Or really, my trouble with Merlot. It’s a popular intro-to-reds “window” wine, it has a degree of versatility with food pairings, it grows in many areas, and many experts confuse some Merlot styles with Cabernet Sauvignon (it can happen!). So what’s not to like? When I heard Miles Raymond say in Sideways, “No, if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!” I laughed so loud. I thought, “YES! I like this guy!” Which is not terribly fair to Merlot, I admit. I just . . . it doesn’t say much to me, and when it does it’s usually pretty harsh. That may be as much about the winemakers as the grapes though, who knows. But what is the difference between “nuanced” and “vague”? The taster.
Last night we had a Merlot ravioli stuffed with garlic and mozzarella with a red sauce and I figured hell, why not pair it with a Merlot. A couple months ago I had picked up that 2005 Warnke Cellars Merlot (Napa Valley) from Wine Library since I have a friend with the same last name, and because it was in their Top 10 Staff Picks. This was a fine opportunity to open it. In the glass it is a bold ruby color with a garnet rim, clear and day bright. The nose confirmed for me that my smeller is officially back after that unfortunate sinus infection because the alcohol burned my nose — I wondered if it was SO2 but nope, this was alcohol. Beyond that I detected smoke, newsprint, charcoal, red raspberry, pomegranate, plum, black pepper and roasted green peppers. In the palate are tastes of gamey meat, brambley briar, raspberry, plum, charcoal, burned meat, and grilled green peppers. The acidity was high, alcohol quite high (14.7%), the wine was dry, had medium+ body, high intensity, sharp green tannins, medium+ oak that might have been overcharred or too recently charred, medium+ finish and medium complexity. I’m not sure how balanced it was — the alcohol and tannins, and likely the poorly ripened grapes, made this wine pretty bitter. The timing of harvest is a tricky thing in hot climates. The sun and heat speed up the clock for reaching your desired Brix (measurement in degrees of residual sugar and consequently potential alcohol) but if you must pick sooner vs. later to keep your wine from becoming too sweet and too boozy you risk taking it off the vine before the grapes reach natural maturity — the seeds can be green rather than brown with a “skin”. The result is green, stemmy-flavored wine. I have no idea if this was the case with this particular wine but after decanting it for about half an hour the darker fruits came forward a bit and it was kinder on the nose & palate but I still wasn’t the biggest fan. It did pair well with the pasta.
So I’m unsure of whether I’m just biased against Merlots because they get a bad rap or if I’m trying too hard to like them because they’re an underdog. Merlot to me is like that unfunny, obnoxious friend who you don’t really like but take with a grain of salt because every once in a while you have a really good time with them. Ridgeline’s Sonoma County Merlot is an example of a really good time — I tasted it while in CA (recommended by the really awesome tasting room pourer named Jen from NYC) and could NOT believe it was a Merlot. It was so flavorful, balanced and complex! Of course I bought it! And I imagine Shafer’s Merlot is outstanding having nearly died over their Cabernet Sauvignon. But other times . . . too many Merlots are just “meh” to me, west bank Bordeaux, Napa, doesn’t matter.
But if someone at a restaurant orders it I don’t leave.