Our wine columnist has lined up some comparative tastings to pass the time while we practise social distancing during the COVID-19 crisis.
In my last column, I proposed that as long as we’re practising social distancing, we can use this time to learn more about wine. For this first instalment of our self-isolation wine course, I’ve chosen two of the most popular red grapes: cabernet sauvignon and merlot.
I had a few emails from readers telling me they don’t want to drink two bottles at one sitting. Wines can last, and even improve, when they’re open for a few days.
While cab has seen extraordinary growth over the last decade and is now the world’s most-planted red grape, merlot has been on the decline. Many put some of the blame on the 2004 film Sideways — the lead character, Miles, does nothing but trumpet Californian pinot noir and denigrate merlot — but the real reason is a lot of poor-quality merlot was being made. (But do check out the film!)
Cab is much more tolerant of different soil types and climate, while merlot is more finicky if you want to make an interesting wine. But many of the world’s greatest wines owe a debt to merlot as being part of the blend. And after all, Château Pétrus is one of the world’s most sought-after wines, and it’s 100 per cent merlot!
While most people look at these two grapes separately, in their native Bordeaux they rarely stand alone. Bordeaux’s Left Bank is warmer and with a longer growing season, so the wines are dominated by cab. The best-known communes are Pauillac, St-Julien and Margaux. The shorter growing season is on the Right Bank, so merlot dominates the blend. Pomerol and St-Émilion are the most esteemed Right Bank wines, but there are many lesser-known regions that make great merlot-driven wines.
The reason for blending the two is that while cab has refined tannins and lots of power, it can have a weak mid-palate. Merlot fills that hole with its softer, more velvety texture. Merlot’s red, plummy fruit also nicely complements the cassis and blackberry notes of cab. As a result, we get more complex wines.
What to look for in your two wines? The ones I suggested in the previous column are:
Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, Maipo, Intriga, Chile red, $22.90, SAQ # 11766520
Merlot 2018, Reserve, Valle De Uco, Salentein, Argentina red, $21, SAQ # 10894474
If you purchased those two, or are planning to pick them up, this what to look for when tasting them side by side.
The Intriga is a classic Chilean cab. Notice the dark fruits — mostly blackberry — alongside a subtle green note, in this case a mix of tomato leaf and eucalyptus. Cab almost always has a green note, which can range from mint to green pepper.
The merlot from Salentein, while more powerful than a typical Bordeaux merlot, shows what I love about the grape. Despite the heft, notice the richer mid-palate, the creamier texture. This bottle has a touch of vanilla as well. Both cab and merlot handle oak quite well, so one often encounters barrel-driven notes of vanilla and dried spice.
For food pairings, merlot is more versatile than cab. Its softer tannins make it a better match for less fatty meats and vegetarian recipes. Because of its more tannic structure, cab gets the thumbs-up for fattier meats and, due to its green notes, is a perfect match for lamb.
Next week’s wine suggestions:
Pinot Grigio 2018, Terra Viva, Perlage, Italy white, $15.55, SAQ # 13710811
Pinot Gris 2018, Reserve, Mission Hill Family Estate, British Columbia white, $22.95, SAQ # 12545008
Any Italian pinot grigio will do, and feel free to get a pinot gris from Oregon or Alsace, or today’s $20-$25 Wine of the Week, B.C.’s Mt. Boucherie.
Ask me questions at firstname.lastname@example.org