Wine Notes June 2006 – Merlot

Kipper ties, two-tone shirts, baggy trousers, cowboy boots, where are they now?
Amazing how fast fashion changes. Here’s UK wine writer Suzy Atkins in 2003 – “I can’t think of anything more fashionable in the world of wine than merlot.” She goes on to chirrup about the grape being “hip and happening”. A year later, merlot withered on the vine. What killed it? A film called ‘Sideways’. More particularly the scene where wine snob Miles tells his pal before a double-date dinner, “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving.” Subsequently sales dipped. Not ‘plummeted’ as the tabloids claimed, but there was a measurable downturn.

Shame on filmgoers for picking on this smiley, bounteous grape. Merlot, an early ripener, is a welcome hedge for winemakers against pre-harvest downpours. For its drinking qualities it’s been called “cabernet without tears”, not a bad description. The tannins resolve nicely, giving the wine a velvety texture; the flavour is a pleasing melange of plums and dark cherries. And it makes a first rate running mate for cabernet sauvignon.

Merlot made in a hot climate can be sweaty and out of sorts. Pale-skinned freckly Celts will empathise. In Riverland, the boiler room of Australia’s wine industry winemakers are beginning to believe that Merlot is, as one of them put it, “a bloody weed” and are replacing it with varieties like sangiovese and barbera, swarthy Latins who can handle any amount of sun.

To appreciate merlot’s potential you have to go to Bordeaux where it’s the most-planted grape. Wineries there don’t usually list varieties on their labels but it’s odds-on that a wine from Pomerol or St.Emlion on what’s confusingly called ‘the right bank’ (many of the best vineyards are nowhere near the river) will have a majority of merlot in its make-up. Pomerol is ‘posh’ , hence absurdly expensive, but decently drinkable St.Emilion kicks in at around e12 for which Dunnes Stores have Chapelle de la Trinité 2004, a good value intro to this easy-to-assimilate style.

The 2001’s are drinking beautifully at the minute. I was pleased to find Mitchells still have some of the Chateau la Nauve (e.15.99) – a fine wine commissioned to mark UCD’s 50th anniversary. Upping the ante somewhat – to e24 – gets you what I think is a remarkable wine. The stark label of Berry Brother’s St.Emilion screams ‘plain Jane’ but don’t be kidded, this is Audrey Hepburn out of the Givenchy dress, creamy skin, come-to-bed eyes, bags of character, the works. A lot of loot for an ‘own brand’? Maybe. Until you realise it’s made by Alain Vauthier, co-owner of uber-sexy Chateau Ausonne.

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