Following a familiar grape as it travels down toward the Mediterranean to ripen and then takes sticker prices south as well
Here are two Merlots that dip way down low, in terms of vineyard location and also in terms of retail pricepoint. These do not come from the land of Pomerol or Friuli or any other Merlot-centric region (which capitalize on the grape variety's ability to perform well in relatively cooler climates). Perhaps not coming from any of those places is partly why these versions demand less money. Indeed these are not Bordeaux by a long shot. These are from the sunny Midi (which has a much warmer climate), and at the very least it offers something a lot of Bordeaux and Northern Italian reds can't offer. Bargain Merlot.
Basement-bin bargain Merlot. These two bottles are among the cheapest recent shipments in Quebec. Click on the images for detailed product information.
Of Merlot, a traditional grape within the Bordeaux blend and mainstay in the areas surrounding the Gironde and Gascony, Jancis Robinson contributes the following to her Oxford Companion to Wine:
With Syrah, Merlot has been a major beneficiary of the Languedoc's recent replanting with 'improving' grape varieties. Total plantings in the Languedoc more than doubled between 1988 and 1998 to reach 18,500 ha. Most of this is destined for vins de pays for the only Languedoc appellations to sanction Merlot within their regulations are Cabardès and Côtes de la Malepère. Merlot has been a much more successful import here than Cabernet Sauvignon and can produce some good value, fruity wines for drinking young, many of which were shipped to the United States in the mid 1990s to satisfy American demand for this most fashionable of wines.These two bottles of Merlot definitely have the potential to be great buys -- they come in at roughly $10 a bottle -- though in these post-Sideways days, one wonders how fashionable these bottles really are. Popular trends aside, since they are produced from the same grape variety from the same wine region from the same vintage, it seemed so natural for me to compare them in a single post. Yet despite their "face-value" commonalities, I looked closer to unpack some issues around the production of these wines.
DOES BARGAIN WINE CROSS OVER INTO CORPORATE WINE?
I wondered whether there might be another reason why these wines are so inexpensive. It may have something to do with the fact that they have come out of fairly big, fairly international machines. They are not examples of corporate wine though, or at least I am not considering them to be.
While the Fortant de France brand is part of the massive holdings of the Skalli Family -- the first French producers to make a splash with wine that touted grape variety rather than appellation -- it still captures a certain place and certain time. When done tastefully, isn't that the most honourable trait of the winemaker, no matter how extensively his family of producers stretch out around the world? ... No matter how much the gimmickry of a certain grape variety on the label may try to usurp that place and time?
Of the two, I actually prefer the Domaine Campradel Vin de Pays D'Oc Merlot 2005 though. I would gladly recommend it over the Fortant de France Vin de Pays D'Oc Merlot 2005, comments above notwithstanding. Domaine Campradel is one of some 40 French estates that produce under the Louis Bernard seal. The Rhône-based Louis Bernard brand you might see on bottles is, more than anything, an alliance between the growers or récoltants and the merchants or négociants, which are what Boisset America, importer of Louis Bernard wine, term as expert sales and management teams. (Corporate-sounding, yes, but no wine production process here is owned or managed by a corporation.) The Boisset America web site explains the relationship with synergistic fervour: "Because the members of the executive team are also wine specialists, a commitment to quality wine is maintained on every level." Where there's a claim to quality wine, my open mouth is never far behind.
THE TASTING NOTES START HERE
The Campradel was fairly opaque and deep red in the glass and noticeably richer to the eye than the other Merlot. (Though of the two, the Campradel started out colder which seems to make a difference to the eye when you pour it out -- has anyone else noticed this?) It had a nice brick edge. It was surprising to contrast this with the light fuschia colour and transluscent appearance of the Fortant.
Both Merlots gave off an aroma of sour cherry but the way they tasted seemed to be a direct extension of the way they looked, giving Campradel an edge as a greater value wine. It was full of savoury fruit ranging from cherry to berry to plum to stewed prunes. It had a lovely finish and final note that came off a bit like burnt sugar. Very lovely. Overall it was the wine with a deeper profile.
The Fortant had as much body as the Campradel, but lacked the depth and personality. It did not seem to present much character at all, which is a harsh blow that makes Fortant's varietal endeavour feel more than a bit hollow. But with time, this changed. A greenish run within it that made the wine seem quite astringent finally opened up to reveal promising cocoa tones. It's a wine for splashing about and if you decant it the pay-off is there: Merlot and all its chocolatey smoothness and approachability, a perfect partner for lip-smacking desserts, as the Fortant label suggests.
In the end, quite different directions for these two $10 Merlots from the 2005 Pays d'Oc harvest. I opt for the Campradel and how it pairs readily with dinner. Although I suspect the Fortant has its own equally valuable role too, it's not as impressive.
Orange, Vauclause, France. 14%; Sète, France. 13%.