In the 1990s
Merlot played second fiddle to Cabernet in California until the 1990s when Merlot got hot. You might say Merlot had its day and now it's Pinot Noir's turn. However, Pinot is generally expensive and the popular Merlots during the '90s were less pricey. People just wanted an easy-drinking red wine after the French Paradox story on 60 Minutes. Merlot was tops for wine by the glass sales.
The call for cheap Merlot led to, well, cheap Merlot. Lots of it just wasn't very good. According to the Wine Institute Merlot is grown in almost every county in California. Which county leads in Merlot production? No, not Napa or Sonoma, but San Joaquin in the hot Central Valley--an area not known for premium wine production.
Over the past ten years
The final nail in the coffin seemed to be the movie Sideways that blasted Merlot and praised Pinot Noir.
Merlot acreage in California vineyards dropped. The hotter areas of the state's Central Valley probably grafted over to something like Pinot Gris. The coastal areas most likely switched over to Cabernet as it's still in demand from areas like Napa and Sonoma.
The under-$20 Merlots always sold well, but the more expensive ones had a tough time, but seem to be picking up now. With all the talk about new, trendy wines like Malbec, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, the big three have always been Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.
Merlot's problem--and it's best features
Merlot's challenge is more with trendiness than anything else. Wine is trendy--like Pinot Gris is now, for example. Wine drinkers apparently like to discover new things.
What Merlot has going for it is:
- It's easy-drinking nature with softer tannins than Cabernet.
- Food-friendliness as it will go with many foods including lamb, beef, sausages, tomato-based sauces to pizza.
- Merlot tends to be less expensive than Pinot and Cabernet.
Some top Merlots
Some of the better known high-end Merlots come from Duckhorn, Pride, Shafer and Twomey plus lesser-known wineries like Ehlers, Markham and Merryvale. In the mid-range Gundlach-Bundschu, Clos Pegase and many others are top-notch. In the less expensive range Alexander Valley Vyds, Blackstone, Clos du Bois and Kenwood are dependable. Washington State is also known for putting out good Merlot.
Usually the more expensive ones are built to age a bit while the less pricey wine are made to drink on release. The nice thing about even the ageable Merlots is that you can drink now or in five years.
What Merlot needs now
In general, I believe the best Merlot isn't 100% Merlot, but a blend with other Bordeaux varietals especially Cabernet. Look for Merlot-based Meritage wines. Red Meritage wines contain at least two of "the big five" Bordeaux grapes: Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot.
I think Merlot will do better once more more people get on the blending bandwagon. This is how we'll fix Syrah sales, too, with blending.