Monday, October 19, 2009

The misunderstood young blackbird

In the world of wine, there are kings and there are pawns. The kings are the grapes/wines that people clamor for- Cabernet, Barolo, Brunello, Red Burgundy. The pawns are those that people mutter under their breath, drink as a last resort, and make fun of- White Zinfandel, "Chablis" in a jug that was made from California, anything made by Yellow Tail, and Merlot. I want to defend the grape that is translated in french very loosely as "the young blackbird"- the fair Merlot.
Truth be told, Merlot held center court in the 70's and 80's as the wine that most people drank. It is easy to pronounce, fairly cheap to produce, and has user-friendly taste profiles of plums, cherries, tobacco, and mint. In fact, it is one of the 5 "noble grapes", and the most widely grown red grape in Bordeaux, and does very well in Southern France, Australia, South Africa, California, and Washington. Somewhere along the way, Merlot fell out of favor, and Shiraz took stage (followed by pinot noir and then malbec). There was even a scene in Sideways where Miles proclaims "I'm not drinking any f*&%ing Merlot!"- a proclamation that was later reversed when he is shown drinking a 1961 Cheval Blanc- a wine that is roughly 50% Merlot.
Miles's flip-flopping on merlot is something that a lot of wine fans do. They say they won't drink it, but show them a Cheval Blanc, Le Pin, Petrus, or Galatrona (all made from Merlot), and they will be the first to reach for a glass.
One of the good things that has happened with Merlot falling out of favor is that sweet, ubiquitous juice that was once the norm has all but disappeared. Producers have figured out that, if they are going to produce a merlot, it had better be pretty darn good.
In that spirit, I say you go out, grab a bottle of merlot (try Leese Fitch from California- good juice for less than $10 or something from Saint Emilion in France), and raise a toast to the misunderstood young blackbird.


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