It was the line heard round the wine world: “I am not drinking any fucking Merlot!” With that splenetic declaration, Miles Raymond, the fictional wine-snob protagonist played by Paul Giamatti in the movie Sideways (based on the Rex Pickett novel of the same title) eviscerated the real-world estimation of an entire varietal. Even going on 20 years since the film’s debut, it’s impossible to fully account for the reputational hit suffered by the small, dark-purple grape from Bordeaux—but you can start with the fact that Pinot Noir took its place as the “It” variety almost overnight. This, despite the fact that Miles and his sidekick, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), are hardly the types of people anyone would actually take advice from.
Deriving its name from merle, the French word for blackbird, Merlot is the second-most-widely cultivated red grape in the world (behind Cabernet Sauvignon) and the No. 1 grape grown in France. The main variety in the Saint-Émilion and Pomerol appellations of Bordeaux’s Right Bank, it’s vinified there as either the major grape in blends or as a single varietal. Some of the finest expressions of Merlot are produced in the area, including Petrus and Cheval Blanc. (In a telling moment lost on many viewers, the conclusion of the film sees Miles drinking the latter from a Styrofoam cup while enjoying a cheeseburger.)
Merlot has softer tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon, so although it will age well for decades, it’s also highly quaffable shortly after release. Versions from Bordeaux can have a more pronounced floral aroma than you may find elsewhere—Merlot thrives around the globe, with standout wines hailing from Bolgheri, Napa, Sonoma, and Washington State—but well-made bottlings from various regions are likely to exhibit blueberry, black-cherry, black-currant, and vanilla flavors, with velvety tannins and soft-leather or earthy notes.
“Merlot has depth, complexity, minerality, and an ageability that’s similar to, yet different from, Cabernet,” says Mt. Brave winemaker Chris Carpenter. From a high-elevation vineyard on Napa Valley’s Mount Veeder, his 2019 Merlot ($95) is aged for 21 months in French oak, which adds touches of spice and cocoa to its blackberry and violet bouquet. Fruits of the wood, pencil-lead, and mocha flavors, plus a nice vein of acidity and opulent tannins, add up to a gorgeous sip. “Merlot needs heat and light,” Carpenter says, “and Mount Veeder is one of those sweet spots that has just the right amount of both.”
Taking a somewhat different approach, Le Macchiole Messorio 2019 ($344), made with 100 percent Merlot, is fermented in concrete and aged 18 months in new oak, with aromas of red berries and juniper giving way to blackberry, red-cherry, aniseed, and butterscotch flavors wrapped in a blanket of silky tannins. Le Macchiole owner Cinzia Merli says Bolgheri Merlot can be cellared for years, but notes that “the 2019 is a wine that can be enjoyed right away.” And Château Bélair-Monange 2018 ($275), a Saint-Émilion Grand Cru matured in 50 percent new-French-oak barrels, has a gorgeous nose of cassis, olive tapenade, and lavender, with elegant tannins encasing flavors of blackberry preserve, violet, flint, and dried Mediterranean herbs. The drawn-out finish features a touch of earthiness.
“The vivid character softens and shows more complexity” with age, says owner Christian Moueix. “Any touch of oakiness disappears, while a subtle minerality will develop for decades.”