It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

From French Paradox to American Paradox

Somehow, this red wine has fallen from grace. And why is that, since it’s soft, gentle and very enjoyable to drink? It doesn’t require cerebral discussions to understand or appreciate it, and its attributes assure that it will seldom, if ever, be astringent or overly tannic. As such, that makes it an ideal wine with which aspiring wine enthusiasts can start their journey into the savory delights of red wines. But make no mistake, it is also favored by savvy wine consumers who seek a dinner wine that has a straightforward, reliable character, and one that pairs readily with a wide variety of meat and poultry recipes.

With one enduring and notable French exception, it typically makes no pretense or overt leap toward greatness. What you see and sniff is what you get, and “smooth” is the best adjective that describes it. As one friend has observed, “It tastes like a red wine should.” It hints at black fruit flavors and aromatics, and occasional complex, char-like, toasty nuances. That enticing profile is one reason why it became the red wine of choice in the early 1990’s when the TV newsmagazine 60 Minutes announced red wine as the key variable in the French Paradox.  That is, why in spite of their seemingly unhealthy diet, the French apparently have fewer cardiac issues than beer drinking, Cola-loving Americans.

Wine geeks will surely recognize I’m alluding to Merlot. Unfortunately, since the baffling success of the movie Sideways—wherein Paul Giamatti said he would never drink any “effing” Merlot—consumers have dumped it in favor of his revered Pinot Noir, even when it is clearly obvious that many of them can’t distinguish one from the other.

Notwithstanding that ignominy, Merlot remains the primary grape underlying most wines produced in the two renowned Right Bank Bordeaux appellations of Pomerol and St. Emilion. With their lush, concentrated, fruit forward, low tannic profiles, these regions have been red hot, international best sellers for the last decade or two. At release date, some of the finer ones sell in the three-digit range and become more costly as the vintage ages and supplies diminish. Chateau Pétrus, one of the world’s most coveted wines is primarily, if not totally, made from Merlot. According to one Internet site, the 2000 Pétrus, a particularly good vintage in Bordeaux, is currently fetching up to $5000 per bottle—you read that right, per bottle!

In addition to its Right Bank primacy, Merlot is the primary blending grape used to counterbalance the harshness of the Cabernet Sauvignon in most Left Bank Grand Crus, and, as such, without Merlot, the fame of Bordeaux would be alternately defined. In the New World models, which is what most of us buy, Merlot is typically made as a stand alone, varietally labeled wine, and is available from as low as $10 to $90 or more per bottle.

In the last year or so, I have enjoyed Jessup, Wente Nth Degree, Duckhorn and Newton—all high quality, but somewhat pricey for daily consumption. The good news, however, is that there are numerous, attractive Merlots from well-known, name brand New World producers in the $12 to $20 price range. By all means, feel free to disregard what Giamatti has uttered and what wine snobs may be pontificating, visit your trusted, local retailer. He/she should be able to advise what style and price is just right for you.

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