Who would have thought 15 years ago, during the height of its popularity, that merlot would have been relegated to the same ranks as white zinfandel as “not cool to drink”? The fact is that then, and even still now, there were a lot of overpriced and boring, if not downright dreadful, merlots on the market, and not just from California. New Zealand, Chile, Italy and South Africa were equal offenders — if not in quantity, then certainly in quality.
Since merlot was cast aside in favor of pinot noir at first — and now any esoteric grape imaginable — it seems to have less of a presence. If it weren’t for Bordeaux, where merlot plantings have been on the rise for several years, I wonder if people would talk about it at all.
Merlot is not as food-friendly as pinot noir and some other red wines. It works best with red meats, especially those that are not gamey. Forget about pairing it with fish (sorry), but vegetable dishes work. The bright side here is that because merlot is inherently low in tannin, it does not need much fat. Ratatouille, stuffed peppers and grilled vegetables can do the trick.
There are, and have always been, unique and complex wines made from merlot. I am not just talking about France’s Château Petrus, a $2,000 wine from Pomerol, but also the old renditions made by Havens and still by Foxen. While not as pricey as Petrus, most of the more worthy merlots cost more than $20. Still, there are a few bargains to be found. Here are my top three:
Vinum Merlot, 2008 (California): San Francisco resident Richard Bruno makes a merlot that is spot-on and varietally correct using fruit from the Hames Valley in Monterey. Bruno and his co-pilot, Chris Condos, launched Vinum with a chenin blanc. Over time, it’s expanded to include a host of other grapes. With black olives, tomato plant, pepper, cocoa, and bright blackberry and raspberry fruit, this is a textbook cool-climate merlot.
Suggested retail: $12
Domaine Patience Merlot, Vin de Pays des Coteaux du Pont de Gard, 2009 (Rhone Valley, France): Located in the Costières de Nimes, Domaine Patience took over the long-held family property in 1994 and started practicing organic viticulture in 2008. This area is known for its syrah-grenache-mourvedre blends, but merlot has always done well on Patience’s land. Rich with dried herb and spice overtones, and chocolate- and licorice-tinged black cherry fruit, it rivals many Bordeaux wines for the price.
Suggested retail: $12
Binz Merlot, Nackenheim, 2009 (Rheinhessen, Germany): The town of Nackenheim, which is noted for its red slate, is not exactly known for red wine, let alone anything other than riesling, but Rainer and Manfred Binz consistently make delightful merlot. Given the terroir, it is light for the varietal, but has more acid than usual, and its black cherry fruit quality interspersed with a vibrant minerality gives it a fresh and inviting quality.
Suggested retail: $15
These wines can be found at Canyon Market, K&L Wine Merchants, Mike’s Liquors, Paul Marcus Wines and Whole Foods Oakland.
Pamela S. Busch was the founding partner of Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bars, and is a wine educator and writer.