Tuesday, December 16, 2014


Chateau Le Pin, arguably the world’s most expensive wine, is a Merlot. Who knew?

Merlot, reportedly named after the ”merle” bird which eats the grapes, is a major player in Bordeaux, where it is actually the most widely planted red varietal and responsible for its priciest wines. Merlot comes to the fore in the Right Bank area of Pomerol, home of Chateau Le Pin. This wine is big, powerful and brooding, with layers of rich extract and firm but fine tannins, and it ages extremely well. It has a Burgundian intensity of raspberry and cherry fruit. Pomerols are typically ethereal, soft, rich, and earthy.

Merlot has a long history in the Veneto, Italy, in Umbria, and recently has garnered attention as a single varietal Super Tuscan in Ornellaia’s Masseto. Here the grapes are fully ripe, giving that smooth, supple, mouthfilling quality that is so appealing, yet with balancing underlying acidity for freshness.

Merlot was the darling of the California wine industry up until the early 1990's. High demand for these smooth, easy to pronounce wines, so appealing with their velvety texture, plummy and berry fruit, and tobacco notes, brought about the production of lesser quality wines at exaggerated prices.

Even now the market is still flooded with overpriced, weedy, even vegetal and funky examples, especially and most shockingly at the upper end. Imagine spending $85 on a famous Napa Valley Merlot only to find a highly alcoholic, yet somehow vegetal wine. (Underripe merlot exhibits green, herbaceous characters). Sonoma and Monterey’s Carmel Valley produce elegant, supple, and understated merlots in the Bordeaux model.

In Washington’s Columbia Valley, the Merlots are very rich and sweet with a unique blueberry-mocha note. Many aged in American oak barrels.

Much of what was good-value Chilean Merlot turned out to be another grape type, Carmenere; these days, the value just isn’t there. The best true Merlots are coming from the Curico Valley, part of the Central Valley appellation. Here the wines are supple, flavorful, elegant, and nicely balanced.

Château Le Pin, Pomerol, Bordeaux (France)
Château Pétrus, Pomerol, Bordeaux (France)
Vieux Château Certan, Pomerol, Bordeaux (France)
Paloma Merlot, Spring Mountain District-Napa Valley (USA)
Clos du Val Merlot, Napa Valley, California (USA)
Kenwood Reserve Merlot, Sonoma, California (USA)
Heller Estate Vineyards Merlot, Carmel Valley, California (USA)
L’Ecole 41 Merlot, Columbia Valley, Washington (USA)                

Best Value
Corte Giara Merlot-Corvina, Veneto IGT (Italy)
Sacchetto La Cortigiana Merlot, Veneto IGT (Italy)
Cantina Falesco Merlot, Umbria (Italy)
Bodega Norton Merlot, Mendoza (Argentina)

Excerpted from Varietal Profiles by Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, www.planetgrape.com. All rights reserved.

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