Merlot: Better to market fine wines by variety or place?

Masseto

I have been thinking over and over again about the above question since I tasted the Falesco Merlot “Montinao” 2009 a couple of weeks ago.

Merlot had its height of popularity in the US during the late 1980s and 1990s. Personally, I do not find the aromatics or flavors of Merlot to be that distinctive across the globe, such as I find in Cabernet Sauvignon. In my experience, it can have similar qualities to Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux, but I find it to be more like Argentina Malbec in some New World areas. The commonality with Merlot across the globe is a particular texture; plush mid-palate and round tannins. There is no doubt that Pomérols can be highly tannic in their youth, but they are not as angular as Cabernet Sauvignon dominant wines. When it comes to assessing Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot dominant Bordeaux wines in a blind tasting, it is always better to go with texture than aromas and flavors.

Merlot is a variety, in the US, which became known for its easy drinking quality, compared to Cabernet Sauvignon. During the 1990s, there was an increased interest in red wine consumption in the US following the airing of the 60 minutes report on the French Paradox and the potential health benefits of wine. Supposedly, this is how Australian Shiraz made a name for itself in America too.

I think the popularity of a grape variety can be a double edged sword. On one hand, it will increase sales, international recognition, and increase plantings around the globe. But on the other hand, it becomes a tool to simply make money. Clones and canopy management for quantity and not quality are used, bulk production that strips a wine of all unique characteristics are employed, and the variety gains a “bad” reputation. In my experience, the flood of bad Merlot on the market has tarnished the image of the higher end wines. This has happened to Chardonnay fine wines too, with many consumers telling me that they love white Burgundy, but they cannot stand Chardonnay.

Sideways Picture

Sideways, a movie that I did not see until a couple of years ago, was an instigator to bring to the forefront that there was a large amount of ubiquitous Merlot on the wine market. I actually do not like this movie for many reasons. And yes, here is my, “I cannot stand the Sideways movie” rant. First of all, the lead character is despicable; he steals from his mother!?!? Yes, he seems like a nice guy compared to his friend, but that is not saying much. And then he spends the whole movie feeling sorry for himself, because his life is not fair. I have met people who grew up in the projects (i.e. lower income neighborhoods) with no father, mother in jail, life on the line every day during their childhood, and they found a way to take responsibility for themselves. Okay, end of rant. And please feel free to try to enlighten me to the redeeming qualities of this character.

Another issue I have with the movie is the fact that the main character is a stereotype of a wine snob. He makes fun of Merlot and all those who would dare to drink it, while saying that Pinot Noir is really the only variety worth drinking. Now, let me tell you, my favorite variety has always been Pinot Noir (even though I know the good, bad, and ugly), but I also realize that Merlot is just as high in quality as Pinot Noir, but they just have very different qualities, and hence, different consumers will prefer one or the other.

Through time, Merlot gained a bad reputation as a variety that was not for “real” connoisseurs of wine. The numbers show that Merlot never went out of style when it came to general sales in the US, since according to a study that was released by Nielsen in 2010, sales of Merlot have steadily increased in the US since the release of Sideways. Alternatively, one could argue that this is purely due to the fact that wine sales have significantly increased in the US as a whole since that time.

Even though I think the whole Sideways and Merlot effect was over exaggerated, Merlot has suffered, perhaps for several reasons, by gaining a lesser perception of quality than Cabernet Sauvignon in the fine wine world.

And that leads me to my question: Is it better for producers to market Merlot fine wines by the variety or by the origin of place?

There is certainly the benefit of great opportunities for regions to form a “collective tide”, such as they did in promoting Oregon’s Pinot Noir. I wrote earlier in this post about Australia taking advantage of the trend in red wine growth a couple of decades back. Considering Australia is not a country most Americans have a connection to, like the UK, it is remarkable the major success they were able to achieve in the US in a short amount of time with “Brand Australia”. Of course, this has back fired to a certain extent, because not only has it become impossible for them to keep the low price point that initially made them such a success on the market, but it has created an association that Australia is mid level quality at best. Australia, in recent times, has tried to educate trade and consumers by defining specific areas such as Clare Valley for Riesling and Coonawarra for Cabernet Sauvignon. They have realized that the “Australia” brand does not bode well for fine wines, and hence, defining specific areas for high quality production in their marketing is key for the growth of their fine wines.

Many New World wine producing countries may find it difficult to resist the temptation to plant Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, since the power of the variety may help them gain international acceptance in their export sales, but again, the double edge sword comes into play. They may easily get lost in the sea of dominant international grape varieties that flood the shelves of wine stores and supermarkets. Rajeev Samant, Founder and CEO of Sula Vineyards in India, said that he planted international varieties, such as the above varieties mentioned, because he had a limited resource of information in regards to matching varieties to place. At the Masters of Wine Symposium earlier this year in Florence, he said how much he enjoyed learning information from a grape geneticist and co-author of the “Wine Grapes” book, Dr José Vouillamoz, who lectured at the symposium. He realized after talking to Dr. Vouillamoz that it would have been better to plant Tempranillo in his vineyards, which is a variety more suited to his terroir. Also through time, he has realized that the most interesting marketing aspect for his wines is the fact that they come from India! But hindsight is 20/20.

In the Old World, connecting a wine to place, over variety, has typically taken precedence, with few exceptions, Alsace notably being one of them. Castello Banfi, an American company, knew how important it was to raise the brand of Tuscany as a whole, considering the cheap Chianti that US consumers associated with the region. Tuscany has become a more valued marketing term for fine wines than the variety Sangiovese. Conversely, Burgundy has had issues with the mid market level because they did not allow grape varieties on their regional Bourgogne wines until a few years ago. But I feel on the fine wine side, they are best to stick with marketing the place. Even villages in Burgundy that have gained more acceptance in the younger US fine wine market, such as Vosne-Romanée or Chambolle-Musigny, will get a higher price than their equally high quality village siblings due to the fact they are the “it” villages for the new wave of consumers today.

Many people have asked Christian Moueix why he would not make a Merlot dominant wine in Napa Valley with Dominus, since he is known for making the most famous Merlot dominant wine in the world, Château Petrus (typically around 95% Merlot). Well, he said that he fell in love with the place of Napa Valley, and that it was more important to him to express place, than a specific variety. The great 100% Merlot wine Masseto has found success by not marketing itself by variety, but by marketing the idea that it is from a specific 17 acre plot (roughly 7 hectares) in Bolgheri. I have had many conversations with wine consumers who love Masseto, and they had no idea that it was Merlot. And actually, I do not find that to be such a bad thing, especially if they have some idea about the place, because the wine is about place not variety.

For most fine wines, whether it is Merlot or another single or blend of varieties, it is more important to market these wines based on place. Why spend a high price or search the ends of the earth for a wine if it can be essentially made almost anywhere? And also, I do not mind when consumers have no idea what grape variety is in a fine wine. Some may like to mock such lack of knowledge, and besides the idea that I cannot stand when those who work in the trade mock their customers (we are here to serve them, not the other way around), it is also interesting to note that perhaps they may not know the variety for these fine wines, but they know the place.

And isn’t that the way it should be?

 

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