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A Primer On Wine's "Young Blackbird"

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Nov 11, 2005 4:13PM

Merlot is one of those wine varietals of which nearly everyone seems to be aware. That might be due in large part to its ready availability on liquor, pharmacy, and grocery store shelves. It's a common and fairly ubiquitous grape. As such merlot is open to ridicule and scorn, often by novice and wanna-be oenophiles who want to appear more knowledgable than they actually are about wine.

Fact is, merlot (translated from French it means "young blackbird") actually carries a regal pedigree. DNA analysis indicates that the grape (officially titled merlot noir; there is also a merlot blanc variety) evolved from a mating of cabernet franc and a undetermined second grape. Merlot is one of two primary vareitals grown in France's Bordeaux region, the other being cabernet sauvignon. Because merlot is a descendant of cabernet franc it is often compared to its parent grape and cabernet sauvignon, which French vineyards often blend with merlot. Merlot plays a major role in eastern European wine production with large plantings in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Rumania. Italy's Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions rely heavily on merlot for its wine production. Vineyards in California and Washington state initially planted merlot as a blending grape; today merlot is arguably the most popular stand-alone varietal coming from the West Coast. Even vineyards in Illinois, Michigan, and New York State's Finger Lakes region are vinting some wonderful merlots.

Merlot grapes ripen fairly early and have a moderate cold hardiness. This results in lower tannins and higher sugar levels, and produce wines that are softer on the palate but with a higher alcohol content. Merlots are medium to dark red in color- some appear indigo-hued to the naked eye. Thanks to its lower tannins merlot is very fruit forward on the palate with characteristics of black currant, cherry, and mint. Depending on the sugar levels in merlot the finish can range from smooth and lingering to slightly dry. Merlots are rounder (read: more mellow) young wines that don't age as long as cabernet sauvignon; blending merlot with either cabernet sauvignon or cabernet franc gives the wine an added semblance of structure (the balance among tannins, alcohol, sugars, acid, and fruit). Merlot is also found under the names crabutet noir, bigney, medoc noir, petit merle, vitraille, and merlau. With its pronounced fruit-forward character merlot pairs well with red sauces, barbecue, blackened meats, and tangy dishes.

So if you find yourself enjoying a quiet dinnerat home or with friends this weekend, don't just give a cursory glance at the merlot on the menu. After all, autumn is ideal weather for a blackbird.

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