Merlot: Rise, Demise, Rebirth

Merlot: Rise, Demise, Rebirth

Here’s the cool thing about being uncool: you know that your friends truly love you for you.

Such is the state of California Merlot, perhaps the most singularly bashed category of wine that never contained antifreeze. While domestic Merlot never came close to killing anyone, it was deemed fatally unfashionable in the mid-2000s, a judgement that continues to shape the California wine landscape.

But despite its tragic unhipness, a handful of Merlot loyalists stayed true, preserving the category against great odds. And today, a new wave of winemakers is giving the grape a second look. Unburdened by the baggage still lugged by previous generations, they have opened their hearts to Merlot as if it were a rescue dog—scrappy, kicked around, and desperately in need of a bath, a tummy rub, and a fresh start.

Early Bloomer, Late Blooming

“Up until now, we have had practically no Merlot in California, but there is much interest in it,” Albert J. Winkler confessed in an old interview. “Many of the growers are planting Merlot to blend with Cabernet. It’s also a little more productive.” Dr. Winkler, most famous as the creator of the Winkler Index, worked in viticultural research at UC Davis between 1921 and 1971. To my great surprise, this quote was given in 1970. How is it possible that the California wine industry was so slow to embrace Merlot?

Jon Bonné, authority on both Californian and French wine, believes it had to do with our evolving perception of Bordeaux. “You’d expect that in some way [Merlot] parallels the history of Cabernet, but it doesn’t at all,” he begins. “Which is to say, everyone was very clear that Cabernet Sauvignon was going to be important to California. . . But to people like Charles Wetmore and places like Napa, it wasn’t just that they were going to be Bordeaux. They were going to be the Médoc.”

Bonné points out that Saint-Émilion and Pomerol were relatively obscure wine regions until fairly recently. “Even Pétrus didn’t really find its footing until the 20th century.” Which might help explain Merlot’s perpetual wingman status—it was viewed as little more than a blending component for the first 100 years of California winemaking. Indeed, historian Charles Sullivan’s book on Napa implies that Merlot’s standing in 1970 was only slightly improved over that of 1855. “By 1855, virtually every major producer here who was interested in fine claret had a stand of Cabernet Sauvignon. Many also grew blending varieties such as Merlot, Malbec, Verdot, and Cabernet Franc.” A handful of chapters later, he added, “Merlot had become a noticeable part of the [1970] claret vintage.”

But though the grape was still primarily found in blends, standalone Merlots began to appear in the late 1960s, a decade widely regarded as the beginning of California wine’s modern era. Many changes occurred during this period, but among the more significant was the move away from generic names such as "claret," "Burgundy," and "Sherry." The sudden appearance of the word Merlot on labels can be viewed as an extension of the trend toward varietal wines.

Or it might, as Bonné implies, be once again related to what was happening in Bordeaux. Only a handful of years earlier, in 1955, Saint-Émilion was awarded its first official classification. California vintners may not have been responding directly to this development, but the boost to Merlot’s reputation is hard to deny.

Merlot Rising

French connection aside, the first varietal Merlot to emerge from California had a decidedly Italian accent. In 1970, Louis P. Martini was vacationing in Switzerland when he was served a 10-year-old Italian Merlot that turned his head. He came back to California determined to bottle one himself, but half of the 1968 Merlot (resting in tank) had already been blended away. He preserved the remainder and combined it with the wine from the low-yielding 1970 vintage, which he released as a nonvintage wine under his Edge Hill Estate label. The next year, Martini bottled a 1969 Merlot that contained 30% Cabernet Sauvignon.

The following decade saw a handful of other premium Merlots hit the market, including Clos Du Val, Keenan, Jordan, and Matanzas Creek. But the most lasting and influential legacy stems from a single wine and the man behind it: the 1969 Sterling Merlot and Peter Newton.

Newton sits at the top of a Merlot family tree whose branches include multiple wineries and a whole chain of winemakers. According to John Kongsgaard, Newton discovered Merlot while attending Oxford in the 1940s, where he was tasked with stocking the university cellar with claret. “Peter knocked around Bordeaux and found [that] the best wines to his taste, and the best value, was in Pomerol. So as an English college kid, he fell in love with Merlot when it had really no reputation.”

Fast-forward a few decades and Newton had become the owner of a successful paper products company in California. His love of wine had never waned, and in 1969, he did what many overly wealthy romantics do: he founded a winery. Newton named his enterprise Sterling Vineyards and hired as his winemaker the young Ric Forman, whom he immediately shocked by suggesting they bottle Merlot on its own. Forman acquiesced to this bizarre proposition, and the Merlot—only the second in the state—quickly became one of their most highly regarded wines.

Forman traveled regularly to France, learning the secrets of Merlot’s manufacture from the very region that had captivated his employer. One year in the late 1970s, he brought along a friend, Dan Duckhorn. According to his oral history, Duckhorn fell in love with the smooth and supple wines of the Right Bank and returned to California intent on recreating what he had tasted. To get him started, Forman arranged to sell a few tons of Merlot from the Three Palms Vineyard, on which Sterling owned the lease. For his part, Duckhorn made the inspired decision to list the vineyard on the label, another rare idea for the time, thereby creating one of California’s most beloved and iconic wines.

Meanwhile, Peter Newton was making moves. After selling Sterling to Coca-Cola, he and Forman went on to start a new venture, Newton Vineyard, in 1980. Unsurprisingly, Merlot was to play a starring role, becoming, says Jon Bonné, “probably the first cult Merlot.”

Forman left after a handful of vintages and was replaced by John Kongsgaard, whose approach to Merlot-making was revolutionized after 1986 when the now-famous “flying winemaker” Michel Rolland joined the team. “It was like I changed religions,” Kongsgaard remarks in recollection. “Michel taught me about ripeness. He was the one who talked about seed ripeness; no one had ever thought about that before.” Adding as an aside, “Of course, now there’s an absurdity of ripeness in Napa.”

Rolland showed Kongsgaard that if he picked at 24.5 Brix, as opposed to 22.5, he’d still be below the water-add level and yet would create a far more generous wine. “He also liberated us on pH. He pointed out to me that all the great vintages in Bordeaux, like ‘45 and ‘61 and so on, had a pH of 3.7 and even 3.9. That was a revelation, because all the Davis kids, including me, had been led to believe that a wine would spoil if the pH was above 3.5.” The stylistically retooled Newton Merlot was beloved by critics and consumers, and spawned countless copies up and down the state.

Kongsgaard eventually left to continue his fertile career elsewhere—one that would include many iterations of Merlot. At Arietta, he created some of Napa’s most thrilling and individualistic wines, blending Carneros Merlot first with Cabernet Franc and later Syrah. In 2005, he handed that baton to Andy Erickson, his former assistant at Newton and fellow champion of Merlot. Today, Erickson not only oversees the production of Arietta but also Mayacamas, a property which has long made some of the most exquisite and expressive Merlot in the state.

Death by Popularity

The 1990s was a complicated decade that brought us grunge, Desert Storm, and Merlot by the glass. It was everywhere. If you went into a restaurant in America and ordered a glass of the house red, there’s a very good chance it was Merlot.

The Merlot phenomenon seemed to sneak up on California during the 1980s, with total acreage hovering between 2,000 and 4,000 for much of the decade. By 1991, however, that figure doubled to over 8,000 and would reach nearly 50,000 acres by 2000. Part of this surge was no doubt inspired by the success of new top-shelf Merlots such as Beringer Bancroft Ranch, Pahlmeyer, and Rutherford Hill, and by the rise of the Meritage movement. But the lion’s share of growth was spurred by that most American of propellants: pop culture.

In November of 1991, 60 Minutes aired a feature called “The French Paradox.” It effectively asked, if all the French consume are cheese, bread, and cigarettes, how are their hearts still beating? The answer, investigators implied, was red wine.

The effect on the industry was immediate and extreme, and it served as a kind of rough draft for what would come later with Sideways. Across California, area under vine expanded rapidly, and many white varieties were replanted or grafted over to red. To understand this fever, it is important to remember that since the run-up to Prohibition, alcohol had been vilified in America as an agent of evil and ill-health. Doctors discussing the heart benefits of red wine on a popular television program flipped the script on over 100 years of social campaigning.

, the first female American Master Sommelier, has been a part of the wine industry since 1977. “I was working the floor at the Rattlesnake Club [in Detroit] at the time, and it was like somebody hit a switch,” Triffon remembers. “Suddenly people that never drank wine would plop down and say, ‘No Martini tonight. We want red wine!’” Triffon had to contend not only with an unexpected spike in wine sales, but a clientele that had no idea what they liked. “Most people’s concept of red wine was Cabernet. And they looked to me to give them a bottle that was like that, only softer.” Merlot was an obvious fit.

Mike Martini, son of Louis P., also recalls the abrupt market shift. “Everyone loved [our Merlot] as a varietal [wine]. It grew very fast until it was second only to our Cabernet sales, at around 40,000 cases a year. We thought it had reached critical mass, but then when 60 Minutes came out with ‘The French Paradox,’ our Merlot sales jumped by 50% to 60,000 cases, going right past Cab and becoming our number-one seller.”

The sudden demand for Merlot sent wineries scrambling for fruit, juice, wine—anything they could get their hands on. Plantings swelled accordingly. But while premium regions such as Napa and Sonoma enjoyed big increases, the Central Valley saw spikes as well. And the tendency to plant Merlot in less-than-ideal places gained traction at both the macro (state) and the micro (vineyard) level.

The Truchard family was among the few farmers growing Merlot in 1974. “It seemed to thrive in the cooler climate and clay soils of Carneros,” Anthony (Tony) Truchard notes. Responding both to fashion and the suitability of their land to the variety, they planted an increasing amount of it over the years, even launching their own Merlot in 1989. “At one point, Merlot was the most widely planted grape on the ranch,” Truchard recalls, “and even we are guilty of not planting it in the nicest places back then.”

David Kent, co-owner of Darcie Kent winery in Livermore, had a front row seat to the rise and fall of California Merlot. “I went to work with Gallo in 1991, when Ernest Gallo decided he wanted to enter the premium wine industry,” Kent recounts. “It was clear that they couldn’t compete against existing categories, but if they could get in on trends early, they could get established.” Merlot was a major focus of the company at the time, and its boom neatly coincided with another trend’s bust. “Interest in California Chablis was waning rapidly, so Merlot was being planted aggressively as things such as French Colombard and Chenin Blanc were getting pulled from the Central Valley.”

The problem, of course, was that Merlot was not as easy to cultivate as the varieties it replaced. “Merlot got really popular really fast, which was its undoing,” Kent confesses, “because Merlot just doesn’t grow well in very many places.” The grape was also problematic in the cellar, largely because, per Kent, the big wineries were trying to make it as if it were Cabernet. “Cabernet destems beautifully, but Merlot doesn’t. If the stems don’t ripen, the rachis don’t detach from the grapes, and then you end up fermenting them, which is the green olive kiss of death for California Merlot.” He elaborates, “Merlot just didn’t lend itself well to high-production wine. If you machine-harvested, you had to sort. And that level of labor and involvement were a big souring agent.”

David Kent left his position as executive vice president of the Vanguard Division at Gallo in 2000 and became CEO of The Wine Group, where he stayed until 2012. Needless to say, he kept an eye on Merlot. “In the end, the market was flooded with a lot of Merlot grown in the wrong places, and very rapidly people started turning their noses up at it. And all that early good work by Duckhorn and Washington State was obliterated by a sea of mediocre wine.”

He pauses to chuckle wryly. “People say that Merlot’s downfall was Sideways, and I always laugh at that. Because Sideways was only telling the trade what they already knew.”

The Yum Factor

So what is it about Merlot that temporarily made it the most popular grape in school?

For many, the appeal lies in its approachability. “I grew up in Burgundy, and no one drinks Bordeaux there, so I discovered it later, in New York City in the ‘70s,” recalls Claude Blankiet, proprietor of one of Napa’s top Merlot brands. “At that time, global warming had not taken effect, and Bordeaux had a lot of lean years, so the Cabernets were pretty tart and acidic, but the Right Bank was more palatable to me. I liked the roundness and fruitiness and that it didn’t need to age as long as Cabernet.”

Christian Moueix is uniquely qualified to discuss Merlot’s finer qualities. Having managed Pétrus (1970–2008) and currently owning multiple Right Bank estates including Trotanoy, La Fleur-Pétrus, and Bélair-Monage, he has been the midwife for some of the world’s greatest Merlots. “People consider that Cabernet is the more noble variety, but the fact is there’s a lot more Merlot in Bordeaux than people like to admit—I think 60%.” Moueix believes that this is largely due to modern consumers preferring suppleness to austerity. “Maybe there’s more class in Cabernet, I’m willing to admit. But there’s nothing like Merlot for pleasure, and especially getting old, I love more and more pleasure.”

John Kongsgaard doesn’t necessarily agree. “Pétrus isn’t softer than Mouton, if you ask me,” he comments. “The greatest Merlots should be just as distinguished and tannic as Cabernet, unless it’s planted in the wrong place.” But he does equate using Merlot as a blending grape to “adding luxury.” By his experience, “Merlot is not a big personality, except in the very highest expressions. But good Merlot is not so pushy; it’s very much about the middle of a wine. If a wine is missing some middle, you put some Merlot in there.”

Curiously, most of the people I interviewed seemed to define Merlot by what it lacks, rather than what it offers. It isn’t too powerful, I was told, nor too lean, too rich, too shrill, or too dependent on aging. It is, essentially, a pathologically accommodating variety. Which is perhaps why it makes such a good blending partner.

I can’t help but wonder if this seemingly cheerful, unchallenging appeal is what made the grape taste, well, boring when planted on the wrong sites or treated like Diet Cabernet. And yet, there is something elemental about Merlot, something so familiar and fundamental that even the more humdrum versions tend to draw me in.

Laura Brennan Bissell of Inconnu sums the feeling up nicely: “If I were to close to my eyes and imagine what red wine tasted like, that’s Merlot to me.”

$%&*#!’ Merlot

In 2004, a significant number of Americans watched Sideways, in which two buddies, opposite in character but with a shared boorishness, embark on a bachelor trip through Santa Barbara’s wine country. During the course of the film, a case is made for Pinot Noir, whose qualities Paul Giamatti’s character extolls with such breathy ecstasy that a nearby woman accidentally falls in love with him. Meanwhile, Merlot is unceremoniously executed by that now-infamous and rumored-to-be-unscripted line, “I am not drinking any $%&*#!’ Merlot!”

The ramifications in the wine industry were yawningly predictable. Pinot Noir sales skyrocketed while Merlot stalled, and consumers seemed to transfer their expectations of one grape onto the other. I remember the first time a customer came into the store where I worked quoting Sideways. They held up the cheapest bottle of Pinot Noir they could find and asked, “This is going to be smooth, right?” It was as if Pinot Noir and Merlot had woken up one day and realized they had swapped bodies.

Interestingly, Sideways didn’t kill Merlot so much as it sent it into hiding. While Merlot plantings peaked in 2005 (what Bonné called “the world’s most obvious data point”), acreage only decreased slightly thereafter. Similarly, Pinot Noir plantings grew, but gradually. How does that square against the far more dramatic anecdotal evidence? The answer likely has to do with bulk wine and blends.

According to David Kent, the mad rush to develop vineyard land that descended after “The French Paradox” pushed big companies and quality growers alike into increasingly marginal territory. “We ran out of moderate places to plant and were suddenly in areas where you couldn’t ripen Cabernet anymore, like the Sonoma Coast, Monterey, etc., and so we planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay like crazy.” Per his recollection, “Before Sideways, Pinot Noir was selling for $0.50 a gallon and there was a backlog on the market, so it was showing up in box wine as a red blender. Then it got fashionable, and suddenly there was a market for these wines. If there wasn’t that backlog, it would have taken six years to respond and get [the wines] to market.”

For Kent, the corporate transition from Merlot to Pinot Noir was practically seamless. “What drove Merlot in the first place was consumers looking for something that doesn’t have the tannins of Cabernet,” he explains, “and Merlot kind of stepped into something that should have gone to and ultimately did go to Pinot Noir.”

Meanwhile, anything labeled as Merlot become much harder to sell, as Christian Moueix quickly discovered.

Moueix had abandoned California Merlot long before Sideways debuted. Since establishing Dominus on Yountville’s historic Napanook vineyard in 1983, he tried his best to make it work but, by 2003, had rid every drop from his wine. “I had the experience of Merlot in France, and a dream of Merlot in California,” he admits. “As a specialist, it is ironic that I was not able to produce a good Merlot.” Generally finding the Napa climate too hot for the qualities he sought, Moueix focused instead on Merlot from France.

During the red wine mania of the 1990s, Moueix had sold more than one million cases of sub-$10 Merlot to Kobrand, earning him the nickname Mr. Merlot. The wine hailed exclusively from Bordeaux, and he had received special dispensation from the French government to list the variety on the label—a boon for the American market, but also the brand’s ultimate downfall.

“I was so happy, producing some of the most expensive wines in the world, and yet being able to please so many people with this good wine,” he recalls somewhat bitterly, as he was forced to halt production in the mid-2000s. “First there was the French-bashing in 2003 that came when Chirac did not support the Iraq War. We lost 30% of sales overnight. Then we lost another 30% in 2004 when that nasty movie came out. Suddenly we were at unsuitable numbers and had to stop the brand.”

Merlot Abides

In many ways, by killing Merlot’s popularity, Sideways saved its soul. Conscientious growers like the Truchards removed the variety from all but the very best locations. On the winemaking side, only the true believers stayed the course. Select consumers hung in as well. “People got more surgical about where they were spending their money, whose Merlot were they buying,” Triffon explains. “But Merlot sales did not come to a screeching halt.”

Triffon now consults for a number of businesses, including a handful of retail outlets. She spent some time grilling her local buyers in preparation for our interview. “Collectively, we have no problem at any price point selling Right Bank Bordeaux, but the word Merlot doesn’t come into the discussion.” Indeed, Merlot-the-word seems to have been banished at all levels of the trade. “It’s a quiet, covert stigma now. Even though the Merlot we are seeing now is more serious and higher quality than we used to, Merlot sections are shrinking but blend sections have increased.” One of her local managers went so far as to comment, “If they don’t know it’s Merlot, they love it.”

This trend of labeling Merlot-based wines as a blend or under a proprietary name is rampant at lower price points, but many blue-chip brands seem to be reading the same playbook. The Napa landscape is replete with such obfuscation. Scott Palazzo labels his Merlot-dominant wine as Right Bank Red, Kapcsándy as Roberta’s Reserve, and Blankiet as Rive Droite. Invoking the Right Bank allows producers to capitalize on the pedigree of Bordeaux while sidestepping the ignominy of Merlot.

Per Claude Blankiet, “When I bought this property and asked [opening winemaker] Helen Turley what I should plant, she said Merlot.” The Blankiet estate, which is located just west and upslope of Dominus, has a band of red clay that runs through the vineyard that the variety seems to adore. “In the beginning, our Merlot was half the price, and a lot of people said, ‘Why are you bothering with this? Just mix it in with your Cab, make one estate wine, and you’ll make a lot more money.’ And they were right.” But Blankiet believed the Merlot could stand on its own and named the wine Rive Droite in honor of its inspiration. “I use it more as a little joke, in one hand as an homage to Pomerol, and the other because our Merlot vineyard is on the right bank of our creek. But Rive Droite is maybe not the smartest name, either, because people can’t pronounce it and they can’t write it.”

Even Shafer, a long-time producer of quality Merlot, has shifted its stance, moving from a varietal Merlot to a Merlot-based blend called TD-9 in 2015. “In the 1980s, we were almost better known for Merlot than for Cab,” Doug Shafer explains. “It was a great wine for us, made us a lot of fans and friends.” The recent change, he claims, has more to do with Merlot’s irregular yields than any reputational blemish. “Elias [Fernandez] came to me and said, ‘If we didn’t have to call it Merlot, I would nail the case target every year and the blend would be a better wine.’” Despite the Merlot’s lengthy history in the market, the winery received few complaints from clients. “The only pushback I got was the export markets. They loved the Merlot, in part because it’s less expensive than the Cabernet, and they haven’t had the dramatic Sideways effect that we had here.”

Don’t Call it a Comeback

I can’t recall the exact moment, but at a certain point, I noticed something remarkable. Young people—some with tattoos!—were making Merlot. They were even listing the variety on the label. And the wines, for the most part, were very, very good. In my own cellar, my tiny cache of Merlot from Long Meadow Ranch, Seavey, and Frog’s Leap was suddenly joined by names like Enfield, Inconnu, Forlorn Hope, Little Frances, and Matthiasson. What the heck had happened?

“I think ‘New California’ has definitely gotten to Merlot,” Bonné remarks, “and that makes me really happy, because I have a strong sentimental attachment to it.” Like me, he finds the quality of the contemporary wines to be largely excellent. “They are more balanced and subtle than a lot of wines I taste from the Right Bank,” he allows, “and they are varietally correct. You wouldn’t actually confuse them for Cabernet.”

Erin Pooley of Little Frances produced her first Merlot in 2016. In the short time since, she has worked with sites in both Contra Costa and the Sierra Foothills. She chose Merlot not to be contrarian, but because that was the wine she wanted to make. “I make wine really emotionally. I think a lot about the flavors that I want to craft,” she reflects. “I wanted soft blue and red fruit, and I couldn’t think of another variety where I could get that without too much tannin or too much other stuff.” I ask about possible market prejudice and she shrugs it off, commenting, “I feel like Merlot’s bad reputation might be an older-generation thing.”

Laura Brennan Bissell has pulled Merlot fruit from sites all over Northern California, but she is especially fond of Carneros. “I call the Pinot Noir situation there the great wine gentrification, because there used to be more Bordeaux varieties.” She is so committed to the variety that she produces multiple Merlots in addition to a Merlot-based blend called Kitsune. “It makes me sad that people still look down on Merlot or make it in some kind of tongue-in-cheek hipster way like carbonic,” she rails. “Treat it with respect!”

Colète is another project to recently emerge from California. This is a slightly more upscale endeavor conceived by  Ponsonnet, a white-tablecloth New York City sommelier with ties to Pomerol. The brand began in 2017 with a few tons purchased from Long Meadow Ranch, but it is now composed entirely of Coombsville fruit. To make the wine, Ponsonnet tapped  and Sashi Moorman of Domaine de la Côte.

“For me, it was an organic journey,” Ponsonnet reflects. As Moorman and Parr had never before worked with Bordeaux varieties, they consulted with Ponsonnet’s sister, winemaker at their family estate, Château Bourgneuf. For Ponsonnet, Colète was a chance not just to make wine, but also to connect more deeply with her family. “I was so animated about the idea that only after we got started did I think, My God, no one is asking for Merlot anymore, especially from California! What am I doing here? This is all my savings!” Happily, she has been soothed by the positive feedback both from the market and from her guests at Le Bernardin, where the wine sells for $160. “What seemed to be a risk is becoming an opportunity, I think. I’m really happy to be awakening this category now.”

Given this rush of fresh blood, it is tempting to declare that Merlot is reborn. After all, such is the circular nature of wine trends. As Master Sommelier  points out, “The worst thing that can happen to a wine is that it becomes the next big thing. It’s what happened with Soave, and then with Chianti in the ‘70s. Something becomes fashionable, it gets overplanted, then there are poorly made wines.” In his experience, even the most maligned wines eventually recover, and are often better for the beating. But is that where we are? Has Merlot finally shed its fiasco?

Signals are mixed. While Anthony Truchard reports, “This year, we had more people wanting to buy Merlot than any other grape,” MW Morgan Twain-Peterson was unable to sell 50 tons from the Bedrock Vineyard when a big company walked away from their year-to-year contract. And yet at the same time, Brennan Bissell states, “There are a lot of people the same generation as me making Merlot now that made fun of me when I started.”

So perhaps we’re not yet at the tipping point, and maybe that’s for the best. I personally love the new wave of Merlot coming out of California and would hate to see a resurgence of demand taint the water. So long as the current standard-bearers stay the course, I’ll be satisfied. At least I know I can count on Laura Brennan Bissell, who signed off on our interview with the following oath, “I’m not going to stop making it. Long live Merlot.”

The Difficult Business of Growing Great Merlot

“Everyone else in the world is saying Pinot Noir is the most difficult grape to grow, but we started to say among each other that actually Merlot is harder to grow,” admits Stéphane Vivier, longtime winemaker for Hyde de Villaine and native of Burgundy. “Of course,” he goes on, “in Bordeaux, they have been dealing with Merlot for a long time and they know what to do.”

Indeed, outside of Bordeaux, many growers find Merlot to be rather finicky, requiring both careful site selection and special attention in the vineyard. The variety seems to be especially sensitive in four main areas: soil compatibility, at bloom, during ripening, and regarding skin fragility.

Site Selection

“It’s a very fastidious variety in that it really matters where you grow it, in a way that’s less true than for Cabernet,” John Kongsgaard explains. “Not too dry, not too wet—it’s a real Goldilocks situation.” As Merlot tends toward vigor, high-fertility sites are a nightmare, making for dilute fruit and overly vegetal wines. The trick is to have fairly austere soils, so long as there is some regular access to moisture. “Merlot is fragile. It needs to be pampered by a site where there’s enough moisture, as it’s vulnerable to drought.”

The classic association for Merlot is clay, so many assume that Carneros is universally great for the variety. But Kongsgaard warns that while some pockets of the appellation are ideal, much of it possesses altogether too much clay. “People get confused about this because in Pomerol, they put Franc on the gravel and Merlot on the clay, but [there] it’s not like heavy, heavy clay—not like Napa clay.” Vivier agrees, noting, “Not just clay but well-drained clay soils are key.”


Merlot is notorious for its variable yields, much of which comes down to its propensity to shatter. According to Vivier, “Merlot is difficult in that it is weather dependent. It needs a very good spring.” He elaborates, “If you have bad weather at bloom—rain, wind, cold—you can have coulure, very bad set. And by that, I mean clusters that look like fishbones.” In order to fight this, the team at Hyde de Villaine (which now includes Guillaume Boudet, formerly of Haut-Brion) delays pruning to court better weather for bloom. But shatter can’t be completely avoided, and the resulting hard, green, unfertilized berries can wreak havoc in fermentations. Installing a shaker table on its sorting line has helped Hyde de Villaine abate this last issue.

Sugar Accumulation

Merlot ripens early and fast, which is why many consider it to be more of a cool climate variety. But when planted in a particularly warm location—or subjected to extended hangtime—Merlot can often see its sugar content race ahead of its phenolic ripeness. “If you look at the metrics in Bordeaux,” Jon Bonné explains, “Merlot is often a whole degree higher in ABV, which is why the garagistes made such big-alcohol wine.”

This tendency, amplified by climate change, has forced some vintners to swap blending strategies; whereas a generation ago, producers may have added Merlot for freshness and acidity, today they look elsewhere. Says Bonné, “It is interesting, now in Saint-Émilion, there are a lot of folks looking to add more Cabernet because it’s the only way to get slow enough ripening to get the balance they want.” In sunny Napa, producers such as Blankiet rely on shade cloth and irrigation to slow Merlot’s ripening curve and preserve its fleeting acidity.

Skin Fragility

Merlot’s sensitive skin is an issue in the vineyard, where it is susceptible to sunburn, and in the cellar, where it can tear. Because of the latter, gentle handling in the winery is imperative, but some wineries have been driven to extremes. Like many quality Napa producers, Blankiet harvests at night to keep fruit temperatures down. “The fruit comes in around 48 to 52 degrees, and we store in a cold cave,” Claude Blankiet relates. “But even at 50 degrees, the Merlot berries crack and juice drops on the floor. That juice is wine, so that’s an expensive loss. And then you end up with a bunch of broken skins in the fermenter, which changes your ratio of skin to juice.”

To combat this, Blankiet now sprays the incoming fruit with liquid nitrogen, which drops the temperature around 20 degrees. “The berries do not freeze, but they firm up. Then they destem better, and it helps preserve volatile compounds.” With the whole berries preserved, Blankiet has seen the quality of his Merlot go up. He also notes that, while liquid nitrogen is expensive, the volume of wine saved more than covers it.

You Might Also Like:


Bonné, Jon. The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2013.

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Hicke, Carole. “Richard Forman, Launching Bordeaux-Style Wines in the Napa Valley: Sterling Vineyards, Newton Vineyard, and Forman Vineyard.” The Wine Spectator California Wine Oral History Series, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2000.

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