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Monday Manifestos
What If Harry Never Met Sally

By Charles Olken

Harry and Sally. Anthony and Cleopatra. Tristan and Isolde. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The history of the world is replete with partners who could not get along without each other. Back about four decades ago, when California wine was emerging as a hot commodity, the first Merlots began to be planted here—ostensibly to make Cabernet Sauvignon more complete. Never mind that we also did not have Cabernet Franc, Malbec or Petit Verdot. We discovered tannin, French oak and Merlot, and the die was cast that soon made California Cabernet into a world-recognized item.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum, and we are not talking about Mark Anthony, Brutus or Caesar here. It turned out that Merlot not only was plenty good on its own, something the Bordelais on the Right Bank thought might be true and which now even some Left Bank Bordelaise are thinking about, but California-grown Cabernet Sauvignon, especially in certain Rutherford Bench and Stags Leap District locations, could be vinified to suppleness and graciousness on it own.

There are, of course, plenty of blends made in California, and some like Phelps Insignia are absolutely brilliant wines. But even that wine over the years has been heavily weighted to Cabernet Sauvignon, and the influence of Merlot and the other Bordelaise varieties has been restrained. It all makes you wonder what would have happened if our Cabernet Sauvignon had never met Merlot.

The problem here is that I have been writing Cabernet Sauvignon tasting notes all day, and despite the fact that about one-quarter of the one hundred-plus to be reviewed in our April Issue contain some portion of Merlot, I don’t see evidence that Merlot is doing much to soften or fill out or otherwise enhance Cabernet Sauvignon’s personality.

Indeed, if anything, it is the other way around. With the Merlots that are also being reviewed in that Issue, it is Cabernet Sauvignon that is giving both structure and complexity and which shows up far more often in Merlot than Merlot shows up in Cabernet. And, not to put too fine a point on it, in part because a solid conclusion will require more observation and many more data points and comparative tastings, but it seems to me that an interesting argument could be made that Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot do more to expand Cabernet Sauvignon than does Merlot.

California will probably never stop learning from the French or the Italians or the Spanish when it comes to grapes and blends, but it does make one wonder what would have happened if the makers of Cabernet Sauvignon had never heard of Bordeaux.


Missed One
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:3/14/2011 10:55:43 AM

Now how could you leave out one of the most famous couples ever? Your list is not complete without Samantha Sans Dosage and The HoseMaster of Wine. Just sayin'

No Subject
by Sherman
Posted on:3/14/2011 1:39:20 PM

Having tasted a good number of CA Merlot offerings over the last few years, I've noticed a trend in the middle to upper-end Merlot offerings from a number of "name" CA producers. I've noticed a trend to making them more muscular and full-bodied -- and I think this has been a deliberate effort.

Much of the negative buzz about Merlot the last few years, with CA Merlot in particular receiving the brunt, has been that it was bland, flabby and didn't have a sense of coming from any particular place (that elusive concept of terroir). 

My take on this phenomenon is that many CA Merlot producers have given a collective "Oh yeah? We'll show you what CA Merlot can do!" and give us versions that have been amped up in structure, density and tannins. Yes, the fruit is still there but it might take some cellar time to bring it out.

I think this is another reason why Malbec from south America has become as popular as it has -- it's slotting in as the fruit-froward, easy-to-drink option that good Merlot used to be. The fact that it can be had for a fraction of CA wine is only a bonus for today's wine consumer. 

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/14/2011 7:23:44 PM

It seems to me that the amped up Merlots are also carrying fancier price tags, and that the wineries feel that oak, structure and ripeness are all required in order to charge those kinds of prices.

And, yes, in the bargain, we have lost the succulent, supple style of Merlot that first made it popular.

by Pamela
Posted on:3/14/2011 9:53:46 PM

Harry and Sally. Anthony and Cleopatra. Samantha and Hosemaster. Merlot with a splash of Cabernet. Cabernet with a splash of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. 

Agree 100% Charlie.


by Ron Washam, HMW
Posted on:3/15/2011 11:26:33 AM

I thought that HoseMaster guy died in a plane crash with Robert Parker and the Big Bopper...

But, yes, Samantha and HoseMaster, a romance that rivals OJ and Nicole. Yet another cutting remark.

And I agree that Merlot seems to be trying to find its way, but, when done well, it does make me want to sing and dance and pour it down my pants.

by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:3/15/2011 6:26:11 PM

I was thinking more long the lines of Lolita and that creepy Humbert dude.....

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