If not strictly brother to Cabernet Sauvignon, cousin Merlot is at least stylistically related. Both are core varieties in the classic Bordeaux mix, and Merlot has also made the transition to California with almost effortless aplomb. Merlot ripens earlier in the season than Cabernet, and its wines tend to be slightly less intense, but that still allows for wines of depth, dimension and personality. (Merlot’s inherent softness allows it to be blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, acting as flesh to Cabernet’s bone just as Semillon fleshes out Sauvignon Blanc’s skeleton on the white side of the “Bordeaux” equation.)
Merlot has some of the same range as Cabernet Sauvignon—the warmest locations in the county—but also has the ability to produce wines of character in the most sun-exposed areas in some of the cooler regions, like Russian River and Carneros.
Though not quite so dark in color as the Cabernet, Merlot has great breadth in style, from the lighter, fruitier, picnic type wines, to the fuller-bodied, goes-with-Prime Rib approach. Again, grown in cooler spots or harvested early, Merlot tends toward the bell pepper and herbaceous end of the spectrum, with green olive and Jalapeño pepper. In the warmer spots, picked later, you get the full-blown red currant and cassis, a little Santa Rosa plum, and what some call “cigar box” essences. Cranberry and soy sauce are also occasional descriptors.
That means that the barbecue is a good place for Sonoma County Merlot, attending nicely to ribs, grilled chicken, Tri-tip, burgers and not to mention your mother’s favorite meat loaf recipe. Serve ‘em up with a selection of great fresh vegies, and you’ve got a symphony of taste pleasure awaiting you.