Sunday, June 01, 2014

Merlot, the most hated grape 10 years running, finds a home in Italy (and in my heart)

It doesn’t seem that long, but in 2004 the movie Sideways was released. In the film, Pinot Noir was lionized, and to this day, the sales of Pinot Noir are still roaring. Merlot, on the other hand, was excoriated. The character Miles had a famous line in which he said, “If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any f***ing Merlot!” Ironically, the last wine he was seen drinking at the end of the movie was a Cheval Blanc 1961, which is a blend, predominantly, of Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

I am one of those people who disavowed any allegiance to Merlot. I shunned it; I avoided it at all costs. I refrained from drinking it. I loathed it. Or so I thought.

First, a little background. Pinot Noir has become so popular in the last ten years that we are seeing it come from everywhere. I like to make a little fun of the Russian River AVA of Pinot Noir in California, because it seemed everyone was coming out with one. And to a certain extent it bears noting that the most wine that is sent to this home for evaluation is Pinot Noir, and Pinot Noir from California, Sonoma especially. And not just the entry level ones. I am opening up boxes regularly of small production (500 cases, more or less) and with retail prices going into the $100 range. Now if these wines are so easy to sell, why are they showing up on my doorstep more often these days?

Merlot, on the other hand, rarely knocks on my door. It has a little bit of a complex, an aversion to the outside. Maybe it is shy? Maybe it is introverted? Merlot, introverted? No chance. Well, whatever, Merlot has had a tough time of it in the last ten years. And I did my part to make it feel unwelcome.

The thing about Merlot is that it seems more like an extrovert kind of wine to me. And because of my perception in that way, while it doesn’t come around often, it does always seem to be around. In Italian red wines, especially from Tuscany, it has made itself comfortable in that region. So comfortable that it might be time for us to re-visit just how well Merlot has settled in and won a few hearts, this one included.

I spend more time in Tuscany than in most parts of Italy but I never feel I spend enough time there. I have been spending more time on the coastal area, and the Maremma is loaded with Merlot. Similar to California’s coast to me, like the area around Santa Barbara, in the way the sun shines, the light bounces, the wind blows.

Petra winery in Suvereto makes Quercegobbe. An odd word and not an easy one for Americans to pronounce. Maybe because of that they don’t imagine something as pedestrian as Merlot could find its way into the bottles. This wine isn’t loud and obnoxious. It is bold. It is assertive. But it is also very supple. It blends in well with the food of the Maremma; cured roasted meats, cheeses, pasta with ragù made from the local wild boar. And that is a very sexy thing.

Tua Rita, right down the street from Petra, makes their flagship wine, Redigaffi, with Merlot. The first time I had this wine I was struck by how wonderfully astringent this wine was. Great, lip-smacking fruit, healthy tannins, rich and a little intimidating in its importance. Here again, Merlot has found a home. Here, again, my ridiculous preconceptions are shattered. Pleasure for all is the result.

Castello di Ama L’Apparita – the other day I was driving back from Austin Texas to Dallas in a thunderstorm and was listening to Levi Dalton interview Marco Pallanti and how he came to Castello d’Ama. His description of going to school in Bordeaux and having access to the great chateaux was spine tingling. To come from Italy in his era, when Italian winemaking was a bit sleepy, and to come to the center of the wine world (at the time) and see what the vignerons were doing must have been nothing short of a revelation. And to bring back those inspirations in a time in which Tuscany had been abandoned by Italy, it took insight, courage and patience. And to plant Merlot next to Sangiovese, all of this was madness. L’Apparita took Merlot (and Tuscany) to another level. And while Pallanti wasn’t alone in pursuing his vision of Tuscany for the 21st century, it has taken hold and grabbed the mind and heart of many wine lovers. Again, the much maligned Merlot is shackled to the core of things here.

Several years ago, I was in L.A. visiting a friend in the movie business. One of his films had just gone over the $100 million mark in sales in record time and he wanted to celebrate. We went to an osteria in Santa Monica and he noticed the 1997 Masseto on the list. “Hey, what do you say we try this wine?” he asked. “If we’re on your expense account, I say why not?” I countered. It was very much a linen and organic cotton kind of place, very casual. L.A. in retreat from conspicuous, but not from chic elegance. The wine was unctuous. I rethought my food order, away from a fresh fish dish to pasta with a hearty ragù. We sipped and sipped a little more and then the world around us transformed from an open and airy osteria to the Tuscan coastline. The wine moved us out of the smog and the pretty crowd to a little table under an arbor with a bare bulb and a light breeze. Again, Merlot with Merlin’s moves.

These are wines that one cannot have every day (except maybe the Petra Quercegobbe) but they make a point about how we pre-conceptualize something only to find out we have just fed our minds a load of crap. Wine, great wine, Italian wine, wine from Merlot, they can do this. They did this to me. And I was one of the hardest of the hard-heads regarding my buying into that line Miles spoke in the movie. Now, if anyone orders Italian Merlot, I am not leaving. I am sitting myself down and opening my mind as they open that bottle. I might just learn another thing or two at the table of life.

Further exploration:
Tua Rita
Castello di Ama (Galloni on L'Apparita)

written and photographed by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W
Real Time Analytics