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Los Angeles Times Magazine Critics' Choices for 1986 : WINNING WINES

November 02, 1986|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

Why a tasting of Merlot and Gewurztraminer? What's wrong with Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay? Everybody knows these two are the odds-on favorite best sellers all across the country.

Moreover, I remember a conversation I had with the director of one of the most famous first growths in Bordeaux 12 years ago about Merlot. "Merlot is a prostitute," he had declared in answer to my question about the amount of Merlot in the vineyard of his chateau. "It promises everything, delivers nothing." Then he added: "For a while, Merlot spread like a disease in the Haut-Medoc. Planting Merlot vines became a rage."

Could that sudden increase in Merlot plantings, I wondered, have come about because Chateau Petrus, with its vineyard even then almost totally planted to Merlot, had become wine fashion's darling? And because wine shops were already--as they still are--fetching top dollars for these wines, sometimes double or triple the price of Lafite and Mouton? All this in spite of the fact that, since it is an early bloomer, a whole vintage of Merlot might be wiped out by spring frosts?

In the United States, Merlot--and specifically Chateau Petrus--received its first boost of popularity from Henri Soule of New York's Le Pavillon restaurant several decades ago. No one would contradict Soule's recommendation of the wine he chose to accompany his food. His particular passion was the wines of Chateau Petrus, which are derived solely from Merlot grapes.

As late as 1970, there were only 236 acres of Merlot in California. Ten years later, the acreage was 2,743 acres.

The supple, silky softness of young Merlot wines with their undeniably appealing fragrance augurs well for American wine drinkers who like to purchase and pour. There may be loud disclaimers from traditionalists proud of the wines aging in their cellars, but most Americans pour their wines within a matter of days, or even hours after purchase. This "drinkability" is still the consumers' first measure of judgment as they pass over those tannin-rough wines that will come around 10 years down the line--maybe.

To illustrate the quality California Merlots: I included in this year's Times tasting the world's most famous--and most expensive--wine of this grape, Chateau Petrus 1983, which currently sells for $225 per bottle. None of the tasters knew it was among the wines they were tasting. Only three of the tasters gave the Petrus a 17 or better evaluation; the rest rated it 14/20 and lower. None recognized it, including this reporter, who knew it was there but not where it was in the blind pourings. This clearly demonstrates the current level of California wine production at a time when French wine prices are soaring.

At some comparative tastings of Cabernet Sauvignons, the winners are often bold, high-profile wines that appear superior because of their elements of bouquet and body. At our Merlot tasting, many agreed that there were no "monster" wines. All were gentle, charming, with that essential element, "drinkability," which explains their rising popularity.

A final fillip to our Merlot commentary: The French pronunciation of this elegant varietal is mair-lo , over the commonly heard murr-lo . But who is to worry when the taste is all that matters in the long run.

But the problem of pronunciation is a real bear to the producers of Gewurztraminer, and most wine makers dedicated to this Alsatian favorite agree that the name is the biggest stumbling block to its popularity in our country. Many customers are afraid of mispronouncing it; some just ask for "the wine with the funny name."

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