The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Merlot and Bordeaux – as an ingredient and star ~ Saturday, December 10th, 2011

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

I remember it well: the first time I began to learn about different grape varietals. It was probably about ten years ago. I was around eighteen years of age, and for whatever reason I shall never know, I took it upon myself to reorganize and categorize my father’s wine collection in his cellar. Hardly a simple task, believe me, considering I knew absolutely nothing about how to read and understand wine labels at the time. There were a few concepts I could follow, things such as the name of the country, white versus red … come to think of it, that was pretty much all I knew.

Merlot grape

However, I also knew the names of a few grapes. These were Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. As for the rest, I had no idea what they were; though it did not take me long to realize what Shiraz was—my father seemed to own a ton of it, all from Australia. And so, it took me a while to learn that there was also a grape that was often actually blended with Cabernet Sauvignon. This grape, of course was, and is, Merlot.

Ten years later, I have since learned more about this indispensable grape than I ever thought possible. And Merlot is indispensable, most notably in Bordeaux, where there are more plantings (56%) of it than any other grape, even Cabernet Sauvignon. But its distribution is far from equal, planted to approximately 60% and 80% respectively in the most important Right Bank appellations of St-Emilion and Pomerol; but plays second fiddle to Cabernet Sauvignon throughout the most important appellations of the Left Bank (Margaux, St-Julien, Pauillac, and St-Estèphe) and Graves (Pessac-Léognan).

Chateau Petrus Pomerol

Essentially, the most important reasons for this relate to soil and climate. In St-Emilion and Pomerol, with their cooler, clay-dominant soils (though sand will also be present), Merlot does far better than Cabernet Sauvignon, which much prefers the more gravel-based deposits of the Left Bank. This goes a long way, for instance, in explaining the magic of Château Pétrus in Pomerol, where iron-rich soils make for one of the most magnificent, costliest wines on the planet. Merlot also buds and ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, a useful feature when considering that the Right Bank is more prone to cooler nights and frosts, compared to the more maritime climatic conditions of the Left Bank.

Chateau Angelus St-Emilions

Likewise, it should also stand to reason that the Merlot-based clarets of the Right Bank would taste decisively different than their Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant counterparts on the Left. As a generalization, the best wines of St-Emilion and Pomerol, while capable of being cellared just as long as the best of the Médoc, tend to taste more flattering than, say, Pauillac or St-Estèphe. This also means that St-Emilions and Pomerols are typically much more approachable in youth, something that many modern Bordeaux enthusiasts seem to prefer. Furthermore, changes in climatic conditions nowadays throughout the Right Bank have also resulted in noticeable increases in alcohol, a trend North Americans do not seem to mind, either; though plenty have written in dismay about this very fact. Just take the 2010 Château Troplong Mondot: crafted to 83% Merlot (plus 14% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% Cabernet Franc), the wine logs in at a staggering 15.5% alcohol, almost rivalling even the most powerful Napa Cabernets!

Chateau Lafleur Pomerol

Still, it should be noted that not all wines in St-Emilion and Pomerol are crafted with such high percentages of Merlot. On the contrary, châteaux such as Cheval Blanc (56% CF in 2010) and Lafleur (62% CF in 2010) tend to use just as much Cabernet Franc in their blends as Merlot. In wines as prestigious as these, the results are wines of unbelievable fragrance and finesse—an unbelievable treat for those with the means to taste them. For the most part, however, percentages for Cabernet Franc are almost always much lower.

In the Médoc and Graves, the blend is much different. Around here, there is little question that Cabernet Sauvignon is king, with Merlot making up around 25% of the final bottling. What does it add to the blend? As would be expected, its greatest contributions pertain to roundness, softness, as well as additional fruit. For its part, Cabernet Sauvignon takes care of the structure and textural elegance (both extremely important) of the wine, while Cabernet Franc adds perfume, and small quantities of Petit Verdot contributes colour plus additional structure and fragrance. Malbec seems to be rarely seen these days throughout the Left Bank.

Also to be expected is the fact that some estates choose to use more Merlot in their wines than others. In 2010, Château Palmer went so far as to make Merlot the dominant grape in the blend, adding up to 54% of the total; Cabernet Sauvignon came in second with 40%. Other notables from 2010? Châteaux Pape Clément (50% M), La Mission Haut-Brion (37% M), Montrose (37% M), Haut-Bailly (36% M), Talbot (33% M), Brane-Cantenac (30% M), and Pontet-Canet (30% M). The percentages vary.

As for how Merlot tastes, most would agree that Merlot is undoubtedly one of the easiest grapes in the world to enjoy. On the nose: finely, but not excessively, oaked versions tend to feature enticing aromas of plumy currants, black cherries, blackberries, blueberries (on occasion), mocha, pencil shavings, and spice—extremely similar to the aromatic profile of Cabernet Sauvignon. On the palate: smoothness and suppleness are the expected norms, with firm yet more approachable tannins and generous finishes. Of course, these are but generalizations of how Bordeaux should taste. As with all wines, the best, and most fun, way to learn is to taste as different examples as possible.

Click here for a few gems from the 10 December 2011 Vintages Release and other picks