By Guest Writer: Chris Upchurch
I walked into the cellar the other day and a friend of mine was sporting a baseball hat that said, “Make Merlot Great Again.” How cool is that? I remember a time when we believed Merlot was going to be the king varietal here in Washington. All the journalists were raving about it. It seemed to have more structure than many California Merlots, and Chateau Ste. Michelle was planting it like crazy. Napa was going to make Cabernets, Oregon would make Pinot Noir, and we would make that deliciously layered varietal called Merlot. All was right in the world.
Despite this rosy forecast, Cabernet Sauvignon continued to dominate the red wine market. The movie Sideways didn’t help Merlot either. I told people that the character who refused to drink Merlot also drank from a spittoon later in the movie, and his favorite French wines, Petrus and Cheval Blanc, were Merlot dominant. Still, Merlot sales cooled while Syrah gained popularity and more and more outstanding Cabernets were being made here in the Northwest.
Regardless of the trends, I’ve always loved making Merlot. It’s a varietal that always delivers a key trait in my winemaking criteria: deliciousness. Soft and accessible, Merlot is always a crowd pleaser. It delivers the whole gamut of fruits and spices, yet still rewards aging in the cellar. And it grows so well here in Washington. From the Wahluke Valley to Walla Walla and everywhere in between, Merlot is the second most planted grape here after Cabernet Sauvignon. According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, there were over 9,000 acres of Merlot planted in Washington as of 2017, a 54% increase from 2006.
You can imagine how pleased I am to see that Merlot is back. At DeLille Cellars, we’re making more than ever. Our Merlot-dominant D2 is our most popular wine and is recognized around the country and in several international markets. There are well over 100 varietal Merlots produced in the state, not to mention all of Washington’s Bordeaux-style blends where Merlot is key. While much of the world still struggles with Merlot (name a famous Australian Merlot), ours only gets better. With increasing vine age, better clonal selection and a whole host of other improvements, we’re making subtle, mouthwatering Merlots that I dare anyone to try and not love. At Walla Walla’s annual celebration this year, Merlot was the featured grape, and producers from around the world were invited to participate and compare. Most agreed that Washington Merlots were second to none, further demonstrating how fantastic this varietal is for our state and industry.
Finally, I noticed that the new generation of wine drinkers really loves Merlot. They’re not necessarily hanging around the local wine shop on a Saturday afternoon reading wine critics’ reviews and scores; they’re just looking for wines that deliver delicious pleasure to be shared with friends. While all varietals can be hedonistic, Merlot seems best suited to this aspect of wine drinking—it’s simply a delight to drink. And that’s probably the biggest reason to believe that Merlot has a big future. While I won’t try to predict just how big, one thing’s for sure: I’ve got to get one of those hats.