Would it come as a surprise to you that Merlot is one of the most popular red wine varietals in many markets? It likely would. Especially if you watched the movie Sideways. Or at least have seen a clip where Miles, a neurotic lovable wine aficionado protests having Merlot so vehemently that Jack, Miles’ laid back fun-loving friend, gives in, even though it may adversely impact their plans for the evening.
If you know where this dislike of Merlot comes from, please share. Because Merlot has many credits to its name. In comparison to its big brother Cabernet Sauvignon – and yes, they are related – Merlot grapes have looser bunches of bigger berries. For winegrowers, looser bunches make the grapes more disease resistant and easier to grow. For the consumers, bigger berries mean lower tannins, which combined with lower acidity make it quaffable on its own and a food friendly choice.
In Bordeaux, France, Merlot is traditionally considered the ‘other’ red grape. Often compared to Cab Sauv, Merlot lives in its shadow. While the two are blended together with Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot, the region mostly flaunts Cab Sauv for its success.
In the New World however, wine makers brought Merlot directly to the labels by making varietal wines. They also allowed this early ripener to ripen fully, at the expense of losing a bit of acidity to gain more fruitiness and body.
Giving a different angle to this post is a story behind The Velvet Devil Merlot itself. Its creator Charles Smith, rocker cum wine maker, established the Charles Smith Wines brand as “The Modernist Project”, to make wines for today, to be consumed immediately, while being true to the characteristics of both the varietal and the vineyard. In his case, the vineyards of Washington State. This labour of love culminated in Charles Smith Wines being acquired by Constellation Brands for $120 million last October, making the news in both the business and wine worlds. More importantly for wine lovers, Charles Smith continues as the creative force behind the wines, and I hope to bring to you reviews of the rest of his lineup (already waiting in my cellar: Kung Fu Girl Riesling).
Starting with the one today. The Velvet Devil Merlot is true to Smith’s The Modernist Project goals: ready to drink now, delivering Merlot’s typical character, and the Washington State expression of New World fruit concentration and Old World balanced structure.
The Velvet Devil Merlot looks devilish in its ruby-purple robe. It leads with dark fruit aromas, of cherry and red plum, alongside some dried fruit, black pepper and earthy notes, with cedar smoke adding to the mix. Tastes bring more of the cherry and dark plum, combined with some spicy smokiness redolent of charcuterie. Judicious acidity and tannins, that are neither too gritty nor too silky, but – well – velvety 🙂 pull it all together. The wine paired superbly with the maple-glazed baked ham.