After a funny guy said something funny about Merlot in the movies, wine drinkers resolved: "That's it! No more Merlot for me—I'm drinking with the funny guy!" Or so the story goes. Others blame Merlot for its earlier successes, which spawned a lake of insipid wine. (See Dining, this issue.)
Within a few years, I then tasted many a monstrous Merlot with pumped-up tannins. Subjective, anecdotal and based on some of the more inexpensive samples, yes—but still, I felt that wineries were going overboard to prove that, no really, Merlot can be just as serious (read tannic) as Cabernet Sauvignon! Which kind of misses the whole point of Merlot.
Sometimes a Cabernet is just a Cabernet, but just as often it's a cigar. Critics love to celebrate cult Cab for aromas akin to cigar wrapper and cigar box, while boasting of its tongue-scraping tannins and recommending a gratuitously charred hunk of animal as food pairing. Here's Robert Parker, enthusing about a 95-point Cabernet: "The roasted tobacco, cedar, scorched earth and creosote nuances are present, in addition to copious blackberry, blueberry, and cassis flavors." Who doesn't want their blueberry pie with a dollop of creosote? À la mode, at the very least.
Meanwhile, those of us hoping to actually collect on our Social Security some day have accordingly cut down on our consumption of blackened gristle, not to mention blockbuster Cabs. Merlot can be paired usefully with many other dishes, even vegetarian. "Merlot's really generous in how it plays out with food," says Dry Creek Kitchen wine director Rolando Maldonado. "It's a very enticing grape."
Rodney Strong 2013 Sonoma County Merlot ($20) Once a Young Turk of the new California wine, now an old standby, good ol' Rodney Strong doesn't seem to have fallen into the tannin-stuffing camp. The wine has a faint whiff of white pepper, with oily oak soon taking over on the aromatic front. The juicy palate, like the juice from almost-ripe blackberries, finishes on a note of iron that's not entirely unpopular with fans of the "right bank" wine genre.
St. Supéry 2012 Rutherford Estate Merlot ($50) More evolved and more fruit-forward at the same time, the St. Supéry hides its 52 percent new French oak in gorgeous, classic claret aromas: sun-ripening arbor grapes, baked plums, licorice and more. It's like feeling the roundness that barrel aging has imparted to the wine's riper brambleberry flavors, without actually tasting the oak so much. Lush with dark berry flavor and unobtrusive in tannins, it hints at grip and sweetness and then fades away, leaving the palate not stunned but ready for another bite of something meaty—if not too awfully charred.