Years of bitching about California Merlot are paying off, folks. Wineries are making less of it, a lot less. Turrentine Brokerage, a company that tracks such things, says Merlot acreage in Sonoma County has plummeted 47 percent between 2004 and 2010. That’s about 400,000 fewer cases a year. Napa dropped 20 percent in the same period.
The jury is still out on what all this means. Merlot sales have been pitiful, winemakers tell me. Even the best producers are working harder to sell wine that once sold itself.
Less Merlot acreage in Sonoma is a good thing. A lot of growers and wineries planted Merlot in the 1990s, convinced it was the next big red—and it was, for a few years. Ultimately, too many of the wines simply weren’t compelling.
Merlot is a tricky grape. You can’t just plant it anywhere, and you have to pamper the vines and manage the crop size closely, or you end up with bland wines or freaky concoctions of stewed cherry and veggies.
I’m not convinced that Merlot will ever produce classic wines in California with any consistency vintage to vintage. There are producers with great track records, like Paloma, Pride and Switchback Ridge, and a few new players, such as Moone-Tsai and Hourglass, almost exclusively from Napa.
Those top wines, let’s be honest, could pass for Cabernet Sauvignon. Nothing wrong with that; they’re beautiful wines, but is there room for more than a few players in that market?
Wine purists may shake their heads in disapproval, but I’m convinced that the average consumer who reaches for a bottle of Merlot just wants a soft red wine, easygoing but with enough character to keep it interesting.
Kenwood Merlot Sonoma County 2008 is that sort of wine, with appealing cherry and minty bay leaf aromas and nicely structured red currant, cedar and tomato leaf flavors. It’s sourced from vineyards in Alexander, Dry Creek and Sonoma valleys, retails for $14 or less and is widely available. Kenwood used to be one of my favorite Sonoma wineries, and a few of its recent wines offer promise.
I’ve been drinking Sonoma County Merlot for 20 years, and the countywide blends are usually the best. Single-vineyard and specific appellation wines (such as Dry Creek Valley) thrive one year and flop the next. As with the Kenwood 2008, the whole of Sonoma, not its parts, makes for a better Merlot year to year.
Merlot is going through the same phase that Pinot Noir did in the early 1990s. Acreage dropped as winemakers figured out the best places to grow Pinot; the pedestrian vineyards were yanked as new vines were planted in areas like Anderson Valley, Sonoma County, Santa Lucia Highlands and Sta. Rita Hills.
Let’s just hope that, as Sonoma and the rest of California downsizes Merlot, they keep the good vineyards, and take a cue from Pinot Noir by planting the right stuff in the right place.
Daniel Posner — New York — July 13, 2011 10:52am ET
Mark Lyon — Sonoma, CA; USA — July 13, 2011 12:36pm ET
Eoin Harkins — New Jersey — July 13, 2011 1:03pm ET
Donald L Van Der Peet — Amsterdam Holland — July 13, 2011 3:36pm ET
Homer Cox — Warrenton, VA — July 13, 2011 3:38pm ET
Brian Peters — Broomfield, CO — July 13, 2011 5:02pm ET
Tim Fish — Santa Rosa, CA — July 13, 2011 5:27pm ET
David Barksdale — Henderson, NV — July 13, 2011 7:14pm ET
Clinton W Mitchell — Naperville, IL — July 13, 2011 10:05pm ET
Frank J Drazka — New York, NY — July 13, 2011 11:03pm ET
Gavin Mchugh — Nor Cal — July 14, 2011 12:02am ET
Louis Robichaux — Highland Village, Texas — July 14, 2011 11:11pm ET
Jon Begos — Petoskey, MI USA — July 15, 2011 8:49pm ET
Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m — miramar beach, fl — July 17, 2011 2:37pm ET
Frank Ostini — Buellton, CA — July 18, 2011 10:40am ET
Mary Jane Phillips — Farmington Hills, MI — July 19, 2011 8:48am ET
Jamie Sherman — Sacramento — July 19, 2011 2:49pm ET
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions