By Davies Wakefield
All wine lovers who have seen the movie “Sideways” remember the famous scene where Miles says, “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any f***ing Merlot.” That line and Miles fascination with Pinot Noir caused sales of Merlot in the US to decline by two percent; while sales and the pricing power of Pinot Noir soared 16 percent over the next few years. One lasting effect of the movie is that you never hear anyone ask for a glass of Merlot in a restaurant or bar. Pinot Noir sales continue to grow at a rate of 9 percent today, ten years after the movie premiered.
The owner of Chateau Petrus is not amused by the notoriety Merlot achieved in the movie. Christian Moueix and his son Edouard who own and manage Petrus (the legendary 100 percent Merlot first growth of the Pomerol region of Bordeaux) in a rare instance of impoliteness referred to “Sideways” as “that stupid movie.” They have a point. In Bordeaux, famous for its Cabernet based wines, Merlot acreage actually out numbers Cabernet. In years where late season weather affects Cabernet ripening, it is the earlier ripening Merlot that usually saves the vintage. In certain areas of Bordeaux like Pomerol and St-Emilion densely packed, cold clay soils mixed with river gravel produce some of the most distinctive pleasurable wines in the world. While Merlot will grow just about anywhere, that doesn’t mean it will become a great wine. Merlot only produces wines of outstanding distinction in very few places on earth. Bordeaux, the Columbia River Valley in Washington State, certain areas of Chile, and Bolgehri in Tuscany have the soil and climate that produces wines like Petrus, Quicelda Creek, and Sassicaia. This belies Miles statement about why Pinot Noir fascinated him. When Miles said, “In fact, it (Pinot) can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it,” he might have been talking about Merlot.
Merlot is in fact, not only France’s most widely planted grape, but it is the world’s second most planted grape. Merlot plantings globally soared 26 percent in the first decade of this century. The grape’s adaptability in both cool and warm climates and its soft, undemanding, pleasant taste have been a boon for startup wineries. In certain terroirs though, Merlot can be a seductively powerful and expressive wine. It is in that regard that I have selected the wines for this tasting.
These wines are from Bordeaux and are predominately Merlot (70-85 percent). They are also from the Right Bank of the Gironde River and Dordogne River where St-Emilion and Pomerol are located. This area of Bordeaux produces Merlot based wines of singular texture that are velvety and chewy. They smell of ripe, baked, honeyed plums, and even sweet cream. The terroir is a combination of gravel that imparts maturity and aromatic finesse; clay for power and depth; and river sand for freshness and fruit. Merlot based wines from this AVA are more savoury with less “nerve” or backbone than the Medoc’s of the more well-known Left Bank; where the proportion of Merlot is just the opposite in the 20-30 percent range. Merlot based wines mature in five years as much as the Medoc’s do in ten. The wines from the 2009, 2010, and 2011 vintages are ready to drink today. These wines prove that Merlot can produce beautiful expressive wines. In this instance, paired with peppered, seared and roasted beef tenderloin, the pairing is perfection.
Roast Beef Tenderloin with Sauce Bordelaise
(recipe feeds four)
- 4-5 pound beef tenderloin cut from just behind the head
- 1 tablespoon coarse salt (kosher or sea)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter softened
- 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
- ¼ cup coarsely chopped shallots
- 1 teaspoon unsalted butter
- 1 cup red wine (not cooking wine!)
- 2 cups unsalted veal stock
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Salt and pepper to taste in the sauce
- Salt the tenderloin all over and refrigerate for 24 hours.
- The following day take the roast out and let it sit for about 1.5 hours.
- While the roast is sitting, make the Bordelaise sauce.
- In a small sauce pan sauté the chopped shallots in one teaspoon of butter until soft and slightly brown.
- Add the wine and simmer until it is almost evaporated. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F.
- Add the veal stock and reduce by half. Strain and return to the saucepan
- Swirl in the 2 Tbs. butter and taste for seasoning, add salt and pepper to taste.
- Rub the roast with the olive oil, butter and cracked pepper.
- Roast the tenderloin in a shallow roasting pan 10 minutes on one side, turn and roast 10 minutes on the other side or until the internal temperature reaches 125 degrees F (for medium rare) let the roast rest for 10 minutes before carving.
- Serve with the Bordelaise sauce and potatoes au gratin.
The first wine is Chateau Timberlay 2010, $16, 13.5 percent alcohol. The winery is located on the right bank of the Dordogne River in the town of Saint-Andre-de Cubzac. This winery is one of the oldest in Bordeaux dating to 1366. The estate is 309 acres and the soil consists of clay limestone and sand. The Giraud Family has been operating the business almost 70 years. The vineyard is farmed under the guidelines of Terris Vitis, a French organization that certifies compliance with transparent sustainable practices. The grapes are hand-picked and then hand sorted to eliminate flawed grapes. The wine is a blend of 85 percent Merlot, 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and five percent Cabernet Franc. If you are looking for a wine that was made with organically raised grapes and is treated with hands on expertise this is the wine for you.
The wine exhibits a nose of blackberry, currant and strawberry with some spiciness and earth tones. Timberlay is a well-balanced wine with fully ripe soft tannins that are long on the palate with some notes of vanilla and cinnamon. This is drinking perfectly right now and ready for that holiday beef roast.
The second wine is Chateau La Fleur Plaisance 2011, $12.50, 12.5 percent alcohol. The Chateau is located on a 29 acre plot between Saint-Emilion and Pomerol that is part of the appellation Montagne-Saint- Emilion. The average age of the vines is thirty years and the fermentation and aging takes place in concrete containers which is considered to be the more natural environment for the wine.
This is a big wine reflected by grapes from older vines and low acidity; it will age. Both the “Wine Spectator” and the “Wine Enthusiast” gave the wine high marks. The wine is a blend of 80 percent Merlot and 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine offers hints of cherries and cooked plums in the aroma with hints of smoldering tobacco. This wine is balanced with smooth tannins accompanied by hints of melting licorice on the finish.
The third wine is Chateau Sainte-Sulpice 2010, $14, 13 percent alcohol. This wine is a blend of 70 percent Merlot, 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and 10 percent Cabernet Franc. The wine is vinified as if it were a classified growth with complete de-stemming, eight day fermentation in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks and approximately six months of aging in oaken vats before bottling. This approach emphasizes the natural fruit characteristics.
The 100 acre estate is situated in the eponymous village just south of St. Emilion in the Entre-Deux-Mers. The name means “between two seas” in this case the “seas” are the Garonne and Dordogne rivers that divide Bordeaux into the “right” and “left” banks. The winery and property are managed by the owner-winemaker Pierre Duberge and his son Christophe. There has been recent investment in new stainless steel fermentation equipment and the cellar is spotlessly clean.
The first smell of this wine is earthiness, spice, and red fruits. The taste reveals a deep sweet plum flavor with great balance of sweet and acid. This was my favorite of the tasting probably due to the two types of Cabernet grapes. The Merlot softens the wine and pairs wonderfully with the tenderness of the beef. This wine is a real bargain befitting wines three or four times as expensive.
There are lots of other examples of French Merlot based wines in local groceries and liquor stores. Look for wines from St. Emilion, Pomerol, Lalande de Pomerol, Cotes du Castillon and Cotes de Bordeaux. These wines are all from the right bank of the Gironde River and are predominately Merlot. Often the back label on the bottle will show the percentages of the grapes used.