The Much Maligned Merlot
by Yossie Horwitz
As any reader of my weekly newsletter knows, while I may be exceedingly partial to Cabernet Franc, I try to enjoy all the variety that the grand old world of good kosher wine has to offer. The increase in both quality and variety of kosher wines over the last five years has given us the ability to match a quality kosher wine with any number of moods, dishes or occasions. That said, I fully appreciate that people gravitate to certain types of wine, and tend to prefer the flavors and mouth-feel of one wine over the other. However, I often meet people who express intense negative feelings for one type of wine over another; be it Cabernet Sauvignon over Merlot, Red over White or Dry over Dessert (Semi-Sweet isn’t really a category or even a wine so we will leave it out of the discussion). While these preferences are sometimes a result of ones actual preference (or lack thereof) for a certain type of wine; they often stem from a fear of a new and unknown grape or a prejudice based on perception or price. This is unfortunate since, as with most prejudices), they interfere with ones exploration and, ultimately, enjoyment of the wonderful and soulful world of wine.
Cabernet Sauvignon remains the wine that folks are most interested in which causes some problems (I am obviously not counting the lemmings who continue to consume the blue-bottled abomination deliriously content in their ignorance of the fact that it’s actually alcoholic soda pop and not wine). Most higher-end Cabernet Sauvignon wines are released to the market before they are fully ready to drink. Among other things, their high-tannins and usual oak-aging contribute to their need of cellaring in order for the wood, fruit and acidity to settle down and learn to play nice together. As few people age their wines, many folks are not getting the full satisfaction out of their wines. Instant gratification isn’t the best virtue in appreciating wine.
While rejection based on unfamiliarity that held sway over many excellent varietals currently available (such as Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Gewürztraminer and Nebbiolo) has largely been overcome by the kosher consumer’s increasing knowledge and sophistication; one of the noblest grapes of all continues to languish on the shelf with very few takers – Merlot. While the lack of love can at least be partially attributed to that classic scene from the movie Sideways, there is more plaguing Merlot than the visceral hatred of Miles. As a complete aside, one of the movie’s delicious ironies is that Mile’s most prized wine, his 1961 Cheval Blanc that end up consumed out of a paper cup with a cheeseburger, is a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot. The issue facing this magnificent grape is one of perception as opposed to unfamiliarity as Merlot suffers from a perception of mediocrity and lameness. Without the benefit of Cabernet Sauvignon’s big and bold characteristics, the cache of cool owned by the newer kids on the block like Viognier and Petit Verdot or the natural food friendliness of Pinot Noir or Riesling; Merlot has been consistently ignored for years.
Despite its reputation, Merlot is anything but mundane and has much to offer. With thinner skin and lighter tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot is a far more food-friendlier wine that, when well made, still delivers plenty of depth, complexity and aging ability (I recently enjoyed a Yarden Merlot from 1999 and it was magnificent). Derived from the Occitan word for blackbird (presumably based on the grapes color), Merlot is by far the most widely planted grape in Bordeaux where it is primarily blended with Cabernet Sauvignon as a softening the blend. While Merlot typically accounts for about 25% of a Bordeaux blend, it comprises the majority of many Right Bank wines from Pomerol and Saint-Émilion (usually 80% or more). One of the world’s greatest wines – Château Pétrus – is 95% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc. Most of the kosher Merlot wines available on the market are either light and easy drinking wines or more serious wines with a soft and ripe mouth feel and tons of personality. In my opinion, while the Yarden Single Vineyard Merlot wines from the Golan Heights Winery are terrific and provide for very interesting comparative tastings (with Merlot coming from the Odem, Ortal, Tel-Phares and Kela vineyards), Ella Valley makes the best Merlot in Israel with incredible personality, vitality and power.
So, in the hope of doing my share in propping up this fine grape that has taken a recent, but quite unjustifiable, beating; I am recommending a number of Merlot wines I hope you will enjoy and will help in overcoming any unsubstantiated prejudice you may have against this delicious grape. I have included some wines in the “awesome” category first, followed by some easy-drinking-yet-still-delicious examples.
Ella Valley Vineyards, Merlot, 2005: Just another example of how, notwithstanding their magnificent Cabernet Franc, Merlot is what helps set this winery apart from all others. An easy example of a regular series wine that fully deserves to be elevated to their upper-tier Vineyard’s Choice label but it’s better for us this way since it stay eminently affordable. Muscular, robust, aggressive and bold are not your typical buzz words when talking about Merlot; but those traits combined with the wines elegance, depth, richness and complexity make for an absolute killer combo – give this some time in your glass and it really comes together. Tons of blackberries, raspberries and tangy sharp plums backed by pepper, wood and nice hints of chocolate. A well balanced structure and a long caressing finish loaded with fruit and hints of dark chocolate round this delight out. A wine with the rare combo of being both food-friendly and big, bold and powerful.
Golan Heights Winery, Merlot, Ortal Vineyard, Yarden, 2004: A full bodied wine that can only be described as lusciously opulent and exceedingly elegant. A deep ruby red color, this wine has great structure with plenty of earthy and typical Israeli notes on the nose. Juicy berries, nuts and gentle spices along with hints of coffee/toffee flavors with strong hints of smoke and a very long finish backed by a delicious taste of sweet chocolate. A wine that has simply gotten better with time and is more enjoyable every time I open it.
Hagafen, Prix, Merlot, Vichy Vineyard, Block 4, 2004: A well built and layered wine with silky tannins, cherries, currants and a hint of blueberries, overlaid with moderately spicy oak, black pepper, green herbs and some vanilla notes. A long, concentrated finish rounds out this treat. This wine should cellar comfortably for another three years or so but may surprise us and live longer.
Four Gates, Merlot, n.v: There is something quite special about the Four Gates wines and I am hoping to make it out to California soon and visit with Binyamin Cantz the winemaker. His are wines with personality and a funkiness that is both interesting from an oenophilic perspective as well as bringing much drinking pleasure. The wine was tasted alongside the Ortal noted above and made for a fascinating contrast between two winemaking styles and terroir. A full bodied wine with plenty of acidity (one of Binyamin’s trademarks), rich black fruit on the nose and palate accompanied by alternating sweet and tangy notes, some herbs and earthy note and near-sweet wood looming over the entire palate like a guardian angel. A medium finish rounded out another hit from Four Gates. Boy do I wish I lived nearby so I could try more of his wines more often.
Psagot, Merlot, 2007: From a winery that continues to improve with every vintage comes a fruity and delicious Merlot. Loads of red currants, blackberries and raspberries on a gentle background of spicy and sweet wood. A sturdy yet gentle wine with great mouth feel and a pleasure to drink. At its prime now, the wine is probably not for much more long-term cellaring.
Binyamina, Teva, Merlot, 2007: Binyamina’s HaChoshen series seems to grab all the glory and their “Special Reserve” wines are getting better and better and all the way at the bottom of their barrel is the “Teva” Series. As with many other wineries, whose wines in their lowest tiered series are rapidly increasing in quality thus providing us with better value for our money, Binyamina is following suit with their Teva series which is on pace to beat out Yogev as Binyamina’s best bang for your buck. Falling into the first category of an easy-drinking wine, this is more of a “quaffer” than a sophisticated wine. Plenty of black forest fruits, toasted oak, hints of smoked meat and soft, caressing tannins, this wine is a crowd-pleaser with its approachability and tingling finish and, like many other 2007 Merlot wines, is simply delicious.
Odem Mountain, Odem Mountain, Merlot, 2007: Recent vintages in Israel seem to be treating Merlot exceedingly well and this wine is no exception. Deep, brooding and richer than one might expect from the grape, this full bodied wine has lots of good fruit and spices on both the nose and palate. A velvety finish rounds out this plush wine – extremely enjoyable and highly recommended.