There has been reference made to the movie “Sideways” and Paul Giamatti’s character, Miles, who goes into a rant about not wanting to drink Merlot. Is it really possible that this movie affected the consumption of Merlot to such a degree? In this country, I’d say the answer is yes.
If you are one of those that shunned Merlot because of a fictional character’s rant, then I believe it’s time that you go out and buy a bottle of the wine. Why? Because Merlot is no longer the Chardonnay of red wine. Due to the decrease in sales, much of the large-scaled bulk Merlot that may have changed your opinion seven years ago is no longer in the spotlight. In fact, a number of regions have taken Merlot to new levels.
There’s a good reason that Merlot became so popular in the first place, it can be seductive and engaging as a single variety and it makes for an excellent blending partner. When it comes to pairing Merlot with food, there are some great examples to be found due to the various styles and different regions that are making excellent Merlot.
So, hang your preconceptions at the door while we explore a number of appealing wines and some tasty recipes to pair with them.
Wine and Food image via Shutterstock
The first wine-producing country that put Merlot on my map was Italy. In Italy, there are two major areas that excel with Merlot; the brighter, mineral-tinged examples from the northeast and the richer yet sexier versions from Tuscany. In Tuscany, Merlot takes on that trademark Tuscan dustiness, as well as a higher level of acidity, which balances Merlot’s naturally soft textures.
Merlot is an excellent pairing partner for pork, especially roasted pork. Add the Tuscan flair for pork products, borrow a flavorful sausage from Bologna, and you have Mortadella-Stuffed Pork Loin with Rosemary Roasted Potatoes. Pairings don’t get much better than this.
2008 Fattoria Petrolo Galatrona Toscana IGT – The nose showed an intense mix of red and blue berries with floral undergrowth and cinnamon stick. The palate showed a medium weight with focused red and blackberry fruits combined with an earthy soil component. The finish was long and pleasant with hints of structure, promising years of development. (92 points)
Washington, Columbia Valley
If Italy was my first love with Merlot, then Washington is my newfound obsession. Never have I tasted Merlot that was as rich and ripe as California, yet as balanced and structured as Bordeaux. In Washington State, that balance has been found, and the wines are truly exciting to prove it. To the Merlot neophyte, this may be the best place to start. For the foodie, it’s likely the most dynamic example you’re going to find.
With that said, I couldn’t help but pair this with a Classic Steak House Rubbed Filet Mignon. Since Merlot is usually a wine with softer textures and acidity, I tend to go for roasted or braised dishes. However, with the structure and sex appeal of a Washington State Merlot, steak made for the perfect pairing, and in this case, the leaner profile of a Filet Mignon made it my cut of choice.
2007 Chateau Ste. Michelle Merlot Cold Creek Vineyard – On the nose, I found plum and blueberry with sweet spices and an underlying dark soil and chalk note that kept the wine rooted in the earth. On the palate, it was full-bodied with velvety textures, showing excellent balance with a mix of cherry and cranberry, herbs and bitter dark chocolate. The finish showed plums, green pepper and saline minerals with a slight tug of tannin reminding me of its fine structure. (92 points)
While not an example of classic Merlot flavors and textures, South Africa is proving yet again that it can turn out unique and truly exciting versions of Old World varietals. The wines are darker and haunting with a savory and dark earth profile. Did I mention that they are also amazing values? The more I taste from South Africa, the more I want to taste. Merlot appears to be yet another variety with which they can excel.
When tasting my first South African Merlot, I knew exactly what I wanted to pair with it, lamb. I paired this with a Moroccan Lamb Stew. The gamey flavors of the lamb were a perfect complement to this wine’s dark and savory profile. What’s more, the smooth and spicy characteristics of this dish excited the palate and added even more depth to the already layered Tokolosh. I can’t say this dish would go well with any Merlot, but it was the perfect combination for this beauty from South Africa. I highly recommend trying it.
2011 Tokolosh Merlot – The nose was dark and savory, showing tart raspberry, charred meat, coffee beans and herbs. On the palate, it was medium-bodied and juicy with sweet red and black berries, cinnamon and exotic spice. Tart berry fruits lingered on the lip-smacking finish that stayed fresh and easy-going through the close. (89 points)
Oh yeah, this was even better on the second day.
United States, North Fork Long Island
Merlot has become a staple variety in the North Fork of Long Island. The fact is, this region has struggled to find its place, and with Merlot, they may have finally found it. Tasting these wines provides another unique example of what Merlot is capable of. They aren’t overbearing or heavy, nor are they Old World. Instead they are juicy yet firm, subtle yet deep, and drinkable on release, yet with the stuffing to mature in your cellar.
I absolutely love Merlot with roasted duck. Talk about two things that simply are made for each other. The soft, enveloping textures of Merlot against the velvety, slightly gamey, yet wonderful sultry meat of duck makes me smile each time I taste them together. What’s more, that added bump of juiciness and structure found in Long Island Merlot gives it an edge when tasted with the sometimes fatty flesh of roasted duck. The recipe I found to pair this with is amazing, Slow-Roasted Duck with Olive Gravy and Garlic-Fennel Confit.
2008 Macari Merlot Estate – On the nose, I found cranberry and plum with a dark, savory beef note and hints of dark chocolate. On the palate, it showed a medium body with a core of tart red berry fruit and excellent balance. A slight coating of tannin on the finish promises a number of years’ worth of development in bottle. (89 points)
France, Right Bank Bordeaux
In Bordeaux, it’s the right bank of the river Gironde where you’ll find Merlot is king. In Pomerol and Saint-Émilion, Merlot makes up the majority of Bordeaux blends. It is truly a different animal from the Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant blends of the rest of the region. These days, Bordeaux has been in a state of flux, as many of the wines are being made in a more international style. However, Chateau Simard has held the traditional line. One of the best things about this estate is that the Chateau holds the wine until they believe it is ready, making the 2001 their current release.
When pairing a Merlot-dominant wine from Bordeaux, keep in mind that they are often softer wines with brighter acidity that can pair well with a myriad of dishes. One such classic example, that seems to go against everything that our wine-pairing knowledge tells us, is salmon. It took me a while to try this myself, but this wine was a perfect complement to a simple Garlic Broiled Salmon with Tomatoes. It was the darker, meaty quality of the salmon with its silky textures that set off the plum and herbal notes of this wine. In the end, it was quite enjoyable. However, a suggestion and a word of caution: use a piece of salmon with the skin intact for the necessary richness and depth needed in this pairing. Also, don’t overcook or use a paprika that is too hot, or the pairing may fall apart.
2001 Chateau Simard – The nose was highly expressive with rich plum, crushed raspberry, leather and potpourri. On the palate, it was medium-bodied with plum, tart red fruits, herbs and earthy minerals, which lingered on the palate along with a bitter twang. (88 points)