Merlot: Meh or Magnificent?
Wine Editor Ray Isle tastes a great $220 Merlot from Bordeaux—and finds a few $20 bottles to compete with it.
Oh, Merlot. What a sadly abused grape it is. Ever since Sideways came out—and we’re talking twelve years ago now—Merlot has been a byword for “uncool wine.” Add that to the fact that it’s always been shoved to the side as sort-of-like-Cabernet-but-not-as-interesting, and you have a real image problem. I’m tempted to call it the Coldplay of grapes.
But to that I will say one thing: 2009 Château Troplong Mondot. I had this wine on a recent trip to Bordeaux, and if anyone wants a red that will convince them in about five seconds that Merlot can make absolutely outstanding, utterly gorgeous wines, track down a bottle of this Sainte-Émilion grand cru classé right now. Still very young (but at least approachable), it’s layered with luscious blackberry, espresso and dark chocolate flavors; it’s powerfully tannic, but the tannins are so ripe that they feel plush and blanketing rather than astringent. It’s 15.5 percent alcohol, which puts it into the uncool zone when it comes to cool-kid wine folk, but the hell with that, I say. I’d drink this wine all day and all night and be thrilled by every sip.
Er—if only I could afford it. The 2009 Troplong Mondot runs about $220 a bottle. It’s one of the few wines I’ve tasted this year that justifies that kind of price, but the fact that the price is justified has very little to do with my own checking account balance.
Thankfully, Bordeaux is also, I’d say, the best source on the planet right now for really wonderful Merlot-based wines that don’t cost too much. Generally, the thing to do is head to the satellite regions: check out the Côtes de Bordeaux, Fronsac, Lalande de Pomerol; Bordeaux Superieur is also an option. I’m a big fan of the mysteriously-still-findable 2010 Chateau Puygueraud (about $20) in the Côtes de Francs—year in and year out, proprietor Nicholas Thienpont’s polished, blue- and blackberry-ripe red is one of Bordeaux’s top steals; ditto the 2010 Château Gigault Cuvée Viva ($18), which has some suggestions of Troplong-Mondot's plush richness at a fraction of the price. For a few dollars more, look for the 2012 Château Fombrauge (about $30), which (a) is a bargain for grand cru classé Saint-Émilion and (b) will do a fine job of converting Merlot skeptics. And if you feel like buying bargain Bordeaux futures, you'd do well to check out of Patrick Léon’s 2015 Château Le Troix Crox (about $15). Léon used to make Château Mouton Rothschild—the fellow knows his winemaking—and his family’s Fronsac property produces a fine-tannined red with lovely ripe blackberry fruit for, effectively, a song. It doesn’t have the kind of regal luxury that the Troplong Mondot has, but at a 15th of the price, who cares, right?