselves.)

Legend has it that the film, and those two lines in particular, were responsible for nearly killing off sales of the once-popular merlot and encouraging a generational shift toward pinot noir. A look at grapevine planting and sales statistics (not to mention an academic study from Sonoma State University) suggests that the side effect was more like the last brake application on a gradual slowdown. Merlot was already out of class in wine geek circles. Sideways just popularized the idea.

The Sideways Merlot Scene

It’s a notion that stuck. Like chardonnay, which has gone through a similar reputational boom and bust, a stereotypical idea of ​​merlot had taken hold based on the worst wines made from the grape variety. Merlot was a bit too smooth, easy and obviously fruity. It was a wine for beginners, without the weight and structure of supposedly more “serious” varieties.

This was always a bit silly. Merlot has had a long history as one of the two main red varieties in Bordeaux, the other being Cabernet Sauvignon. You don’t see its name on the label (the Bordeaux prefer to talk about place rather than grape variety), but Merlot is the support (in the vineyards on the “left bank” south of the Dordogne river) or the protagonist (in the north “Right Bank”) in the classic Bordeaux blend.

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Ironically, in the years since Sideways, the price and reputation of Right Bank’s acclaimed 100% merlot wines, such as Petrus de Pomerol and Mondotte de St-Emilion, have only grown. The same goes for Bordeaux-inspired so-called “Super Tuscany” wines like Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Massetto and Castello di Ama L’Apparita.

Further down the food chain, the variety was almost out of the ordinary. Dropped many major brand portfolios. Retailers found that Malbec could do much the same thing without the stigma. Apparently no one drank merlot openly. In recent years, however, I’ve noticed that some of my favorite winemakers have rediscovered a soft spot for their smooth, meaty charms. After years of making ever-lighter red wines, from early-harvested, high-acid grapes, the exuberance is back.

These merlots don’t go overboard like the wines that made Miles so angry. They are not syrupy, sweet or overly alcoholic. There is a generosity to the best modern merlots that is intensely comforting, making them the perfect wines for hard times.

Six of the Best New Merlots

OFM October Merlot wine

The Umbra Merlot
Dealul Mare, Romania 2019 (£6.99, Waitrose)
I’ve long associated this Romanian brand with Merlot’s supposed nemesis, Pinot Noir, but this one is just as good and excellent value for money. It’s lushly filled with juicy black cherries, plums, and blackberries, but it’s also fresh and textured.

Merlot Duck Horn Decoy
Sonoma County, California, USA 2017 (£27.99 or £24.99 as part of a mixed box set of six,
Duckhorn is famous for the merlot it produces at the Three Palms Vineyard in Calistoga, Napa. But this wine from partner growers’ vineyards in Sonoma is superbly polished and richly fruity in its own right. A warm hug from brambles.

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Tabali Pedregoso Merlot Gran Reserva
Limari, Chile 2017 (from £9.99.;
There’s still plenty of one-dimensional, sweet, flabby Chilean Merlot, but this is serious stuff. Not too serious – it has plenty of delicious blackcurrant and raspberry in it, but it’s freshly fermented with a nice hint of tannin.

Yalumba Series Y Merlot 2019
(£9.49 or £8.49 as part of a six-bottle mixed case,
Yalumba’s large Australian family business usually does its best with Rhone varietals like shiraz and viognier, but this is a truly winning version of merlot that brings out a scented allure of red and black fruit in a vividly succulent style.

Castle Mayne Mazerolles
Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux, France 2016 (from £11.79,;
From a Bordeaux appellation that often offers good value for money, this is a lovely classic claret dominated by Merlot, with a hint of minty leaves and herbs and freshness that enhances the dark cherry and plum and soft tannins. and fit for food.

Stellenbosch, South Africa 2017 (from £21.55,;;
Keermont produces some of South Africa’s most elegant and elegantly beautiful red wines, and this 100% Merlot is a classy and elegant example of the grape. Filled with red and black fruit compote and notes of cedar, it’s meaty yet refined.

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