The above quote, from the independent film Sideways released during 2004, continues to affect sales of Merlot. Merlot's critics see it as simple, overdone, and unexciting.
But that's crazy talk! Like saying all jazz is crud because you only listen to rock music. Or that all fictional books are crud because you only read non-fiction. Don't do it, be better! :)
Bordeaux's "right bank" is the mother-place of Merlot wine. Let me stop here. Bordeaux's right bank / left bank distinctions confused me for years. The reality: there's no reason to be confused. As shown on the map below, a large Atlantic Ocean estuary, the Gironde, and its tributaries, the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, run north to south through Bordeaux. Wines from the West of these waters became known as "left bank," while wines on the East are called "right bank."
Why is left bank / right bank important? One basic reason! In general, wines on the Left are made predominately with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, wines on the Right with Merlot.
If you remember one thing from this post it is that Bordeaux's "left bank" = Cabernet Sauvignon, while the "right bank" = Merlot.
Remember this, and now you know enough to be dangerous in the wine world! :)
So about that Merlot...
In general, Merlot is softer, and more restrained than it's muscular, powerhouse cousin Cabernet Sauvignon.
For that reason, its flavor profile can change a lot depending on the vintage, producer, and growing area. My favorite authority on wine, the Wine Folly, calls it a chameleon grape.
So what does Bordeaux smell and taste like? So much! But think dark, red fruits. I've made the (hopefully helpful) word cloud which emphasizes some of the more dominant flavors.
What have Nicole and I been up to since arriving in Bordeaux a week ago?
Working. :) Specifically, the right bank. Getting to know the famous Pomerol and Saint Emilion appellations.
A few observations.
1) In general, of all of the wine regions Nicole and I have visited, this is one where we have found that you really get what you pay for. We haven't been impressed with the lower end right bank wines, but we've found some awesome ones in the $20-$40 range.
2) Despite the famed status of the area, the wineries we've visited have all been happy and enthusiastic to host us for tours and tastings. We had plenty of fun visiting Chateau Bernateau (one of the best tours of our time in France and bomb wine to boot), Chateau du Tailhus (another friendly and fun tour), and Chateau Trocard (great tour, underwhelming tasting -- when the Meserve Reserve comes to town, you can do better than pouring a measly two wines that are the cheapest of your offerings -- yes, I'm looking at you Chateau Trocard).
3) Although we haven't visited, based on our studies, the Fronsac appellation, which is located right next to Pomerol and Saint Emilion, could be a great place to look for bargains from this region. Anecdotally, Nicole and I had a 2000 vintage Fronsac wine during our recent all you can eat cheese dinner (more on that gluttony to come!) and it was killer. Personally, I'm going to keep an eye out for Fronsac wines in the future.
Overall, Merlot is an overlooked grape. Maybe the reputation is deserved inasmuch as a lot of producers throughout the world have used it to make boring wines. But Bordeaux's right bank is where it all began, and worth getting to know and paying attention to for anyone that hasn't. Now on to the Left Bank! :)
Interesting side note on the fickle nature of wine making: This picture was taken at Chateau du Tailhus in Pomerol. The vineyard got hit with a nasty frost this April which kept approximately ninety percent of the fruit from maturing on the vine (nearing harvest each stock only has 1-2 grape bunches)...
...While 6 miles away at Chateau Bernateau in Saint Emilion, they had a healthy growing season with 7-8 bunches on each stock.
Like this post? Want to read more about Travis and Nicole's travel adventures? Check out A crash course in the history, geography, and beautiful white wines of Alsace.
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