Bring Back the Merlot

I got to thinking about Merlot when I was tasting Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa last week. Now I have never been much of a fan of Merlot, I’m not an enthusiast for Pomerol, for example, because I find those fat lush fruits less interesting than the more restrained flavors of Cabernet-dominated blends in the Medoc. And even though the last couple of vintages have had their problems in Napa, I think it’s a fair point that the extra ripeness that Cabernet achieves there may make it unnecessary to fill in the mid palate with Merlot the way that has been traditional in Bordeaux. Although at the Napa Premiere tasting of the 2007, 2008, and 2009 vintages, it seemed to me that more than a few of the Cabernets (especially from 2008 and 2009) cried out for some Merlot on the mid palate (or cried out for something closer to 20% than the 10% they actually had). But it wasn’t so much the younger wines that made me think about the virtues of Merlot as the older ones that I tasted during the week, ranging from 1985 through to 1995.

Many of the older wines had a really sparse quality, a sort of Spartan palate, with the bare bones of tannic structure poking through the black fruits of Cabernet. No matter how delicious and full of fruit those wines were when young,  age may not have exactly withered them, but certainly it allowed the full austerity of Cabernet show through. The other striking feature was that although they had certainly matured, with the fruits lightening and changing from primary to secondary aromas and flavors, in very few cases was there much evidence of that delicious savory quality to which Bordeaux turns when old. It seems to me that the development of savory qualities, extending to what the French call sous bois (forest floor) is needed to compensate for the lightening of fruit flavors as the wine ages. I have begin to wonder whether this is something that happens more naturally with Merlot, or with a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, than with  Cabernet alone. I discussed a direct example of this previously in The Retarded Development of Cabernet Sauvignon. I think it is more difficult to find examples of pure Cabernet Sauvignon that has aged interestingly than blends.

Not that Merlot is dispensable in young wines; in can add refinement and elegance – but there’s a rub. Merlot is rarely planted on the best terroirs. If you ask in Bordeaux about the match between variety and terroir, the answer is usually that each variety is planted on the terroir that’s best for it. But the fact is that Cabernet is planted on the best terroirs – the gravel mounds – and Merlot is planted on the clay-rich soils where Cabernet won’t ripen. I have found two interesting exceptions to this rule, one in Bordeaux and one in Napa.

Chateau Palmer in Margaux is famous for having Merlot planted on gravel mounds, on terroirs that any other producer would have devoted to Cabernet. This goes back to an enthusiasm of Édouard Miailhe in the 1950s, when Merlot was heavily planted at Palmer, reaching as much as 60% of the vineyards. It was partially reversed at the end of the 1960s, bringing the level down to 47%, although this is still high compared to other producers. Palmer 1961, which represented one of the icon wines of the twentieth century, was only 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. No one knows why Palmer 1961 reached the heights of the first growths, but to my palate it was much in line with the 1959, 1962, and perhaps 1966 vintages – all of which had a very high proportion of Merlot planted on gravel, before it was cut back. Has Palmer ever achieved those heights again? Could this merely be coincidence?

I had a similar epiphany at Screaming Eagle when tasting barrel samples of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to compare with the blend. Even within this small vineyard, the terroir varies from gravel at the eastern edge to more clay at the west of the vineyard. The Merlot came from a block of vines planted in 1987 on the best – for which read gravel – soils. Although Screaming Eagle has Cabernet on gravel and Merlot on clay, they are not slavishly devoted to the idea that they must follow the old Bordeaux rules, so there is some counter thinking, with Merlot on gravel, as well as some Cabernet on a clay plot that gives good results. The Merlot was elegant and refined, with a very fine grained texture that I don’t usually associate with the variety. But then again, I don’t get to taste much Merlot grown on gravel. I think that Merlot makes a significant contribution to the refined quality of Screaming Eagle.

Palmer and Screaming Eagle are, to my mind, hard examples to argue with. The problem with Merlot may be that, when it’s grown in company with Cabernet, the Cabernet usually gets first choice of terroirs. In Bordeaux, this means it’s never as refined. In Napa, the Merlot is often a bit too coarse – indeed, I wonder whether deficiencies in the Merlot are partly responsible for the focus on pure Cabernet Sauvignon. So bring back the Merlot, I say, plant some on your best terroirs, and make wines that will be truly refined when young but will mature into a gracefully savory old age.

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