tasting merlot

this week, we tasted merlot. a grape that became super fashionable in the usa after the news program "60 minutes" had a feature on the "french paradox" and how red wine is possibly responsible for the low incidence of heart disease in france even though the french eat a lot of cheeze (and love it!).

the reason merlot is so popular in fact is probably because it gives a wine that is generally plump, soft, plummy, supple, and luscious.  thanks to its large berries and thin skin, it is much more approachable and easier to drink young than it's regular blending partner cabernet sauvignon.  for a wine grower, it's easy to grow, ripens quickly, and it gives a generous crop.

unfortunately, that can be sources of problems.  on its own, it can be very bland especially if it comes from too generous a crop in the vineyards.  picked too quickly and in a cold vintage, it can taste minty and often unpleasantly herbaceaous and green.  if the vintage and climate are too hot, it might easily be too alcoholic and jammy.

merlot finds its home in the st-émilion & pomerol districts of bordeaux from where the wines will generally be rich, gentle, velvety, and spicy. even though many people think that cabernet sauvignon is king in bordeaux, merlot is the most planted red grape and it provides flesh, softeness, and richness to blends.

merlot is also planted all over the world, especially in chile where it was once mixed up with another similar grape called "carmenere".  you can also find excellent examples from california, the north of italy, and from new zealand's hawkes bay region.

young, you can expect red & black fruits, figs, prunes, spices, and liquorice.  sometimes, it will be described as tasting of "christmas cake".  aged and from a good quality raw material, it will develop a deep bouquet with notes of truffles, coffee, and liquorice.

our notes this week (pdf), all tasted blind (based on the wset level 4 systematic approach):

marks & spencer friuli grave merlot 2006 - friuli-venezia-giulia, italy

acceptable entry level wine.  some complexity and an average length.  lacks concentration and depth.  tannin slightly off-balance.  good wine making from average quality raw materials.

cono sur carmenere 2007 - colchagua valley, chile

not a merlot, but often mistaken as merlot.  this was our weekly trick wine to identify which was the odd one out!

acceptable entry level wine.  hints of unripe fruits at first.  low tannins.  some fruit complexity but a short length.  the wine demonstrate that it was picked slightly under ripe possibly from a difficult vintage.

château lapelletrie 2005 st-émilion grand cru - st-émilion, bordeaux

acceptable premium wine – an elegant and refined nose changed into a very disappointing palate with a bitter and unpleasant finish.  although alcohol, tannin, and acidity in balance, the bitterness is empowering the fruit and the elegance perceived on the nose.  depth, finesse, and complexity of the nose shows it was made from excellent raw materials.

casa lapostolle merlot 2006 - rapel valley, chile

very good mid-level wine.  excellent balance and smooth, complex palate and nose.  long length and elegance showing excellent raw materials and wine making.  pleasant floral, savoury, and length of the after-taste.

trefethen merlot 2004 –napa valley, california

very good mid-level wine – excellent balance, complexity, and length.  savoury, from excellent ripe fruit and wine making.  high quality and excellent structure to age well and develop excellent characteristics.


all wines were bought at watson's wine cellars and marks & spencer in hong kong.