I’ve been seeing a resurgence in Merlot lately. Not in people drinking Merlot, necessarily, but in wine distributors bringing me Merlot to try. I like Merlot, so I took the opportunity to explore the grape at one of my tastings at Jet Wine Bar. Of course, I also like a good story and so we traveled with the varietal from the point of its early recognition for fine wine in Bordeaux (more properly, Acquitaine) to the scene of its shame – the movie Sideways, via Santa Barbara.
First, a few things about the grape, itself. Merlot is a product of natural crossing between Cabernet Franc and the less-well known Magdeleine Noire des Charentes[i]; it has tannin and color qualities like the former, and ripens early like the latter. Merlot is not the most-planted grape in the world, a feat that belongs to Cabernet Sauvignon, nor is it the most-consumed wine varietal, which might be Pinot Grigio (the “most popular” according to Snooth.com). But, Merlot is grown all over the world, on all seven continents, where it is served as a single varietal and blended with other grapes. It thrives in cooler, damp soils, particularly those composed of clay and limestone.
Now to our story…
From the Source in Gallia Aquitania
Our trip starts in France, on the Gironde estuary in Bordeaux. Many of the world’s finest (certainly as considered by cost and desirability) Merlot-based wines come from Bordeaux’s right bank, which has the clay and limestone soils that the grape so loves. The appellations of Fronsac, St. Émilion, and Pomerol, for instance, are all Merlot-dominant blends from the “Right Bank” vineyards of the Dordogne, one of the two rivers (along with the Garonne) that feeds into the Gironde. This caché is not new, as the earliest known mention of Merlot grapes in 1784 attests to the fine quality of its wines from the Libournais (which includes Fronsac, St. Émilion, and Pomerol, among others)[ii]. It is possible that Merlot originates from this very region. Genetically speaking, the grape is from a group (the Carmenet group) that originates in the area of southwest France (including the Gironde) or the Pais Vasco of Spain[iii]. The name of the grape was written as “Merlau” in 1784, which does not rule out any of the proposed areas of origin. “Merlau” is an Occitan word for blackbird, and the Occitan language – which is most closely related to Catalan – was historically spoken in a region (Occitania) composed of southern France, Monaco, and small parts of Spain and Italy. The parentage of the grape makes the situation only slightly clearer. As mentioned above, its parents are Cabernet Franc and the Magdeleine Noire des Charentes. Cabernet Franc probably has its origins in the Pais Vasco. The Gironde and (probably) the Pais Vasco were connected administratively as the Roman province of Gallia Aquitania during the reign of Emperor Augustus Caesar, though the precise location of that region’s southwestern border is not entirely clear. Roman administration of these lands helped initiate widespread plantings of vineyards, and also increased trade with other parts of Roman Gaul and Hispania. Magdeleine Noire des Charentes is Merlot’s other parent. While its ancient range is unknown, its known, current geographical extent is limited to a few spots in the French regions of Bretagne and Poitou-Charentes. Poitou-Charentes reaches the Gironde and borders Aquitaine at the Libournais in Bordeaux. It was part of Gallia Aquitania – whose border extended to the Loire, though Bretagne was not. Circumstantially, then, Bordeaux (specifically, the Libournais) is at the epicenter of the Merlot grape through its connection with the Occitan language family and at the frontier between the grape’s “parents” within the administrative zone of Gallia Aquitania at a time when grape production and exchange activities were heavily promoted.
Other events helped elevate production in Bordeaux. Long before that 1784 mention of “Merlau”, in the mid-12th Century AD, Henry (Plantagenet) II and Eleanor of Aquitaine married; Eleanor’s lands, and the wine therein, thus became English Territory. This meant that the English could access wines from Bordeaux more easily than from other areas of France, spurring production there and helping instill a still-current fascination with claret among Brits. The Christian church was a prominent holder of vineyard lands, which aided Bordeaux wine under Henry II as the papacy maintained much power in the affairs of the monarchy. The spread of wine out of Bordeaux was aided further by its port and the navigable rivers of Aquitaine, which made transport of its wine much easier. Similarly, Dutch traders in the 18th century (from whence our “merlau” reference stems) capitalized on the region’s transportation routes for its own mercantile interests.
Our first Merlot is from this ancient “home” in Bordeaux. The Garonne and Dordogne rivers meet at the Gironde Estuary, upon whose North (“right”) bank lies the town of Bourg sur Gironde, and the appellation Côtes de Gironde. The Côtes are characterized by their clay and limestone soils, and a climate that experiences – relative to the whole of Bordeaux – more sunlight, smaller extremes in temperature and cold, and less rainfall. It is here that Nathalie and Christophe Bonnet of Bonnet & Fils oversee Château Haut Guiraud and a second label, Château Castaing. All of their wines are Merlot dominant.
Château Castaing Côtes de Bourg 2012 is made with a blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon that is aged in French oak. It has a medium-light body and medium acid. The tannins are soft, but angular. Bright and fresh fruits are subdued on the palate. On the whole, the host (me) should have given the wine more time to open… It is very much a merlot of the Bordelaise, in that the early-picked grapes are less-ripe and maintain much acid.
A late arrival in Bulgaria
Bulgaria sits between the earliest wine-making regions of the Caucuses- to the East, and the Greeks and Romans to the West and South, who were responsible for sowing the seeds of modern winemaking. During the 5th-4th millennium, when early winemaking is known in the trans-Caucasus (e.g. Georgia, Armenia, Iran) northeastern Bulgaria was home to a sophisticated metal-working culture identified at Varna, on the Black Sea. Evidence for wine has not been found in this culture’s remains, the majority of which have come from tombs. But, Thracian-speaking people who occupied the bulk of the extent of modern Bulgaria in the 2nd and 1st millennia BC were known in the Greek world for their wine. The Greek author Homer writes of the region’s good, sweet wine – particularly from the city of Ismarus. While Ismarus was a Thracian city, it is in what is now Thracian Greece. But, wine was not limited to
just one place. The bulk of ancient gold has been found in Bulgaria, dating mainly to the 2nd and 1st millennia BC. Among the many treasures have been large numbers of wine vessels made of gold, silver, or both (niello). These ceremonial vessels – plus numerous daily objects, coins, and jewelry – express a central role for wine and drinking. Thracians, unlike Greeks, drank their wine neat; that is, they did not mix it with water. The Greeks found this to be rather uncivilized, and considered the Thracians to be barbarians. Of course, the Greeks thought of most “other” peoples as barbarians, but especially the nomadic Scythians who occupied lands east of the Thracians. Not least among the Scythian’s uncouth behaviors was their method of consuming wine unmixed, a fact with which the Greeks were nearly obsessed. It is recorded in the histories of Herodotus, heralded in verse by Anacreon, and mentioned in nearly every genre. In the Greek formula, wine was mixed with more water for conversational evenings, less water for bawdy merry-making. They considered themselves to get tipsy and intoxicated, while Scythians would get drunk and frenzied. The Greeks did have a “place” for drunken frenzy, but it was in the realm of Dionysus – god of the grape and the drunken festival. Fittingly, this god is most likely to have originated from among people who drank their wine unmixed – the Thracians.
It isn’t known exactly when wine and wine-making arrived in the region, but traders from Varna in the 4th millennium could have been introduced to the skills of those further east. Similarly, Scythian horsemen could have transported vines, grapes, growers, or knowledge overland from the Caucasus. While the Bulgarian grape Mavrud seems indigenous, Merlot only arrived later in the 20th century; nonetheless it was one of the main exports in the 1980s, along with Cabernet Sauvignon[iv].
The Bessa Valley Winery is located in southeastern Bulgaria near the historic town of Plovdiv, within the geographical region of Thrace. Wines from here fall under the appellation of the “Thracian Lowlands”. Mavrud is still king, but Merlot has a stong presence – probably due to the valley’s clay and limestone soils. It may have been such soils that drew Count Stephan von Neipperg to the Thracian Lowlands. He owns several properties in Bordeaux’s Right Bank, all of which are Merlot-dominant.
Petit Enira 2010 Merlot, from the Bessa Valley Winery, is made with 100% Merlot, picked by hand. The juice underwent malo-lactic fermentation, and was aged in French Oak for 10-12 months. The result is a medium-body wine with light acid and round tannins. Fruits are subdued, but plummy. Nose is earthy and deep. These fruits are riper than those in the Bordeaux, and the wine is softer in the mouth.
An Empire Most Serene in the Veneto
The Tre Venezie, as the far northeast corner of Italy is known, was once a major link between East and West. It includes the regions of Trentino/Alto Adige, Veneto, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. In the first centuries of the Roman Republic, the marshes of Venice were within the Roman Empire, proper, but had no substantial occupation. Rather, the area’s major city was found at Aquileia. Aquileia is situated in Friuli, north of modern Venice and its marshes, and quite near the modern border with Slovenia, and served as the eastern frontier of Roman Italy. This position of the Tre Venezie within the Roman realm led to influences of Greek and Roman wine-making, most significantly the technique of drying the grapes before fermentation (i.e. appassimento, recioto, ripasso), which is still significant in the Veneto’s Valpolicella region. It was only when Aquileia was sacked by the Visigoths in the 4th Century AD that movements of people escaping hostilities led to the founding of Venice. The subsequent decline of the western Roman Empire was accompanied by the rise of its eastern complement, the Byzantine empire. By the early 8th century, Venice (but not the rest of the Tre Venezie) was recognized as Byzantine territory, enjoying the right of trade along the Adriatic Coast. Thus was laid the framework for the Republic of Venice, whose pragmatic, adaptable approach to its commercial interests helped forge its success. La Serenissima – as the empire was known – constituted one of the most stable political entities the area ever saw, lasting more than 1000 years; its demise only occurred in the 18th century AD. In addition to political stability, the Venetian Republic’s long-standing emphasis on trade and commerce brought goods – including grapes and vines – from far-flung places including points East (Greece, Macedonia, Anatolia) and beyond as a result of its favored trading-status in Constantinople.
Despite all of their mercantile activity, it was not the Venetians who brought Merlot to the Tre Venezie. Following surrender to Napolean, the region was ceded to the Hapsburg Monarchy, before returning to the Kingdom of Italy, before returning to the Austrian Empire with Lombardy, thence Austro-Hungary. Venice was much diminished as a port, but Trieste (in Venezia Giulia) rose in its place, functioning as the mercantile capital.
Merlot is now one of the main red grapes produced in Fuili-Venezia Giulia, which has several different wine regions. One of these is Aquileia, of Roman Republic fame. North of Aquilea and at the Slovenian border is the region Colli Orientali del Friuli, home to the Gramoglino Hills and Perusini estate. Here are Merlot’s clay loam and sandstone soils, and a cooler climate for slowing these easy-ripening grapes. The estate is run by the 3rd generation of Perusinis, headed by art-historian Teresa.
Perusini 2010 Merlot black label is made with 100% Merlot from a clone growing in the vineyards whose DNA is otherwise unknown. The juice underwent malolactic fermentation and spent 12 months in French oak. The wine is supple, elegant, and complex, with a medium body, light acid and. The nose is cherry, currants, plum, and coffee. There is more of the same in the mouth with the addition of cedar and white pepper.
In with the New (World)
Merlot is big in the States. But, when did it come? There is not much written on the topic, though it is suggested that the vines had arrived by the mid-1940s, and the first wines with merlot came out of California in 1972 by the Louis Martini winery.
So, Merlot’s history in the US – like modern winemaking in the US, in general – is primarily post-Prohibition. Or is it? It is typically prudent to look to Philadelphia for what was “first” or new.
William Penn founded Philadelphia in 1682. By 1683, he had French vinifera vines planted in his vineyard. What grapes were planted? Like a good Brit, Penn liked a good claret – Bordeaux red[v]. It is entirely possible – if not probable – that Merlot vines were included among those introduced from France. However, these French grapes just didn’t take to their new soils and climate. But, years later in 1740, a hybrid vinifera x labrusca (the grapes that grew in North America) grape was found growing in Penn’s old vineyards. This “Alexander” grape (also called Schuylkill after the river upon which Penn’s vineyards were planted), figured prominently in the future of American wine making.
The Alexander grape was used by the earliest, successful winery in the States, founded by Jean-Jaques Dufour in Vevay, New Switzerland (southern Indiana). Other early attempts – using vinifera grapes from the “Old World”- failed due to the grapes susceptibility to New World Disease. An early winery was begun in western Pennsylvania by the utopian Harmonists in early 1800. When this failed, the Harmonists followed the Swiss to Indiana, creating a home in New Harmony and growing grapes. However, they planted German varietals that were not robust in the New World[vi].
The success of the Dufour winery in Vevay was in the choice of grape: the Alexander. The use of the Alexander grape in the Dufour winery was critical it its success; this hybrid had the fine-wine capabilities of the vinifera, and the labrusca’s natural immunity to North American diseases. Did the Alexander grape have merlot as one of its parents? Given its spontaneous growth from Penn’s old vineyards, it is certainly possible.
Fast forward to 2003, when Nicholas and Athena Karabots established Karamoor Estate in Fort Washington, PA – less than 20 miles north of Philadelphia. They began planting vines in 2004 – including the Merlot grape. As makes the grape happy, the soils are clay and loam based. The first vintage was the 2008, which was made by winemaker Carl Helrich of nearby winery, Allegro. Karamoor is now making all wines on-site, under winemaker Kevin Robinson.
Karamoor 2008 Merlot is made with 85% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc. The juice was aged for 12-16 months in oak. The wine is smooth and silky in the mouth, with soft tannins and balanced acidity. There are notes of ripe blackberries and blueberries, and hint of floral tobacco and green leaf. I confess to having always loved this wine, which we sold by-the-glass at Jet Wine Bar in 2012/3. It is aging well.
The Left Coast
While wine history in the States does not begin in California, varietal labeling of Merlot does start there. In the early 1970s, Louis Martini Winery released a Merlot in 1972 that contained Merlot from 1968 and 1970 vintages[vii]. Prior to that, Merlot had always been used in a blend – typically with Cabernet Sauvignon. Louis Martini is still in operation in St Helena in the Napa Valley, bottling table wines made mainly from Cab. Notably, they do not currently bottle a varietally-labeled Merlot. In a recent “best of” list from W. Blake Gray, 7 of the top 10 Merlot from California were from the Napa Valley. How, then, did Merlot come to be associated with Santa Barbara? For that, we have the movie Sideways to either thank or blame, depending on your viewpoint. For those who are unaware, one of the main characters in the movie famously declares that he will not drink Merlot while on a trip through wine country. Instead, he waxes poetic about the complexities of Pinot Noir. I’m not certain why Santa Barbara County (the Santa Ynez Valley, to be specific) was featured in the film, but I suppose it was for the area’s strong emphasis on Pinot Noir – also featured in the film. Regardless, the film was a boon to the Santa Barbara wine industry, as a whole. It is often said that the movie wrought devastation upon Merlot, but that turn out to be largely apocryphal[viii]. Consumption of wine, as a whole, and pinot noir, in particular, did increase following the movie’s release. While Merlot did not enjoy the same growth, its consumption was not severely curtailed.
Merlot is now “recovering” from stagnant growth following the movie, as can be seen in the Santa Ynez Valley. At the eastern edge of the Valley is the Happy Canyon AVA, established in 2009. This small AVA is marked by clay and loam soils, abundant sunshine, warm days, and cool nights. Bordeaux grapes flourish here, including Merlot. The Barrack Family purchased land in the Happy Canyon for both polo playing and wine making, establishing the Happy Canyon Vineyard . Their largest plots are planted with Merlot, but they also grow Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.
Happy Canyon 2010 Merlot is made from a blend of all the winery’s red grapes: 75% Merlot, 20% Cab Sauv , 2% Cab Franc, 2% Malbec, and 1% Petit Verdot. Aged in oak. I remembered to write down my tasting notes for this wine, so I have a little more to say. The wine has a sour cherry and dried strawberry nose. The mouth has fruit leather, with bright, ripe, red fruits. There are some darker notes from the Syrah, some flintiness from the Cab Sauv, and a hint of flowers from the Petit Verdot. It has a good, full mouth and a lasting finish. I liked this wine, though it reminded me more of Grenache than Merlot.
This tasting was part of my Global Vineyard Passport Series at Jet Wine Bar, and thus meant as an exploration of Merlot. We certainly did that, as well as convert a few “non-Merlot” drinkers on the variety and strength of the five offerings. All the wines were enjoyed, but the Perusini Merlot was the overwhelming favorite, followed by a tie between the Petit Enira and Karamoor wines. The winning style, then, was somewhere between the least-ripe Merlot of Bordeaux and the most-ripe Merlot of Happy Canyon.
[i] Robinson, Jancis; Harding, Julia; Vouillamoz, Jose (2013-09-24). “Merlot” Wine Grapes. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Rézeau, P, 1997, Dictionnaire des noms de cépages de France, CNRS, Paris
[iii] Robinson, et. al., op. cit.
[v] Pinney, T. 1989. A History of Wine in America. University of California Press
[vi] Butler, J. and J. Butler 2001. Indiana Wine: A History Indiana. University of Indiana Press
[vii] Bespaloff, A., 1983. “Merlot the Marvelous”, New Yorker Magazine.
[viii] Cuellar, S. 2009 “The ‘Sideways’ Effect A test for changes in the demand for Merlot and Pinot Noir wines”. Read more at: http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=features&content=61265 Copyright © Wines & Vines
Plantagenet/Aquitaine tombs: http://www.historytoday.com/jerome-de-groot/historical-fiction-round-march-2015#sthash.IMXh90Ap.dpuf
“Thrace and present-day state borderlines” by Пакко – File:Thrace modern state boundaries.png. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thrace_and_present-day_state_borderlines.png#/media/File:Thrace_and_present-day_state_borderlines.png
Count von Neipperg http://cdn.thewinecellarinsider.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Stephan-Neipperg-St.-Emilion-300×227.jpg
Roman Italy : By Cristiano64 (Lavoro proprio, self-made) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)
“Friuli wine regions” by Original uploader was Agne27 at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transfered to Commons by User:Kelly using CommonsHelper.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Friuli_wine_regions.JPG#/media/File:Friuli_wine_regions.JPG
William Penn statue: Credit: G. Widman for GPTMC http://withart.visitphilly.com/images/uploads/artwork/art-on-city-hall-600.jpg
Karamoor’s Karabots Family: ED HILLE/ Staff Photographer http://media.philly.com/images/600*450/20130110_inq_fd1karam10z-b.JPG
Santa Barbara County Wine Map: Tom DeWalt, News-Press Graphics
Happy Canyon: http://happycanyonava.com/images/03.jpg
The Barrack Family: http://www.happycanyonvineyard.com/assets/images/photogallery/images/large/AboutUs2.jpg