Make your way back to Merlot

In the 2004 romantic comedy ‘Sideways’ actors Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church played a couple of hopeless middle-aged men on a week-long road trip through California’s Santa Ynez Valley.

Giamatti’s character – Miles – plays a classic screen winegeek.  Church plays Jack – an aging actor about to be married. Miles is obsessed with Pinot Noir and claims to despise Merlot.  Jack just wants to hook up with someone before he gets officially married.

Approaching a couple of women in a bar, Jack says, “If they want to drink Merlot, we're drinking Merlot.”  Miles replies, “No, if anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any f#&*#ng Merlot!”

The success of the movie sent a couple of dramatic tremors through the English-speaking wine world.  Sales of Pinot Noir soared while sales of Merlot plummeted. More than 10 years later, Merlot is still waiting to be rediscovered…

The most widely planted red wine grape in British Columbia, Merlot ripens early. Easy to appreciate and honestly affordable, Open Okanagan Valley Merlot (563239) $10.49 flaunts a medley of plum and strawberry aromas and flavours in a smooth and almost off-dry framework.

Invented in 1996 the identifying tag of South Eastern Australia on many Australian wines indicates that the grapes were grown in specific parts of South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and southern Queensland.

Medium bodied, Lindeman’s Bin 40 Merlot 2016 (458679) $11.99 has those classic jammy red and black berry fruit flavours that mark many inexpensive Australian red wines. Spicy oak notes underpin the generous fruit.

A workhorse of a wine grape in parts of Northern Italy, Merlot can be forced to produce prolific amounts of lesser quality fruit.  Merlot’s reputation was damaged by the inexpensive over-cropped examples coming out of Northern Italy in the 1990s.

From the Maremma coast of Tuscany, I Merli Monteguelfo 2015 (29725) 

$13.99 is named for the blackbird that flocks to these earliest ripening red wine grapes. A splash of Sangiovese adds a twist of cherry and leather to the bright plum and berry aromas and flavours.

Despite Miles’ profane ranting in ‘Sideways’, California grows substantial amounts of Merlot - both to bottle alone and as blending material.  Sadly, since the effect of the film on sales, less California Merlot seems to appear on our shelves.

A blend of 85 per cent Merlot and 15 per cent Petite Sirah, Wente Sandstone Merlot 2014 (171025) $21.99 is rich and full, with cranberry, blueberry, black cherry flavours predominating.  Oak-aging for 24 

months adds a little pepper and coffee spiciness to the finish.

Made from grapes grown in Eagle’s Nest Vineyard, off Black Sage Road in the South Okanagan, Desert Hills Merlot 2012 (29835) $21.99 is an authentic expression of what the grape can produce in the heat and sun of British Columbia’s warmest vineyards.  Ripe red and black berry fruit notes ride a base of peppery tannins with a twist of liquorice in the finish.

Towards the end of ‘Sideways’ Miles swoons over his 1961 Cheval Blanc, sipped from a Styrofoam cup - neither he nor the scriptwriters 

apparently aware that the Premier Grand Cru Classé French Bordeaux is a blend of more or less equal amounts of Cabernet Franc and the detestable Merlot, with just a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Historically, French wines were identified by their geographic origin.  Where the grapes were grown was more important than what types of grapes were picked and fermented.  Bordeaux is no exception to this tradition, so it is no real surprise that Miles was so confused in ‘Sideways’.

Pomerol is enigmatically the least traditional of the Bordeaux appellations – yet some of the most expensive Bordeaux are grown here.

Located close to the legendary Chateau Petrus and very near Miles’ revered Chateau Cheval Blanc, Chateau Le Bon Pasteur is the home base of the flying wine consultant Michel Rolland.  Beyond the numerous wineries he works with in Bordeaux, Rolland is involved with wineries in South Africa, Spain, California, Chile and Argentina.

Chateau Le Bon Pasteur Pomerol 2006 (593830) $74.99 blends 90 per cent Merlot with 10 per cent Cabernet Franc and the result is a rich and intense wine.  Aromas of black plums and blueberries frame the flavours of luscious black cherries and blackberries balanced by wisps of vanilla and caramel from oak barrel aging.


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