Vine varieties: Merlot

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Wine

Oxford Companion to Wine

By Jancis Robinson

Published 2006

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The historical record suggests that Merlot succeeded rarely and excelled never on its own in California in the years before Prohibition, although as a blending component with Cabernet it did win some important international prizes in the foothill districts of Santa Clara county. When those practitioners disappeared, Merlot disappeared too. It was not apparently grown in the state between 1919 and 1969, when, at last, a few curious growers (notably Louis Martini, Gundlach-Bundschu, and, later, Duckhorn Vineyards) began experimenting with it as a possible blending grape to soften the tannins in Cabernet Sauvignon once more. In the mid 1990s, Merlot suddenly took off, becoming the faddish red varietal of choice, a less tannic alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon, particularly when offered in restaurants by the glass. Between 1995 and 2003, Merlot acreage doubled from 26,000 to 52,000. Thanks partly to being ridiculed in the film sideways, this had dipped to 45,000 acres by 2013. There is much debate as to where in California is best suited to Merlot. Perception of the variety and its specific characteristics has in part been hampered by its mass-market success, which has yielded the bland sort of wines that may have caused it to disappear in the first place. However, more skilful growers and more determined winery owners have pushed several examples to heights heretofore not achieved, often with a stiffening soupçon of Cabernet Sauvignon. Of all the districts in which it has been tried to date, the most promising appear to be Napa’s Stags Leap and Oak Knoll, the Santa Ynez Valley, and parts of Napa Carneros. Many fine examples still go into blends with Cabernet Sauvignon, usually between 10 and 15%, or into meritage-like blends in larger proportions.