Merlot: Makes the Greatest Wines Great!

March 1, 2017



Unfortunately here in 2017, we are not quite yet passed the stage that every conversation about Merlot has to start with the 2004 wine movie Sideways. The movie really did have a dramatic effect on the business of wine and most of it very, very positive. It was phenomenal exposure for the wine regions of California’s Central Coast and Santa Barbara. This quiet, laid back and absolutely beautiful area was the secret playground of Southern California wine lovers for decades, but after Sideways it captured the attention of wine lovers all over America and the world. This area all of a sudden found itself in the spotlight, sales soared and the region finally hit the big time in popularity that it struggled to get for many decades.


This movie also was also perfectly timed for a new generation of perspective wine lovers who were drawn to the fun and educational aspect of wine exploration at tasting rooms all across the world.


On the negative side, as most of you know, in Sideways Merlot was made out to be the unexciting victim of wine snobbery, and paid the price with diving sales and a damaged reputation.  But don’t feel sorry for Merlot, it has rebounded quite well and has been a key component of some of the world’s greatest for hundreds of years and that will continue on forever. The sweet fruit aromas and the silky rich texture that Merlot features is the perfect partner for the firm, masculine, spicy and high acid Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc and quite delicious on its own.


Starting in the 1970’s California started producing stunning Merlots from estates like Sterling, Markham, Duckhorn, Shafer and Stags Leap and those wines solidified the great reputation of these new wineries that continue today. It was also during that time that one of the boldest tributes to Merlot was made by now legendary Napa Wine owner Joseph Phelps. He was clearly aware of Merlots greatness and in his quest to make the greatest California wine possible (white or red) he did not want to have his hands tied by laws. Of course Napa is most famous for Cabernet Sauvignon and to be labeled as such the wine has to contain 75% Cabernet Sauvignon. Mr. Phelps and his blending team decided not to name their new top wine Cabernet Sauvignon, but to give it a proprietary name of “Insignia” in case the greatest of their blends did not include 75% Cabernet. This was a big gamble! Launching a very expensive new wine and not be named Cabernet Sauvignon? Would people buy it?

The wine was a success and the first vintage 1974 was 94% Cabernet but in the next vintage 1975 it was 86% Merlot! While modern day Insignia’s are mostly dominated by Cabernet, Merlot is still an important component in the blend. Other California greats like 2013 Opus One have 6% Merlot, 2013 Dominus Estate has 13% and Screaming Eagle has 13%.


In my opinion, the greatest expressions of Merlot are found in the Limestone and heavy clay soils of St. Emilion and Pomerol in Bordeaux. I’m a lucky man, on April first I will be making my 50th visit to the Bordeaux region to evaluate the 2016 vintage and I will taste well over 1000 wines in one week. This journey is both exciting and exhausting but my favorite day is on the right bank of the Gironde where I taste all of the worlds most famous, luscious and delicious Merlots in one afternoon! Visits to and Merlot % from there 2015’s include; Ch. Vieux Chateau Certan 80%, Ch. L’Evangile 84%, Ch. Cheval Blanc 55%, Ch. Ausone 50%, Ch. Pavie 60%, Ch. Angelus 62% and of course Ch. Petrus at 100% Merlot.



The Merlot on the Left Bank of Bordeaux is also a very important element in rounding out and sweetening the powerful, tannic and sometimes austere Cabernets while adding complexity; as you can see by the percentages in 2015. Lafite Rothschild 9%, Ch Margaux 8%, Mouton Rothschild 16%, Ch. Latour 16%, Smith Haut Lafitte 33%, Ch. Montrose 29%, Cos d’Estournel 23%, La Mission Haut Brion 58% and Haut Brion 50%.


There is no doubt that Cabernet Sauvignon is the King of grapes; but without the Merlot the greatest wines would be less great. So the next time someone say’s to you they don’t like Merlot; say to them, you don’t like Haut Brion or Petrus?


Enjoy your Merlot with the respect it deserves!  Cheers!


Ralph Sands

PrimeCellar Consultant





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