First puyblished in The Irish Times, Saturday September 23rd, 2017
Fashion is a fickle business. In the not-too-distant past, a wine producer wondering what grape varieties to plant in a new vineyard would have gone straight for Chardonnay and Merlot.
These were, after all, the most sought-after wines around the world. Given that a vine takes three years to produce grapes and a decade to make decent wine, predicting future trends can be a dangerous business.
Nowadays, I suspect Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Malbec would be at the top of the list for any prospective producer.
But a decade or so ago, Merlot was everybody’s darling. It is widely planted in North and South America, and elsewhere, too, is relatively easy to grow and produces decent yields.
The wines are very attractive, too, medium-bodied with velvety soft, rounded plummy fruits and none of those drying tannins associated with Cabernet Sauvignon. Even better, Merlot doesn’t require lengthy ageing. All of the wines, even the very best, are drinkable from the start.
How the mighty have fallen. Merlot became a dirty word largely thanks to the 2004 movie Sideways, where Myles, the main protagonist says ‘If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any f***ing Merlot.’
Suddenly, everyone wanted Myles’s favourite, Pinot Noir, instead. Sales plummeted, particularly in the US. Yet we continued to drink Merlot, sometimes unwittingly, as most of the red wines of Bordeaux and the surrounding area will contain some Merlot in the blend. In areas such as Pomerol, it makes up 100 per cent of the wine, including the most famous pure Merlot of all, Petrus.
As for Chardonnay, it may have reached tipping point when Bridget Jones began drinking large glasses to console herself after her latest disaster. Much of the Chardonnay produced back then was heavily and clumsily oaked, and often high in alcohol, too, when the world began looking for something lighter and fresher. Enter Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc.
This is unfair on Chardonnay, one of the greatest grapes of all, and these days made in a much more appealing style. In my experience, most consumers love Chardonnay – until they see the label. As with Merlot, the French have us drinking it unknowingly. Just about every bottle of white Burgundy, from Chablis to Meursault to Mâcon is 100 per cent Chardonnay.
These days most less expensive Chardonnays are unoaked and a degree or two lighter in alcohol. They make great food wines, but are also perfect on their own. A good Merlot is supple and fruity; a real crowd-pleaser, in other words.
So this weekend, spare a thought for two of fashion’s forgotten victims, and try out a bottle of Chardonnay or Merlot. You should be in for a pleasant surprise.
Aresti Bellavista Chardonnay Reserva 2016
13%, €12.99 (€10 on promotion)
A very well-made, medium-bodied wine bursting with peach fruits and fresh, zesty acidity. Perfect on its own or with salmon.
Lettre d’Aloise Chardonnay 2014
Coteaux Bourguignons, 13%, €17.95
A delectable, elegant white Burgundy with floral aromas and free-flowing fresh green fruits.
Stockists: Le Caveau, Kilkenny: Fallon & Byrne; World Wide Wines; 64 Wines; Green Man Wines; Mitchell & Son; Bradley’s, Cork
Santa Rita Merlot 120 Reserva Especial
Central valley, Chile, 13.5%, €11.99
Mellow, rounded ripe plum fruits with a dusting of spice. With or without food.
Stockists: widely available including SuperValu, Centra, Tesco, Dunnes Stores.
Atalon Merlot 2011
Pauline’s Cuvée, Napa Valley, 14.5%, €27.45
Ripe, voluptuous dark fruits with roasted coffee and black olives. A big warm hug of a wine.