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Is merlot making a sideways comeback?

By Dave Buchanan
I'm finally getting around to the red wines tasted at the Republic National Distribution Company's holiday show a few weeks ago. It's not the wines weren't nice but rather life got in the way of blogging. My friend Denny Barbour and I tasted through 50 or so reds during the three-hour show, plus another 50 or so whites and sparkling wines. Even when spitting it's nearly impossible not to absorb some alcohol so some of the notes I made toward the end of the evening are not nearly as funny (or legible) now as I thought at the time. Still, one thing that seemed apparent is the way merlot makers, particularly those in California, have revived the real merlot, the stuff that became America's favorite red wine before being unceremoniously slammed during the hilarious "I am not drinking any f----g merlot" scene in the movie Sideways. Actually, it was OK that merlot sales slumped, because there was some awful plonk coming out of California as growers and winemakers tried to catch up to the market demand. Hot, vegetal, bland, over-oaked and too pricey for the value, merlot became a victim of its own popularity. If you want read a witty and well-done although a bit dated review of the state of merlot, check out W. Blake Gray's story here. Gray is an extremely talented wine writer who formerly was with the San Francisco Chronicle before becoming a victim of the downfall of newspapers. When the fickle public changed its wine-ordering mode, thousands of bottles of merlot languished, which was about the only thing for which they were suited. Funny that, since merlot long has been a favorite in France and Italy, where it produces some easy drinking wines perfect for softening the hard tannins of cabernet sauvignon and its cousin, cabernet franc. But when pinot noir eclipsed merlot, something interesting happened. Some vines were ripped out, lowering the availability of industrial-level merlot, and some winemakers went back to making merlot as it should be. And what's even better, the price point is well within reach, something not easy to say about California cabernet sauvignon or Oregon pinot noir. "There's been a comeback for merlot," said Ross Harrelson, a manager for RNDC's western Colorado division. "Tastes are changing, I think, and people want the layers of flavors, the dark cherry/blueberry, coffee, chocolate flavors you find in a good merlot." Denny and I found one merlot, the Douglas Hill 2006 California Merlot surprisingly priced at about $5.99 a bottle. Good round tannins, low alcohol (around 12.5 percent, if I remember) and lots of red and blue fruits make this something you could open several nights a week. The wine is from the Bronco Wine Company stable (famous for "Two Buck Chuck") , which accounts for the rock-bottom price. Also, Screw Kappa Napa 2005 Merlot, the "secret" name used by Donald Sebastiani and Sons for what proves to be a cheap but great bottle of wine. Sealed with a screw top instead of a cork, inside the bottle you'll find a surprisingly complex wine with plenty of black cherry, coffee and a hint of toasted oak. And it's priced around $11, but you often can find it cheaper. The most-expensive of our merlot search was the Blackstone Sonoma Reserve 2005 Merlot, priced around $16-$17. Unfortunately the first bottle, which already was opened and had been poured from before we walked up, was corked. We mentioned this to the sales rep and he took one sniff and swirl, apologized and immediately opened another bottle. This bottle was fine, and showed well the efforts by Blackstone Winery to step up a bit from it's under-$10 wine levels. You can read a bit of what the winery thinks here but we found it rich and full of red and black fruits and hints of coffee and chocolate, just what we'd want from a well-made merlot. And it's still affordable, even in these tough economic times. There were some other reds at the show I'll eventually write about, but I wanted to mention the revolution, if you will, in merlot. It's still a great wine, even if Miles gave it the finger.

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