October is #MerlotMe month y’all and I’m hanging with the Wine Pairing Weekend bloggers to showcase the versatility of Merlot as a pairing partner. As a Gen X’er, I assume that people are aware of the same historic and cultural events and phenomena that I am. But then on this most recent 9/11 anniversary, someone pointed out that kids in school learning about it weren’t even born in 2001. Weren’t even born! Even those in their early 20s were babies at the time. Yet, I recall exactly where I was, what I was doing, etc. and for a while assumed everyone else did as well. Well there goes assuming.
I had the same mindset about the movie Sideways. Most folks that are my age and enjoy wine are very familiar with the movie in which Merlot is maligned at the expense of Pinot Noir. But a survey of some folks 35 and under have shown me the fallacy in my thinking. I’ve mentioned it to several folks in that age group and have gotten a blank stare in return. OK…
But of those who have seen the movie, we all recall the main character Miles exclaiming, “…if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I’m not drinking any f*cking Merlot”1, and this damn near became a battle cry for some. This started a trend where people were seriously shunning Merlot and looking to drink more Pinot Noir.2 Well OK, there was also some bad, flabby, uninteresting Merlot out there. Merlot had gone through a boom and was quite popular. Because of this, lots of people wanted to plant it – and in places that did it no justice. These poorly crafted wines caused Merlot to get sort of a bad rap. The movie just happened to come along and certainly didn’t help its cause. As a result, some folks started pulling up Merlot and planting more Pinot Noir which then led to a lot of bad Pinot Noir in the market. See a trend here? Balance is everything, right?
I should caveat that this is purely from a U.S. centric point of view. Most of the rest of the world didn’t lose their minds like we did in the U.S. Can you imagine folks in Bordeaux pulling up their Merlot?! I mean, what would have become of wines such as Petrus3 and Cheval Blanc? Well luckily, folks have started to regain their senses. And honestly, some folks never lost it. I don’t know that Merlot has regained the prominence it once had in the U.S. but it’s certainly gaining momentum. So much momentum that there is an entire month devoted to recognizing its greatness. International Merlot Month, evidenced by the hashtag #MerlotMe, occurs each year in October. And great timing as Merlot is a great wine for fall.
As the second most planted variety in the world, and most planted in Bordeaux, there is certainly a great deal of Merlot on the market. I love Merlot for the simple fact that it plays in the middle. If you have folks that prefer light-bodied reds and those that prefer the heavier, bolder stuff, Merlot is almost always a great compromise. Medium levels of tannins, acid, body, and alcohol helps it bridge the gap between the wines at the ends of the spectrum. So while it doesn’t command the same prominence (nor price tag) as blending partner Cabernet Sauvignon, it has the ability to please a wide variety of palates. Even better is that Merlot is found across the globe. In addition to Bordeaux of course, Merlot is found in Chile, Australia (in fact someone just told me I needed to check out more Barossa Merlot), Italy (hello Super Tuscans), Argentina, South Africa, and even China. I’ve even had Merlot from Ethiopia.
For #MerlotMe month this time around, our Wine Pairing Weekend group of bloggers is collaborating with several wineries in the U S of A. Delicious Merlot is being crafted in several regions throughout the U.S. and today’s producers are giving it the love it deserves as well as planting it in sites that showcase the best of the grape. Members of our group were sent several Merlot samples to try. And to showcase Merlot’s versatility, in our house we paired the wines with a number of (kid friendly of course) meals.
Duckhorn Merlot + Coq Au Vin
If there was ever a Merlot pioneer, then Duckhorn certainly fits the bill. In fact, you can’t talk about American Merlot without mentioning Duckhorn. They’ve been making Merlot since 1978 and are widely regarded as the first American winery to pioneer luxury Merlot. While some in Cali turned their backs on Merlot, Duckhorn kept right on producing its hallmark Merlot and made it the American Classic that it is. The 2014 Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot was even named Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year for 2017. We were sent two Merlot wines to try – the Duckhorn Merlot as well as a Merlot from the Decoy line in the Duckhorn portfolio.
2016 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot, Napa Valley ($45)
Comprised of fruit from Duckhorn’s estate vineyards as well as some top independent growers in Napa, the wine is crafted of 77% Merlot, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 0.5% each of Malbec and Petit Verdot. As dependable as they come, the wine offered up classic dark cherry, rich plum, chocolate, and cedar along with silky smooth tannins and a nice level of acidity. Rich and concentrated, yet elegant.
2017 Decoy Merlot, Sonoma County ($20)
Rather than Napa, this wine hails from Sonoma and is crafted of 96% Merlot and 4% Cabernet Sauvignon. With its reputation as an excellent producer of complex, age-worthy Merlot, Duckhorn added the Decoy line to its portfolio to offer wines with great QPR in an earlier-drinking style. Blackberry jam, vanilla, and plum accompanied by soft and supple tannins, this easy drinker is perfect on its own but can hold its own with dinner as well.
The French classic coq au vin (“chicken in wine”) was our pairing partner for the Duckhorn and Decoy wines. For the recipe’s red wine, we did use a Merlot (instead of the traditional Bourgogne) but it was a different version from what we drank with dinner. I mean seriously, I love a good wine-based recipe but I wasn’t pouring an entire bottle of either of these into it. We used riced cauliflower rather than mashed potatoes with the chicken for a healthier twist. Elevated comfort food that is perfect for cooler temperatures.
Seavey Merlot + ‘Make Your Own’ Vegetable Flatbread
2016 Seavey Merlot, Napa Valley ($65)
With this being its 23rd Vintage of single-estate Merlot, it is apparent that Seavey is committed to crafting fine Merlot. Crafted of 95% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon from hillside vineyards, this one showed some power out of the bottle. A beautifully textured wine that definitely needed some time to open up, it offered up a great deal of complexity and continued to evolve over the time drinking it. Espresso, black fruits, and a touch of minerality made this one fun to analyze as well as a candidate for extensive cellaring.
It was make your own pizza night and since I had some butternut squash, I knew what direction my creation would go. I occasionally buy them and chop them up to freeze and pull out as needed. And since the fridge was full of veggies, I opted to create a vegetarian version for myself. In fact, that’s the only rule for the kids – you must include at least one veggie on your pizza. Butternut squash, mushrooms, spinach, caramelized onions, and mozzarella was my creation for the night and I was curious to see how Merlot would pair. Most of us tend to think of red meat, or at least meat based dishes with Merlot, but its versatility means it can go a little further. I loved the wine with the richness of the onions and the meatiness of the mushrooms. So I can definitively say that Merlot indeed likes veggies.
Donati Merlot + Chicken Meatballs
I have to say that I’ve learned a lot about the California Central Coast in the last year or so and have seriously been fangirling over these wines. Paicines, which is where Donati sources its Merlot, is an up-and-coming appellation near Hollister, CA, close to vineyards such as Calera, Chalone and others. Located within the larger San Benito AVA, this was my first crack at wines from the region. Although it gets some coastal cooling, it is warmer than some of the other Central Coast AVAs I’ve encountered and is best suited for Bordeaux varieties.
The Donati Family has its roots in Italy and like many Italian immigrants, they began by making wine for their own dinner table. That same vision for crafting wines food-friendly wines is carried through in their winemaking today. We had two Donati wines to pair with dinner.
2016 Donati Merlot, Paicines, CA ($22)
Consisting of 100% Merlot, this one gives off baking spice, cedar, red plum, cherry and a touch of mocha. It is quite refined with bright acidity and fine grain tannins. An excellent food wine for sure.
2015 Donati ‘The Immigrant’ Merlot, Paicines, CA ($35)
Ever so slightly more transparent in the glass than the 100% Merlot, this Merlot-dominant Bordeaux blend exhibited more earth than fruit. Graphite, dark plum, licorice and vanilla spice were prominent flavors along with plush tannins. It coated the tongue like liquid velvet.
Spinach stuffed chicken meatballs with a garlic molasses sauce, smoked Gouda grits, and roasted broccoli. The acid was perfect to cut through the richness of the cheese grits but also complement the chicken. Such a comforting combo all around.
McIntyre Merlot + Beef Fried Rice
2015 McIntyre ‘Kimberly’ Merlot, Arroyo Seco, CA ($25)
A pioneer of the Santa Lucia Highlands, Steve McIntyre planted nearly 20% of the entire AVA and farmed nearly a third of the region’s vineyards. He took his unique perspective of terroir to other regions including Arroyo Seco. Like other Central Coast AVAs, Arroyo Seco boasts one of the longest growing seasons with its proximity to the Pacific Ocean which helps to cool down the region at night.
More of old world style of Merlot, this one had more pronounced tannins, accompanied by more savory and earthy characteristics than some of the other Merlot. A beautiful translucent ruby red in the glass, it offered up black fruits, cassis, herbs, floral notes, and leather.
So Thing 2 (my younger son) has decided that he is a steak connoisseur ever since the entire family went to an upscale steak house for Father’s Day. Steak is now one of his favorite foods. Go figure as a year ago, I couldn’t pay him to eat beef! As he loves fried rice, he was thrilled to learn it came with something other than shrimp – beef. So on one of our takeout nights, I opted for Beef Fried Rice. And with this being a more structured and powerful Merlot, it was well suited for the beef.
L’Ecole N° 41 Merlot + BLTs
If any state excels at Merlot, Washington certainly deserves to be in the conversation. Striking a balance between old world and new world tendencies, the wines from the state and its AVAs within are capable of producing world class wines. It seems there isn’t much I don’t love from WA these days.
Founded in 1983 and regarded as one of the state’s premiere Merlot producers, L’Ecole N° 41 is one of Washington’s first artisan, family-owned wineries and the third winery to be established in Walla Walla. We opened two different bottles of L’Ecole N° 41 Merlot to have with dinner.
2016 L’Ecole N° 41 Merlot, Columbia Valley, WA ($25)
The Columbia Valley Merlot was smooth and supple with flavors of black cherry preserves and ripe black plum, as well as some spice with medium levels of acidity. Very easy-drinking, it went down quite easily.
2016 L’Ecole N° 41 Estate Merlot, Walla Walla, WA ($37)
With a seemingly higher level of acidity and more structure than the Columbia Valley Merlot, the Estate Merlot also exhibited more earthy flavors and aromas along with tart black cherry and cedar. This one required a little more time to open but was drinking quite nicely when it mellowed out some. This one would also be a great candidate for additional cellaring.
Most weeks, we let either Thing 1 or Thing 2 choose the dinner meal for one day with the only rule that it can’t be hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, or tacos. Well they threw me for a loop and asked for a BLT. Hmm…OK. So we crafted BLTs on toasted brioche with bacon of course, mozzarella roasted tomatoes, along with a blend of radicchio, lettuce, and spinach (it’s still technically a BLT and I got to add in whatever veggies I wanted). We loved these wines with the BLT which needed a little ‘oomph’ that a red wine could provide but that was also fruit forward with some acidity.
Seven Hills Merlot + Savory Bread Pudding
2016 Seven Hills Winery Merlot, Walla Walla, WA ($25)
I still remember when I randomly came across the Estates Wine Room while visiting Seattle a few years back. It was then that I was exposed to Seven Hills and its Merlot amongst other great wines. So when a bottle of their Merlot showed up as one of the #MerlotMe samples, I happily obliged. Comprised of 85% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 4% Cabernet Franc, I’m happy we gave this one a little time to open up. Lush black cherry and plum, along with herbs and vanilla spice it exhibited smooth, velvety tannins.
After a wine event where I purchased way too much French bread, I was left with the conundrum of what to do with it. Yes, I could have made a decadent caramel-bourbon bread pudding, but these days, if I’m going to work that hard, I need it to serve as an actual meal. Scouring the internet, I came across Marcus Samuelsson’s Andouille Bread Pudding recipe but put my own twist on it. Instead of andouille sausage, I used a combo of ground beef and ground pork, spinach instead of collard greens, mushrooms instead of peanuts and raisins, Parmesan and cheddar, and no paprika (Thing 2 practically balks at black pepper!). And doubled it of course. Talk about comfort food! After getting some air, the wine ended up being a pretty good pairing thanks to the ground beef and mushrooms.
I can think of few other varietals that could have paired with such a wide variety of foods. Cheers to the ever versatile Merlot. And Happy #MerlotMe month.
You can participate with me and others as we talk Merlot and food on Twitter. Join the fun at 10am CDT on Saturday, October 12 and follow the hashtags #WinePW and #MerlotMe.
Even if you can’t join the chat, see what others are pairing with the ever versatile Merlot.
- Jane at Always Ravenous shares “Food Pairings with Merlot“
- Jennifer at Vino Travels Italy shares “Merlot Pairings for #MerlotMe Month”
- Jill at l’Occasion shares “Foolproof Pairing for #MerlotMe Month”
- Camilla at Culinary Adventures with Camilla shares “This Food-Friendly Varietal Takes You From Savories to Sweets, Snacks to Cakes“
- Deanna at Asian Test Kitchen shares “6 California Merlots Paired with Mexican Food Favorites”
- Lori at Dracaena Wine shares “Onion Pastry on My Plate Makes #MerlotMe So Great“
- Wendy at A Day in the Life on the Farm shares “A Month Long Merlot Extravaganza“
- Martin at Enofylz Wine Blog shares “Exploring Meatless Merlot Pairings for #MerlotMe “
- David at Cooking Chat shares “Vegetarian Stuffed Acorn Squash with a Napa Merlot”
- Pierre and Cindy at Traveling Wine Profs share “A very well-traveled Merlot with Vietnamese bò kho
- Linda at My Full Wine Glass shares “It’s #MerlotMe month. Where’s the umami?“
- Rupal at Syrah Queen shares “Celebrating Merlot with L’Ecole No 41“
- Sarah at Curious Cuisiniere shares “Hachis Parmentier and Merlot Pairing”
- Nicole at Somm’s Table shares “Exploring California in 5 Merlots“
- Cindy at Grape Experiences shares “Game Day? #MerlotMe with Ham and Cheese Sliders”
- Gwen at Wine Predator shares “California vs. France #MerlotMe with squash, chard, and bow tie pasta”
- Jeff at Food Wine Click! shares “Young Professionals Explore Merlot”