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Welcome home, Merlot

The phoenix of grapes rises again

by Seth Gross and Craig Heffley   


Merlot. Just saying it aloud around some wine drinkers will provoke a sour face, snicker or jeer. It’s almost fashionable to make fun of Merlot wines these days, not to mention a certain movie that turned Merlot “sideways” with a memorable line putting down the grape.


How did such a noble red grape fall so far? More importantly, will you consider giving this wine another chance?


The rise of Merlot

The University of California, Davis traces the origin of Merlot to an offspring of Cabernet Franc; its name comes from the French word merle, or young blackbird. There are approximately 260,000 hectares of Merlot planted around the world, making it the third most planted grape.


Merlot’s origins are well established in France’s Bordeaux region. There, the grape reaches great heights with some of the most heralded wines in the world. Either on its own or as part of a blend, Merlot is a king. Most folks wouldn’t think of turning down a glass of Chateau Petrus or Chateau Le Pin — some of the most collectible wines in the world — yet they’re primarily Merlot. Merlot ripens more quickly than Cabernet Sauvignon to provide a beautiful base wine, and it can add a soft fruit component to a blend as well.


The fall of Merlot

In the late 1980s and 1990s, Merlot was overplanted in the wrong climates just to provide juice and grapes for marketing-savvy companies needing any and all Merlot to make a dime. 


The result? Below-average Merlot flooded the market. The price of buying Merlot grapes plummeted to create a frenzy of truly awful, very inexpensive wine.


The good Merlot vines were lost in a sea of boring, blueberry flavored yet tasteless bottles. That’s when Merlot’s reputation began to suffer. The stuff was wildly popular for a while, until people got sick of boring wine. “Anything but Merlot” became the way to order a glass of red wine at a restaurant.


Today, Pinot Noir is the most fashionable grape and is beginning to suffer the same fate as the Merlot of the 1990s. As always, the cream rises back to the top, and those hidden, good Merlot wines now are rising to the forefront of wine shop shelves and tasting bars.


With red wine weather coming to roost, now is the perfect time to reconsider this tasty grape, which goes perfectly with grilled chicken, burgers and steak. Tread carefully with the really cheap stuff, though, or look for mid-range offerings. When you find the right one, you’ll be snickering because you know what others are missing.  


Seth Gross and Craig Heffley are co-owners of Wine Authorities in Durham. To learn more, call (919) 489-2844 or visit



Our picks for fall

Try these tasty Merlots on for size:

  • Domaine Mirail, from France, $17
  • Pellegrini Family, Cloverdale Ranch, $18
  • Chateau Mendis, Bordeaux Rouge, $12