Friday, September 11, 2009
I know this is primarily a scotch blog, but I also get excited about great wine from time to time. So, here and there, I will post my tasting notes and meandering musings on wine also. So, here goes!
Poor Merlot and its' undeserved reputation
Sideways was an off-the-wall comedy film that came out in 2004 about two guys, Miles and Jack, one facing the prospect of marriage, while the other, not facing much of anything other than a lot of disappointment and regret in life. So, the two embark on a road trip of Californian wine country (Santa Barbara, I think), doing a fair bit of drinking and ending up in some ridiculous predicaments. What I and many people remember from the film was Miles' tirade on how much he hated Merlot. I mean the guy really hated Merlot. Why? It's boring, flat, unexceptional, hopelessly mainstream. Pinot Noir, declared Miles, was what people who knew wine were drinking.
Sideways was a popular film back in 2004. It was not a blockbuster by any means, but it was successful. It won a few awards, and the two lead actors were nominated for Oscars (they didn't win). Now here is the surprising tidbit. The negative comments of the fictional main character 'Miles' about Merlot actually caused sales of Merlot to drop. Use Google to search "Sideways movie merlot" and you will find articles on this. I checked Wikipedia and it notes this phenomenon too. Merlot sales dropped by 2% while Pinot Noir sales increased by 16% shortly after the movie was released. It's unbelievable that people would alter their wine selection based on a movie, but it just goes to show that not all the monkeys are in the zoo.
The Defender of Merlot's Tattered Reputation
That task is the aim of this review. Merlot can be interesting, nuanced, delivering flavors of great complexity and tannic structure in a manner that the other noble grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, etc.) cannot.
It is true that Merlot can be boring. No doubt about it. Part of the reason for this propensity is due to the thickness of the skin of the Merlot grape. It is considerably thinner than the Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo or Syrah. The skin is the source of tannins. Hence, a thinner grape skin means a less tannic wine. And so, Merlot being less tannic, is less offensive than say a mighty Cab that needs aging during which the tannins soften.
Many novice drinkers of wine prefer Merlot because it is very smooth, and often a flat flavor that is totally inoffensive. Hell, the stuff tastes almost on par with cream soda. Californian vintners are not alone in producing very boring Merlot. Argentina, Chile, South Africa and especially Australia produce some terribly uninspired wines based on this grape.
However, there is a notable exception. France. In particular, wines from the lovely little town of Saint Emilion are almost wholly based on Merlot, and the result is anything but boring.
This quaint little French town with its narrow streets, yellow stucco buildings tightly fitted on a grid of streets, has been producing wine since at leat 2 A.D. Today, it is most famous for its red wine that is often pure Merlot, meaning it has not been blended with other grapes (Cabs, Petit Verdot, etc.). What is amazing is the wine. It is like a distant cousin of Merlot. It shares some of the same attributes, but is very, very different and intriguing.
How do the winemakers of Saint Emilion do it? Well, in a sense it is done for them. The soil (limestone and clay), weather (warm and sunny, but not heatwave material) and plenty of aging in French oak barrels. The 2006 Chateau Pipeau Grand Cru from Saint Emilion is a fine example of how Merlot can be interesting and of course quite enjoyable in a manner much different than possible with other varietals.
Although I said above that many Saint Emilion wines are made purely from Merlot, there are also some that blend in a few other grapes in small percentages. Chateau Pipeau is such a case. The 2006 Chateau Pipeau Grand Cru is made up of 80% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc. The Cabernet Franc is a nice touch that adds some of the tannic flavors that will come up later in my tasting note.
Dark purple, no light will pass through this one.
Some flower, but fairly restrained.
You will taste lots of silky red fruit like dark berries, black cherrie, fig and kitchen spices accompanied by a soaring tannic flavor profile, that I am sure you have never experienced in a Merlot before. It is tannic with a capital "T" but will soften as time passes. Even though I did not sample this until 45 minutes after decanting, it still was tannic, but please understand, it was in a very pleasant way. Another element to this wine upon the palate is: oak. French oak tastes different than say Merlot aged in Californian or Slovenian oak. For some people, it may take some time getting used to it, but well worth the endeavor. Other flavors I pick up are graphite, earth and flint. This is a good thing, to borrow a phrase from Martha Stewart.
The dark fruit fades into some smooth licorice and a zing of mint/bay leaf or maybe tarragon which lingers for quite a while. nice!
Most Merlot can be opened and drank almost immediately, but not this one or most Saint-Emilion wines. The 2006 Chateau Pipeau St Emilion Grand Cru requires time. Exposure to the air is a must to take the edge off the tannins, while never rough, it becomes more rounded with time.
A lot of American and Australian Merlot is intended for immediate consumption or within 2 yrs tops of hitting the shelves of your favorite wine shop. Not the case with this one. Aging will soften the tannins and reduce the fruitniness to some extent. This is a young wine that can be drank now, but could be cellared for up to ten years.
For those who can afford it, I would recommend buying a case and open one bottle a year to see how the flavor profile changes over time. When it reaches what you consider to be ideal, consume them all (not at one sitting of course, unless you want to end up face down pretty quick).
In any case, at this point the wine is very young with plenty of life.
Like so many wines, this is best with food or at the very least some strong cheese like gorgonzola and crusty French bread.
To the accusation of being boring and hopelessly mainstream, Merlot's response is: Chateau Pipeau Grand Cru, a wine which demonstrates that this such a proposition is not true. Matter of fact, I would go even further and suggest that most grand cru classe wines of Saint Emilion are hardly boring.
Great value at this price. The aging potential is exceptional and will assure years of pleasant surprise as you open a bottle here and there and note the changes. I highly recommend this wine.
The wine critic, Robert Parker, rated this 89-91pts out of 100.
© Jason Debly, 2009 - 2011. All rights reserved.