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Merlot & Pinot

A 'Sideways' Look at Merlot & Pinot

Written by Sandi Marques
Friday, 17 June 2005

"If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any f-----g Merlot."

This was by far the most memorable line in the whole movie for me, stated by wine snob Miles.

The movie 'Sideways' was a box-office hit, as well as garnering many prestigious accolades and awards; among them the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and two Golden Globes - Best Comedy and Best Screenplay. Now available on DVD, this movie was released in October 2004. Check out this site for all the details on this film:

The movie is about two buddies who decide to spend the last week of 'freedom' - before one of them gets married - touring the Santa Barbara wine region. The movie takes you on a journey with Miles, a wise-cracking, alcoholic, depressive, pessimist who has a love of wine, particularly Pinot Noir and his wedding-jittered, nymphomaniac-amigo, Jack. It also cast the elusive, finicky grape Pinot Noir in a starring role. The adventures of these two unlikely characters are both entertaining and enlightening. I left the movie with an overwhelming feeling of relief - that I have a great life and whenever I'm down or frustrated, just remember poor old Miles or Jack. You definitely don't have it that bad - even on your worst day. Oh, and that I could sure use a vacation and tour the Santa Barbara region - which we'll get to that in a minute - but first, why the fuss over Pinot Noir and why did Merlot get such a bad rap?

Pinot Noir is grown all the world over; in the United States (Oregon, California), France - Burgundy (Côte de Beaune, Côte de Nuits, Chalonnaise)and Champagne, Germany, Canada (BC, Ontario), New Zealand and many others. Pinot Noir is a ***** to grow. It is often referred to as the Holy Grail in the winemaking communities outside Europe. It also has many feminine qualities as it is an exasperating variety for many growers, teasing with its occasional glimpse of riches but obstinate in its refusal to be tamed. Being of the feminine persuasion, I take no offence in being compared to Pinot Noir.

It is natural to want to draw comparisons between the great red wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy - but the similarities are few. Cabernet Sauvignon, predominantly grown in Bordeaux with acclaimed high regard, packs a power of a punch and is the Rocky of the red grape varietals - never gives up and always comes back for more (well at least five times). Whereas Pinot Noir travels sullenly, quietly, with a bit of a personality disorder, changing tunes quite frequently and without forewarning. A definite challenge!

More specifically, Pinot Noir has no single recognizable flavour or style unless you count its perceived sweetness and its relatively high alcohol content (12.5% - 13.5%). In its youth, it can taste of freshly crushed raspberries in the Côte de Beaune wines (Burgundy); ripe, sweet, strawberries from the Côte de Nuits; inky colour in young Chalonnaise reds; and plum jam in California and New Zealand. When referring to more mature red Burgundy, on the other hand, you are getting into more complex wines that have given Burgundy its reputation. Mature Pinot Noir evolves into a bouquet of extraordinary flavours and can suggest anything from violets (yes really) to game, to rotten vegetables (no, it's not a bad wine) to truffles. In terms of quality, the peaks and gaps are far wider with Pinot than for Cabernet. So if you compare the Pinot to personality types, perhaps Miles was so taken with it because in some ways, he can identify with this grape. It speaks to him on some deeper level and is highly misunderstood. Who knows?

Viticulturally speaking, Pinot Noir is an early budder and early ripener on the vine. It is best suited to coolish, preferably marginal climates. The longer the grapes stay on the vine before tending to raisin and surmaturité, the more complex the resulting wine. Pinot is also prone to rot and spring frosts are particularly dangerous. Not surprisingly, France has the world's largest plantings of Pinot with the majority being grown in the Northeast with nearly half the vines in Greater Burgundy and of those plantings, two thirds are on the Côte d'Or region.

Pinot is definitely not a popularist wine with broad consumer appeal. One theory may be that Burgundy has set the standard for this grape so high. But there too, wines are often inconsistent, with quality varying from producer to producer and between vintages. The general populace also tends to steer clear of any labelling that doesn't immediately tell them what's in the bottle. The French have certainly not made this aspect of wine selection easy. Perhaps that all adds to the mystique.

Merlot, on the other hand, is a much different animal (I guess I should say grape). The irony in the movie is that Miles' favourite wine is the 1961 Cheval-Blanc, Bordeaux from the commune of St-Emilion that's a blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Perhaps in Miles' defense he may simply have meant that he doesn't like Merlot as a 100% grape varietal but as with many people, as a blended varietal, why not?

Merlot has its advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it's fruity, forward and a productive grape to grow. On the minus side, Merlot is characterized by its relatively early budding and flowering, which exposes it to the danger of spring frosts and coulure (vine fruit fails to set when the vine flowers in early summer, usually due to unsettled weather). It also ripens early, and being thinner skinned than its twin, Cabernet Sauvignon, is it liable to rot in a wet vintage unless treated very carefully. Overall, Merlot tends to be noticeably lower in tannins (the tea bag feeling on your teeth and gums from red wine) than Cabernet, and higher in sugars.

Merlot is usually regarded as a blend for Cabernet Sauvignon, particularly in Bordeaux, but also throughout many other wine growing countries that try to emulate the Bordeaux greats. Perhaps the most enormous advantage for this grape (or disadvantage, depending on your point of view) is that its round fruitiness, lowish tannins and apparent sweetness make for a wine that can be enjoyed very early in its development, unlike Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot is a definite underdog, but as with all underdogs, its day of reckoning will come.

But more interesting than all this grape talk is how the movie has changed wine-making in a much more significant way. Santa Barbara County has benefited in many ways from the movie. Tourism has quadrupled and local producers can't keep up with the demand for more Pinot than ever before. The craze and insurgence of people visiting the area has the locals aghast. The Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau printed up some 40,000 copies of their new edition, 'Sideways, the Map,' which lays out a tour of the film's locations and the restaurants visited by Miles and Jack during the movie. There is a six pack of wines featured in the film planned for release soon - talk about taking all the romance and mystery out of a wine vacation!

On the downside, Merlot has suffered a serious blow from the single line at the opening of this article, "If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any f-----g Merlot." But as with most press, 'any press is good press 'and soon enough there will come along some great story to trumpet the outstanding virtues of Merlot. Or perhaps I could pay a tribute to this overlooked yet fundamental grape by selecting a few wines for your next trip to your local wine merchant.

Whatever your feelings about Merlot or Pinot Noir, I think the movie is definitely worth the rental. If anything, you will have an opportunity to see the beautiful vineyard countryside of Santa Barbara and see wine in a whole new light with Miles, your resident alcoholic sommelier; throw in some gratuitous sex and you have the makings of a grand weekend!
All bottles are quoted in Canadian funds.

1. Merlot Private Selection Mondavi Central Coast, California, 2002, $19.95 Tasting notes: Offering a beautiful cherry-red color, this wine has an attractively fruity nose of blackcurrant and raspberry, along with some vegetal aromas reminiscent of green pepper. The palate reveals healthy acidity, firm tannins, full texture and a lovely finish.

2. Merlot Cono Sur Reserve valle de colchagua, Chili, 2003, $16.60
Tasting notes: Notes of tobacco, green pepper, wood and cocoa on the nose. Supple structure in the mouth. Merlot dominates this blend, augmented by Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Bouchet.

3. Merlot Fleur du Cap coastal region, South Africa, 2003, $16.60
Tasting notes: This merlot is a brilliant ruby red colour. It has an intense nose of ripe fruit with nuances of mint. It has a rich concentrated taste which gives it a very intense finish.

1. 657361, Vineland Estates Merlot, VQA, Ontario, 2002, $ 29.95
Despite some false starts in the spring, the summer of 2002 in Niagara was long and hot with the warmth extending deep into the fall. This lengthy growing season was a boon to Vineland's Merlot.

2. 330241, Sterling Merlot, Napa Valley, California, 2001, $28.95
Tasting notes: rich and jammy with plum, ripe berry, cherry nose. Full-bodied ripe fruit centre with hints of spice and toasty oak. Long, full-flavoured finish.

3. 9611227, Moueix Merlot, AC Bordeaux, Christian Moueix, Bordeaux, $14.95
Tasting notes: Soft and round with aromas of raspberry, cedar and blueberry. Ripe fruit, great balance and a medium long finish.

About The Author:

Personal Plonk
Sandi Marques, Accredited Sommelier

Sandi credits her Portuguese heritage for her natural tendency for abundant wine drinking. But aside from savouring mass quantities of wine to educate her palate (it's a tough job but somebody has to do it), Sandi spends her days educating thousands on wine.  She is a member of the International Sommelier Guild, speaker, wine writer and educator. Her steadfast goal is to infuse people with her same passion for wine, food and life.

Sandi's experience in the hospitality and restaurant industry stretches over fourteen years, including such places as The Four Seasons, Holiday Inn, and Langdon Hall - Ontario, Canada's premier five star Relais et Château. Sandi has worked in several top French restaurants and been trained by their Chefs and Managers.

She also has an equally impressive academic background: an honours business degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management from Ryerson University in Toronto, a Culinary Diploma from George Brown College and her Sommelier Accreditation from the International Sommelier Guild.
She is currently working on her first wine book, which will be published this year.

‘The Vineyard Press' which she issues free once every 6-8 weeks has great articles on food and wine and is a must-read for any wine lover.

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