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Everybody hates Merlot

But that leaves more for those who know that when the terroir is right, it's among the best wines in the world.

September 21, 2005|Patrick Comiskey | Special to The Times

IF the wine world has a whipping boy these days, it's Merlot -- even Hollywood got its licks in when Miles Raymond lashed it in "Sideways." It's been cast aside for the "it" wine of the moment, Pinot Noir; no one would be caught dead drinking, or even liking, Merlot.

Now, it's true that there's a whole lot of bad Merlot in the world, much of it from California, but some of the greatest wines in the world are made with this noble grape -- including Cheval Blanc, the prized possession Miles finally chugs from Styrofoam.

Cheval Blanc comes from St.-Emilion on Bordeaux's Right Bank, which with Pomerol produces some of the world's greatest Merlots. Excellent Merlots also come from Washington state, which in less than 30 years has proven to be a formidable terroir for the grape -- not surprising when you take into account that it shares the same range of latitudes as Bordeaux.

And now in California, where years of indiscriminate plantings have resulted in millions of cases of Merlot mediocrity, growers have isolated a few special places where the grape thrives.

In fact, one California region, Carneros, might soon rival the Right Bank as a place where the Merlot is much better than not bad: It's legitimately great.

In this country, Merlot vines were planted in the 1980s as a lighter-bodied, more approachable variety than the massively tannic Cabernets of the era. Consumers embraced the alternative. Few growers, however, realized how temperamental Merlot vines were. Vines responded poorly to extremes of heat, drought or moisture; on the other hand, if the vines weren't stressed, if the soils were too rich or the site too balmy, the vines gave back huge canopies and exceptionally boring fruit. Soon there was a sea of insipid wine out there with nothing to be said for it other than that it wasn't Cabernet.

The Cabernet comparison has never been a fair one. Merlot sets, flowers, colors and ripens two to four weeks earlier than Cabernet. It's relatively thin-skinned and large-berried, yielding a mellower, less tannic wine in the glass. It's invariably perceived as less powerful than Cabernet -- but to dwell on its lack of power is to miss its real strength: pliancy.

Where Cabernet has the structural fortitude of an old oak, Merlot gives, like a sapling -- strong yet supple, firm and flexible. This is why it makes for such a marvelous blending grape, but on its own it can be dense and rich, plainly red-fruited, with an inimitable texture that is at once chewy, dusty and tender.

Chateau Petrus, from Bordeaux's Right Bank commune of Pomerol, is arguably the world's greatest Merlot. It's known for its concentration, the tightly coiled, almost smoldering intensity of its fruit flavor and, above all, its graceful longevity. What makes this wine great is the particular geology of its tiny vineyard.

Much of Pomerol is situated on a bench overlooking the Dordogne composed of glacial sand and gravel deposits. But Petrus lies atop a small patch of clay. Petrus soils are particularly dense, ancient and poor in nutrients. Vines are tiny; yields are correspondingly small -- not minuscule exactly, but balanced.

Petrus offers a clue as to what makes for a great Merlot site: conditions that curb its growth. Given generous nutrients, Merlot acts like an adolescent on permanent growth spurt.

"If you've got vines growing in some nice rich loam, you're going to get great leaves and really boring fruit," says Tom Rinaldi, winemaker for Provenance Winery in St. Helena, Calif., and former winemaker for the original Merlot powerhouse, Duckhorn Wine Co.

Where so many California vintners have planted Merlot willy-nilly, a stalwart few like Rinaldi have been scouring Napa Valley for the truly lousy places to put it in the ground.


Wine, where and how

TAKE Bob Foley, the winemaker who oversees the stratospheric vineyards of Pride Mountain, an estate that straddles the Sonoma and Napa valleys. Poised at the apex of Spring Mountain, at 2,100 feet, it is one of the highest Merlot vineyards in California. Foley says the soils are so poor "we can't even get weeds to grow." But Merlot works in the swales where soils have collected.

"The vines collect a bit of water," he says, "and gather some intensity during cold autumn nights." The result is one of California's more powerful, dark-fruited and voluptuous Merlots.

Meanwhile, on the Napa Valley floor, brothers Sloan and John Upton located "a mountain vineyard that's vertically challenged," which is how Rinaldi describes their Three Palms Vineyard near Calistoga, a vineyard carved from the tumbledown tailings of an ancient stream that's as arduously rocky as any patch of ground in the valley.

Grapes from the hard-working, small-yielding vines of this vineyard go into wines like Duckhorn's Three Palms, a structured, chewy and intense wine with cherry and plum flavors and tannins as fine as brick dust.

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