New vs Old World Merlots; love at first sip
The top wine at the Mondial du Merlot, which handed out awards 18 May in Zurich, is from Uruguay’s Bouza Bodega Boutique – a winner that provided the start of some interesting discoveries made during the event (it also made me want to catch the next plane to Uruguay).
A gold medal winner from Argentina and another from Mexico gave those of us who were tasting the wines at the event a chance to compare Old and New World Merlots, albeit on a small scale. Krasia May’s Merlot from Mendosa in Argentina, from grapes grown at about 1,300 metres, is not typical for a Merlot from this area: while most macerate their grapes for 3-5 days, the skins stay in contact with the wine for weeks, at a low temperature here, resulting in rich fruit and a lush mouth feel.
My absolute favourite of the wines I tasted, however, is Ticino winery Cantina Monti’s Merlot 2011, which has everything a perfect Merlot should offer: deep fruit, balance, elegance: a very classy wine. Further down here I’ll list my other favourites, tasted after awards were handed out.
About the competition
The international competition is organized by the Vinea Association in Sierre, canton Valais. It has been growing in importance, pulling in more wines from more countries every year. The Mondial, held in April, saw 420 wines entered, from 238 producers in 22 countries.
Half the entries were from Switzerland, a reflection of canton Ticino’s traditional investment in Merlot grapes, as well as the fact that Switzerland is the host country. Given that Merlot is among the most widely grown grapes in the world, if not the most, the numbers seem small – but keep in mind that a lot of Merlot is grown to play a minor role in blends, and in some places the grape has been viewed indifferently for so long that wineries don’t attempt to make premium wines from it.
Wine snobs who turn up their snouts at Merlot
It’s a beautiful grape that deserves to be treated well: it’s time to get past the bad rap given by wine snobs who watched the movie Sideways. Wikipedia notes that “Throughout the film, Miles speaks fondly of the red wine varietal Pinot Noir, while denigrating Merlot. Following the film’s US release in October 2004, Merlot sales dropped 2% while Pinot Noir sales increased 16% in the Western United States. A similar trend occurred in British wine outlets. Other reports also claimed anecdotally that sales of Merlot dropped after the film’s release.”
I’ve recently heard two complaints about Merlot. The first is local, from an industry person who argues that some Swiss ones are “too extracted”, meaning the skins are pushed to their limits for flavour and colour. I simply don’t agree, nor do I think today’s consumers are looking for something else – the argument that was put forward.
Trends come and go; good wines are always loved. Ticino in particular offers a good range of Merlots, with many styles. Here’s more on extraction, from Jamie Goode, so you can chew that over while sipping a nicely balanced Merlot like Monti’s.
The second complaint is that some people who’ve learned to love wine through Bordeaux have trouble with what Jancis Robinson calls Merlot’s “lush, plummy, velvety” side. Some of this is a fashion issue, with Merlot hugely popular in the 1990s before the anti-velvet mood kicked in, about the time of the film.
My mother worn a slinky chocolate-coloured velvet wedding dress with tiny velvet buttons all the way to her calves. Forty years later we all thought crisp white frothy wedding dresses were so much more sophisticated. Now I look at both and velvet is the clear winner.
So if you’re cowed by wine snobs who won’t touch Merlot, consider yourself lucky and drink their share. They will eventually realize what they’re missing.
When made well it is rich in fruit, smooth and round in mouth, with silky tannins and a long beautiful finish.
I love it with red meats, particularly good steak or roast lamb, but Ticino polenta is a nice companion for it, too.
Here’s a list of my favourites from the Zurich awards, although I didn’t manage to taste them all, including the two gold winners from Tamborini in Ticino, whose several Merlots never fail to please, and a silver medal winner from Agriloro, whose large collection of wines I love, as well as Trapletti’s winners – a winery that I find exciting for its daring. And I ran out of time before I found the Valais winners, so I’ll be visiting those wineries soon to see what I missed.
Complete list of awards can be downloaded as a pdf on the Mondial du Merlot & Assemblages site