Vail Wine Ink column: A little something different for the holidays: Merlot
November 16, 2016
"Well, that's a little old fashioned," said my oh-so-contemporary friend when I told her that I was thinking about making merlot my go-to grape for the upcoming holiday season.
And she is kind of right. After all, this is the time of year when most people are thinking about which pinot noir to pair with their Thanksgiving turkey. Or which cabernet would make the perfect gift for their dearest friends for Christmas or even which grower champagne is best to kick off the New Year. Yes, it would not seem at first blush that merlot would be the peerless match for most or even any of the above.
Ah, but there was a time in this country when ordering a glass of merlot was a sign that one was a connoisseur. In the 1980s and '90s, merlot was considered, and rightly so, to be a grape that produced wines that were lush, rich and character driven. But, alas, the lily was gilded, as the grape was overplanted and the wines made from it were often over-oaked, taking the flavor profile from rich to reviled.
And then came "the Sideways effect." In 2004, Alex Payne produced a buddy flick about a pair of Southern California losers who head to the wine country of Santa Barbara for a last weekend of golf and debauchery before one's upcoming nuptials. One of the characters, played by Paul Giamatti, is a self-absorbed wine geek who deplores merlot and celebrates the virtues of pinot noir.
But that was then and this is now. Today, merlot is thriving in vineyards around the planet. Ranging from its home base in the Bordeaux region of France to the Napa Valley in California to the heated hillsides of Tuscany to the high mountains of Chile, many of the world's most flavorful, velvety wines are made with either 100 percent merlot or with merlot playing the leading role in blends.
So it is that this holiday season I have decided it is time to rediscover the flavors of the noble grape and drink merlot-based wines for the celebrations.
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We'll begin with Thanksgiving, that most American of all holidays, and a bottle of Marty Clubb's L'Ecole No. 41 2013 Estate Merlot, Walla Walla Valley. L'Ecole 41 has established a reputation as one of the leading winemakers in the state of Washington, and this estate-grown wine will be a reason to give thanks at your turkey day repast. Dark fruits, darker dirt and a texture that is cashmere-like make this wine a prime example of both the present and the future of what merlot grown in eastern Washington can produce.
For Christmas, giving and getting in a year in which the stock market has risen to new heights means the time may be right to cast a few dollars toward Bordeaux's Right Bank and buy a bottle for a friend or loved one. Bordeaux is divided into two regions that are on either side of the Gironde and Dordogne rivers. On the Left Bank, to the west, the blends tend to lean toward Cabernet Sauvignon. But on the other side, the Right Bank (to the east) the wines are generally led by the softer merlot. The famed Chateau Petrus (the holy grail wine, ironically, in "Sideways") is perhaps the best-known example of these wines.
For my Christmas gift, I may lean toward a bottle from the Right Bank, Chateau Lassegue Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2010, from the esteemed Vigneron Pierre Seillan. While the blend is 60 percent merlot, 30 percent cabernet franc and the remaining 10 percent cabernet sauvignon, you can still feel the silk of a merlot-driven wine. Chateau Lassegue is a part of the Jackson Family collection of global gems, and this wine is an example of their worldwide prowess.
Finally, for the year's last meal, the one that comes before the champagne toasts, I will go with a California classic. It was in the mid-1970s that Dan and Maragret Duckhorn decided that the Napa Valley would be a superb host for merlot in a region famed for cabernet sauvignon. Bucking the trend, they focused on making great merlot and changed the way that others look at the terroir of the region.
A bottle of the 2012 Napa Valley Merlot Three Palms Vineyard would be an impeccable choice for ending the year, preferably with a massive, grilled bone-in rib eye. This vineyard designate from one of the truly special locations in all the Napa Valley is plum perfect, big and beautiful with tannins that tantalize instead of overpowering.
I'm pretty sure my contemporary friend would approve of all three of these classics.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.