Ever since it was named a winner 39 years ago during the Battle of Paris, California Cabernet Sauvignon has been synonymous with being big, bold and brash. While this is certainly a great wine to drink when pairing with a thick steak or a hearty meal, it has also led to many winemakers pushing other varietals to equally large proportions. While this can be good for Zinfandel and certain other varietals, it can actually be harmful to many grapes that thrive on simpler, softer profiles. This is not just limited to smaller, lesser known varietals, but to two of the most famous grapes as well, Merlot and Pinot Noir.
That these two grapes would even be mentioned as having something in common might seem far-fetched, thanks to the effect the movie Sideways had on the wine drinking population. In this movie, centered around a two-man bachelor party weekend in California wine country, the character of the best man, played by Paul Giamatti, rails against what he sees as the commonality of Merlot and extols the virtues of Pinot Noir.
In the short term, this had disastrous results for both varietals. The popularity of Pinot Noir surged uncontrollably, leading many winemakers to release wines that were poorly made, simply to cash in on the trend. Pinot Noir is a notoriously hard grape to work with, which is why traditionally it has a smaller production run than other major varietals. On the other hand, many winemakers were suddenly stuck with a glut of Merlot on their hands. In order to try and find a market for it, they blended it with Cabernet and other grapes, hoping to create a wine with a big flavor profile in hopes that it would compete.
Eleven years since the movie's release, the pendulum in the wine drinking world has started to swing the other way. Some winemakers are still trying to create big wines with both varietals, but many others are embracing the wines they can make by focusing on the particular strengths of each grape. A well-made and aged Merlot will have a soft mouth feel with subtle flavors of fruits, jams and berries, with a lesser degree of earthiness to it as well. This makes it an excellent wine for enjoying on its own as well as pairing with meals. When done right, Pinot Noir can have a rich strong flavor, full of tobacco and leather, and stand up to many heartier dishes without relying on a cloyingly full mouth feel. Especially among the new generations of winemakers who are able to focus on quality over quantity, these two varietals are the ones they are turning to in order to establish their wineries and create an identity for themselves.
Jack Terry is a freelance writer who has been covering the food and beverage industry for over 20 years. http://www.wineclubworld.com