I'm on a kick here about merlot, as you can see from my last post. The much-maligned grape has once again drawn the focus of Eric Asimov of the NY Times, only this time he goes into much greater detail about the root causes of merlot's sliding popularity (and what can be done about it).
How did merlot get so popular? Blame "60 Minutes":
Twenty years ago merlot was a relatively minor grape in California. A few pioneers, like Duckhorn and Newton, had made some good wines, and merlot was gaining some popularity, but white wine was ascendant in the 1980's. It wasn't until 1991, and the famous "60 Minutes" broadcast of the "French paradox," that red wine began to take off in the United States.
As Oz Clarke points out in his book "Encyclopedia of Grapes" (Harcourt, 2001), the weakness of merlot — that it most often produced a mild, inoffensive wine — suddenly became its strength as it appealed to a large new audience for red wine that wasn't ready for more challenging examples. By 2004 more than 50,000 acres of merlot were planted in California, up from about 3,000 in 1986.
What's wrong with merlot today, particularly California merlot? Two reasons -- too much is grown in the wrong terroir and, in a twist from what you'd expect, it is the labeling laws of California (rather than the normally more staid and traditional France) that do not provide enough flexibility to winemakers looking to produce the best merlot-based blended wine:
About 20,000 acres are industrially farmed in the hot Central Valley, the equivalent of all the merlot planted in Napa, Sonoma and Washington State combined. And that Central Valley merlot accounts for about 75 percent of the merlot wine produced in the United States. If you are ever possessed at a bar to say, "I'll just have a merlot," this is most likely what you will get. ...
But good merlot has other obstacles, not the least of which are California laws that require wines that carry the name of a grape to be made of 75 percent of that grape at minimum.
Consumers often express shock at this, having expected wines like merlot or cabernet sauvignon to be 100 percent merlot or cabernet. But in France, Bordeaux varietals like merlot and cabernet are almost always blended, and seldom does merlot meet that 75 percent threshold. For every Pomerol like Pétrus, which is 95 percent merlot, you have great wines like Lafleur (50 percent merlot) and Vieux-Château-Certan (60 percent merlot).
Regardless of whether a wine would be better with less than 75 percent merlot, California winemakers, if they want to call their wine merlot, are handcuffed by the law. Swanson's merlot, by the way, consists of 90 percent merlot and 10 percent syrah, a combination not legal in Bordeaux, although unscrupulous winemakers have been known to break the rules.
So, take a good hard look at the label and the region before throwing that prized merlot out with the bathwater. It might just be mis-labeled ...