The SOMM Journal

October / November 2016

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Page 10 of 132

10 { THE SOMM JOURNAL } OCTOBER/NOVEMBER WHEN I FIRST STARTED WRITING ABOUT WINE in the mid-'70s there was no such thing as varietal Merlot. There was some of this Bordeaux grape planted around, but it was all used to soften tannic young Cabernets. In 1978, for his winery's first release, Dan Duckhorn decided to bottle 800 cases of this then obscure variety, because he liked the Right Bank wines made from it—and because he knew that the wine would be ready to drink sooner than his Cabernet. Gradually Merlot began to catch on. People thought its smooth, lush char - acter was attractive. They also found its name easy to say: two syllables, no problem. All through the '90s this rich, likable red wine became a favorite in wine shops and restaurant wine lists. Vintners tore out less popular varieties and planted Merlot. Then, in the 2004 Alexander Payne film Sideways, one line brought the Merlot boom to a halt. "OK," Miles says to Jack as they enter Santa Barbara's Hitching Post restaurant, "But I'm not drinking any f***ing Merlot!" Serious wine drinkers immediately abandoned the variety as a mediocre pop wine, and Pinot Noir became the new darling of the cognoscenti. One of the problems—besides the movie dis—was that so much Merlot had been planted in the wrong places that a lot of the wine on the market was in fact inferior—dull, simple, ordinary. Many knowledgeable wine lovers turned their backs on Merlot. What a mistake! Merlot has the potential for greatness. It is one of the noblest of varieties. Some of the greatest wines I have ever tasted are made from Merlot: Château Petrus, Masseto, Duckhorn's Three Palms. (And ironically, in the movie, the wine that Miles is saving for a very special occasion is a bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc, which has a large percentage of Merlot.) In the past two years I have tasted and rated more than 500 Merlots. Of these, about 175 received scores of 90 or better. This is not indicative of the fact that I am an easy grader—I'm not. It shows the high quality of the wines being made all over the world from this great variety. I just tasted a selection of current versions of Merlot, priced from $15 to $95, and they are very impressive indeed. This is National Merlot Month so, if you haven't already, it's time re-acquaint yourself with this exceptional variety. Pay particular attention to the ones from Washington State, espe - cially those bearing the Walla Walla appellation. In California, Napa Valley produced many great ones, and now would be a good time to build up the Pomerols and St. Emilions on your list. (See page 78 for more on National Merlot Month.) Merlot is back! Don't miss the boat. Anthony Dias Blue Merlot is back! Don't miss the boat. Anthony Dias Blue { editor's notebook } { the reading room } October Is International Merlot Month Firm believers in terroir, and perhaps even skeptics, will want to get a copy of Toronto-based Master Sommelier and critic John Szabo's Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power (Jacqui Small, $45). Szabo takes a global look at the world's volcanic wine regions—from the Pacific Northwest to Santorini and from Chile to Hungary—and the distinctive wines they produce. Copious and dramatically stunning pho - tography enhances the picture, while detailed maps pinpoint volcanic peaks (or their remains) and the wineries that surround them. After delving into Szabo's unique, fascinating and very well-written volume, the intimate connection between geography and wine will be viewed in a whole new light. Whether you're perusing the shelves for a good value at your local wine boutique, putting together a world- class wine list or cramming for your Advanced Sommelier exam, Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book 2017 (Mitchell Beazley/Octopus, $16.99) is a handy perennial reference. The book has been a back-pocket go-to for both professional and consumer buyers since 1977. Kudos to Johnson's editor, Margaret Rand, for her meticulous work. This year's supplement, called "40 Wine Stories," helps readers understand how much has changed—and is still changing—in the world of wine. In the past two decades, Argentina has become a wine powerhouse, and traveling there is on many a somm's bucket list. In Exploring Wine Regions—Argentina (International Exploration Society, $34.95), author- photographer Michael C. Higgins, Ph.D., takes readers on a fascinating journey—armchair or actual—through the country's various wine regions, with a wealth of supplemental content on hotels, cuisine and culture, including a good section on Buenos Aires. The book is the template for an ambitious series of titles cover - ing wine in Chile, France, Italy, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, the United States and more. The book is chock full of useful info and evocative photos of an important wine producing nation. —David Gadd

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