Merlot arrived late at the great American wine party.
The classic red Bordeaux grape was virtually unknown in California before the mid-1970s. Cabernet sauvignon, its traditional blending partner, was king. Duckhorn Vineyards, the first important U.S. winery to make merlot its flagship wine, wasn't even founded until 1976.
Not until well into the 1980s did varietal merlot moved out of the category of exotica and into the mainstream of American winemaking. Since then, it's taken off in popularity, and it seems every winery in America has to have a merlot.
American wine consumers have learned to appreciate merlot's relative approachability in its youth. The flavors are close enough to cabernet sauvignon to be familiar, but their lack of fierce tannins makes them a natural for restaurant wine lists.
But what is merlot anyway, and what should it taste like?
So far, merlot has been marketed basically as un-cabernet, and that's virtually all the wine-drinking public knows about it. And judging by a sampling of the American merlots on the market today, many U.S. winemakers haven't a clue either.
The merlots available on the American market today are such a hodgepodge of styles that consumers are bound to be confused. One merlot tastes like an Australian shiraz, the next comes on like a zinfandel and the next like a Beaujolais.
It's not as if American winemakers have no model to look to. Chateau Petrus, the most expensive and perhaps the greatest red wine in Bordeaux, is 95 percent merlot. It is the predominant grape in Pomerol, the rustic village that is home to Petrus and many other great wines.
In Pomerol, the merlot grape contributes a fleshy, supple texture to the wine, along with flavors of black cherries, blackberries and herbs. It generally yields more alcohol than cabernet, but often tastes less powerful. Its low acidity helps make it approachable young. Merlots often have just as much tannin as cabernet but conceal it better.
It's not likely anyone will duplicate Pomerol in Petaluma, but American merlot makers should at least bow in the direction of Bordeaux. Too often, it seems that growers are planting and winemakers are crushing merlot without a basic understanding of the grape.
When American merlots are bad, they tend to fail in a few predictable ways:
* They're full-bodied but hollow, suggesting they were picked with high sugar levels but not full flavor ripeness. Oak becomes the main flavor characteristic.
* They're slightly vinegary around the edges, suggesting the winemaker added unneeded acid to a varietal that doesn't need a lot of acid to be stable.
* They're thin and overly herbal, suggesting a poor vintage, bad vineyard site selection or a panicky response of picking too early based on reports of rain.
* They're pleasantly fruity, but one-dimensional and lacking in aroma, suggesting death by sterile filtration.
* They're excessively plummy, concentrated to a fault, and lack class, suggesting a winemaker who thinks merlot is French for zinfandel.
On the other hand, when American merlots are successful, it is generally because they have managed to capture in some way the spirit of Pomerol. Winemakers can talk all they want about making a truly American wine, but with merlot nobody has come up with a stylistic variation that makes any sense.
There are some California wineries that do an exceptional job of approximating the style of top-notch Pomerol. The Napa Valley's Newton Vineyards, having thrown away its filter pads, made a 1990 merlot of staggering power and beauty. Matanzas Creek in Sonoma County continues to produce dazzling wines with layer upon layer of flavor. Former Chateau St. Jean winemaker Richard Arrowood recently released a silky-textured 1990 Arrowood Merlot that is one of the sexiest California wines in recent memory.
These are all expensive wines, $24 and up. But you needn't spend a lot of money for good California merlot. The 1991 Canterbury, for instance cost me $9.45 and goes for as low as $7 in some places. It might not remind you of Petrus, but it's as good as many a well-made Pomerol.
On the East Coast, Maryland's Basignani Vineyards and Virginia's Montdomaine and Oasis wineries have all shown a firm grasp of what merlot is all about. My experiences in the 1980s with Long Island merlots were almost entirely disappointing, but friends who tasted them more recently report considerable progress.
The Pacific Northwest has also shown some promise with merlot, especially Washington state. Such wineries as Latah Creek and Chateau Ste. Michelle have been producing good merlots at reasonable prices, but so far the state's success with merlot lags behind its achievements with cabernet.
Considering how recently American winemakers started at zero with merlot, they have made remarkable progress. But there's a long way to go, and consumers have to expect a few lumps of coal amid the gems.
1992 Le Chenier Dry Chenin Blanc, Daniel Gehrs, Monterey County ($9). This clean, dry, fresh, crisp chenin blanc is a perfect wine for saying goodbye to summer this Labor Day weekend. Its peach, orange and mineral flavors are refreshing, and the use of oak has lent structure without imparting harsh flavors. Drink it up before Halloween.