I feel so bad for Merlot sometimes. Ever since a certain film came out, scores of people were duped into believing that Merlot was an inferior grape. Sales of Merlot tanked, and acres upon acres of established merlot vines were grafted over for more popular varieties.
Merlot didn't deserve this.
The first historical mention of the variety was at the end of the 18th century in the Bordeaux area. This makes sense, since it is likely here that Merlot originated, growing on an island in the Garonne River. Other origin hypothesis place it broadly in the region-- somewhere from southwestern France or the Pais Vasco in Spain. It was named after the blackbirds who liked to eat the grape-- in French, merle means blackbird, and in Occitan, a language of southern France and Spain, the word for blackbird is actually merlau, even closer to the grape's name itself.
DNA analysis tells us that Merlot is the offspring of Cabernet Franc and a very obscure grape called "Magdeleine Noire des Charentes." Thanks to the Cabernet Franc, that makes Merlot the often overshadowed half-sibling of Cabernet Sauvignon.
It's growing habits are to bud early, ripen midway through the season, and to throw out moderate to vigorous vegetative growth. It does well in clay-limestone soils, so in places like Bordeaux where the soils range from gravel to clay, you will often see Merlot planted on the heavier clay. But more than that, it tends to be grown along with Cabernet Sauvignon so often because it is a perfect blending companion, giving blends a rich fruitiness and roundness to hang on Cabernet Sauvignon's more robust tannin structure. It can also often reach higher sugar levels than Cabs, especially when grown in marginal climates, which results in a higher alcohol percentage in the finished wine.
Geographically speaking, Merlot can be found just about anywhere wine is grown-- from Turkey to Slovenia to New Zealand to New Mexico. Our 2015 Merlot came in on August 18th from the Cadeuceus Vineyards on the Willcox bench. We brought in just under three tons, fermented it in stainless, and then transferred it to barrels for aging -- 43% new French oak, and 57% neutral oak. We let it rest for 18 months before bottling. It's at its peak with delicate rose and cedar aromas backed by red fruit. Plum jam and fresh fig wash over your palate, which then transitions to vanilla, toasted hazelnut and caramel on the finish. It's a pretty tasty wine. We definitely take our Merlot seriously around here.
So if you're ready to release yourself from the tyranny of the opinions of movie personalities, why doen't you stop by our tasting room and give the Merlot a shot? We're releasing it this Friday!
What is the difference between new and neutral oak? The short answer is: extractable flavor.
After wine is placed in a barrel for the first time, it absorbs a huge amount of the flavor and aroma compounds that were generated during the barrel's toasting-- vanillin (vanilla), syringaldehyde (spicy, smoky), other aromatic aldehydes (resinous), lactones (oaky, coconut), and aromatic phenolics (clove, smoky). As these are extracted into the wine, the concentration available for further extraction is diminished. It varies from winery to winery, but most folks consider a barrel to be effectively neutral somewhere between the 4th and 6th fill. Neutrality in this case means that no discernable oak compounds are extracted into the wine held in barrel.
This doesn't mean that the barrel itself is useless, though. Despite not contributing to the wine's aromatic or flavor profile via extractables, the oak provides a semi-permeable vessel that can allow a wine the space it needs to soften through slow oxidation, and allows the polymerization reactions necessary for tannins to smooth out to take place.
Not everyone loves the flavors of big oak, and a mix of new and neutral oak can help a winemaker strike the correct balance between the oak complexity and allowing the fruit's varietal flavors to shine.
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