There seems to be a bit of buzz ramping up regarding Merlot in the blogosphere this week and I wanted to add my two cents. I was recently talking to a colleague about my concerns about Merlot disappearing from Napa. It seems every time you turn around someone else is pulling a Merlot vineyard to replant it to Cabernet Sauvignon. I really like Merlot. When it is done well, it is a beautiful thing. However, during the PS era (pre-Sideways) there was quite a bit of very bad Merlot on the market since it was the “it” grape. The quintessential red wine of America, one could almost look up “red wine” in the dictionary and have a picture and description of Merlot as the definition. Post-sideways, it became the least desirable, least flashy workhorse of the wine world and sales plummeted for the next few years and vineyards began to pull it.
The pulling has slowed however it is becoming harder and harder to find good Merlot. I personally feel that Cabernet needs a little bit of Merlot. It fills in the middle and rounds out the edges. There is a reason these varieties are blended together most of the time because they truly do complement each other. The Sommelier Files brought up a great point saying “Thanks to the combination of soft tannins and finesse, the distinct flavors of … high-quality Merlots are also very approachable and fantastic with winter dishes.” It’s a great variety and one that I would hate to see reduced further in the valley. I have a fear that we as winemakers are going to wake up one day to a monoculture of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa and have no Merlot or Cabernet Franc to enhance it.
I’m not fortunate enough to own vineyard land in Napa but if I did, I’d be looking at all my neighbors planting Cabernet Sauvignon and probably would decide to go with Merlot. If you are planting now one has to think about the market in 3-6 years and beyond. I think Merlot is going to be the scarcer commodity in a few year’s time and it might be quietly coming back while no one is looking.
I took a very interesting elective in college called “The Bible as Literature.” My first choice, “History of the Old South: A look at Antebellum Society” didn’t fit into my schedule and the biblical course seemed like an intriguing topic given the only way I had ever looked at the Bible was from a religious context. It was an enlightening class and one of the questions we had to answer in essay form was the following one;
“Is the Cannon Closed?”
Meaning, could any new books (or newly discovered books) ever be added to the bible and be accepted as valid gospel the way the current layout has been.
What does this have to do with wine you may be asking yourself?
A similar question popped into my head while I was going over my German grape varieties for an upcoming WSET Level 3 class I taught this weekend.
“What does it take for new crosses to become classic varieties?”
Germany has quite a few crossed varieties that make up some of the top 5 varieties grown there. They include Muller-Thurgau, a variety crossed in 1882 by Dr Hermann Muller (born in Thurgau), which is Riesling crossed with Madeleine Royal (a table grape) and Dornfelder bred in 1956 by August Herold a cross of Helfensteiner and Heroldrebe (an earlier cross by the same breeder). None of these are widely considered to be great varieties on the global scale. Germany’s greatest variety, Riesling, has not yet reached the masses the way some of us Riesling lovers would have liked it to. Jancis Robinson recently commented on this in one recent post.
That makes me wonder, if Riesling can’t catch on then what chance do any of the “new” varieties have?
Let’s face it. According to Carole Meredith’s DNA research at UC Davis, Cabernet Sauvignon was a chance crossing of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc likely sometime in the 17th century. It took close to 400 years for Cabernet to become the king that it is. That’s not exactly a rapid rise to fame but if one was to graph acres planted over those 400 years, the exponential growth that Cab has seen over the past 50 year probably made the previous 350 look like a flat line.
So does this mean that if a new cross really looked like it had potential, it would be embraced faster than an already existing variety? It is possible but I would be highly skeptical. I think a bias exists against new varieties, particularly those that may be unfortunate enough to be called “hybrids”, meaning a cross of a Vitis vinifera with a non vinifera. I would like to believe that the wine community would have an open mind when it comes to trying out these varieties but deep down, I don’t think that is the case.
My Alma Mater, Cornell, has been churning out new and improved varieties for many decades but none of them have a very wide appreciation in the winemaking community. See all of them here. All bred to be easier to grow, deeper color, more resistant to fungal infections. Who wouldn’t want to plant a vine that they didn’t have to worry about spraying? It would make Organic viticulture so much easier, particularly in humid environments.
But does it make as good quality as our existing varieties? I think it is highly unlikely that growers in what we consider classic wine regions would try out some of these new varieties. Why, you ask? It’s supply and demand. There is no demand for varieties that consumers have never heard about. Sommeliers, even though most are looking for new and different, are not clamoring for the newest varieties on the scene. The rise now is among traditional varieties native to their mother countries that have been lost for ages but are now being resurrected by growers wanting to salvage the remaining remnants of their viticultural history. A noble effort and one which should not be discounted but does this also hold true for the native grapes of the US? I don’t think so, because they are not vinifera species as the European varieties are.
At some point in wine history the “classic” international varieties were established. I’m not going to venture a guess as to when exactly, but it happened. After that point no other varieties are likely to rise to the global greatness that Cabernet or Chardonnay have enjoyed since. Like the number of books in the bible, the door has been closed and it is unlikely that it will be opened again. This ventures the question as to why we keep trying to breed new varieties? I suppose it is in search of the elusive variety that makes vinifera quality wine with better resistance to disease resulting in less chemicals sprayed. It is a noble cause but one with innumerable failures before seeing success.
Or perhaps the future does not lie in global powerhouse varieties but in sparingly planted regionally specialized varieties similar to craft spirits and craft beer that the interested consumer can seek out. An exceptionally niche industry led by the “ABC movement” (Anything but Chardonnay) driving customers to the new and different. In that case, breed away grape breeders. The future may be brighter than I can imagine. I hope so.
What do you think it would take for new varieties to become widely accepted?
Like a duck gliding slowly, wings spread wide, feet reaching for landing on a pond, we are coming to the end of an incredibly fast harvest. Last week we saw extreme temperatures. Extreme cold in the mid 40s and extreme heat in the mid 90s. I have seen some vineyards in Calistoga with frost damage at this point and that only reconfirms my belief that the season is coming to a close. We have about a week an a half left of harvest at the winery to bring in all the remaining fruit. It is mostly Bordeaux varieties with one lone block of Chardonnay down in Carneros that routinely takes its sweet time ripening.
The theme of this year has been low extractability. We are having to work extremely hard to extract what color and flavors are in the skins. Maybe that is a result of the drought. Maybe the skins are thicker and harder due to the lack of water. However, this was not the case last year which was also a drought year. Quality looks good. We are just having to work harder to keep it than in 2013. It also seems to be a year of slow yeast. Very few fermentations are “finishing strongly” with most going well until 3 or 4 Brix then slowing down to a crawl to the finish line.
For myself, I’ve signed up for a 10K on November 9th in Calistoga. I wanted something to look forward to and work towards now that the Master of Wine program is no longer in my life. Personally, I really can’t stand running. I much prefer dancing, Pilates, Yoga, or even biking to running. However, if I want to push myself I can’t stick with the easy stuff. I have to motivate myself to do it. Unfortunately my training has been hindered by an fateful run in with a tick sometime last month and fighting the resulting infection that may potentially be Lyme disease. Why am I posting this? One, if one person who reads this blog remembers to check for the beastly buggers after wandering around in the outdoors it was worth it. Two, I believe in being open, honest, and fully authentic. In this blog I’m not only writing about wine and winemaking but also its affect on my life. Fortunately and unfortunately, one of the requirements of the job is being outdoors much of the year with all the highs and lows that come with that. I’m under good care and well on my way to making a full recovery however prayers are always appreciated!
Stay safe my friends!