Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Apologies in advance to Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc fans

I enjoy drinking wine and drink it regularly.  I try a variety of different grapes and styles from different regions around the world.  I love my wine and am willing to try a lot of different wines.  However, I also value knowing I will be drinking a good to great bottle almost every time I open one.  Therefore, over the years, I have settled on a number of different grapes (or blends) in different styles and from different regions.

Upon moving to Australia almost 15 years ago, I became fixated on the Australian wines.  There are a number of different wine regions, each well suited to various grapes and each region known for producing several great wines.  To get an overview of the different regions, review my 4-series post on the Australian wine regions.  Australia makes a lot of magnificent wines and at great price points.  It is only recently that I have been experimenting and coming to enjoy a broader range of wines globally.

There are four primary red wine grapes and four primary white wine grapes:

Red wine grapes:
  • Merlot
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Shiraz
  • Pinot Noir
White wine grapes:
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Chardonnay
  • Riesling
  • Semillon
A majority of the world's wines are made with these grapes and that is why they are known as the 'primary' grapes.  In the 'secondary' grape category, among the reds, we have Zinfandel, Grenache, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, etc. and among the whites, Marsanne, Verdelho, Gewürztraminer, and so on.  Some of the world's best wines are blends of several grapes to provide some unique characteristics and tastes.

Great wine always starts with great grapes, but the effects and magic of the wine maker can also make a large difference in the finished product, starting with the wine maker determining the best time to pick the grape to get the right characteristics (often sweetness or alcoholic content) from the grape.  Then there are many other techniques the wine maker uses to craft the best wine he/she can make from the grapes.

Probably 60% - 65% of what I drink comes from the the primary red and white grape families - excluding Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc.  The remaining third comes from secondary grapes.  I drink very little Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc and simply do not enjoy the grapes or what the wine maker can possibly do with them as much as most of the other grapes.  Occasionally, I may have a wine with some Sauvignon Blanc blended with Semillion, or some small percentage of Merlot in a red blend.  A Merlot can be used to soften a red wine blend, for example.

I believe the main reason that I do not drink Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc is that there is little the wine maker can do with these grapes compared to most of the others.  The impact of terroir and the influence of the wine maker is less influential on the Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc grape varietals.  Pinot Noir, by comparison, is very highly influenced by the terroir and the wine maker's craftsmanship, which is why the very best Pinot Noirs are very high in demand and almost hallowed.  It is tough to make a bad Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc, but it is even tougher to make a very good, yet alone great one.  (I know some of the very best French Sauvignon Blancs may be argued to be exceptions to this general rule.)

Sauvignon Blanc is often described as tasting like "stewed green tomatoes" or "cat's pee!"  When you start with a grape described like that, I don't expect the wine maker can do much with it!  Both Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot are safe grapes to grow (resistant to changes in conditions) and are often used as an insurance policy for any given vintage to make sure some wine is available in the region.  But by definition, this is the reason the grapes cannot be influenced or crafted into truly great wines.  These two grapes are very common and middle of the road in my mind.

So what do I do for food matching when it obviously calls for a Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc?  For Merlot, it is easy as there are so many different red wine grapes and styles to be able to pick a perfect match to any food, even when Merlot is not considered. 

And everyone knows that Sauvignon Blanc is a natural for fish and seafood, right?  Wrong!  If I am eating fish, and it is a gamier, thicker, or oilier fish, I will have a Pinot Noir, especially if it is served with a tomato sauce or topping.  And if it is a lighter, flakier white fish, then I will opt for a Sauvignon Blanc / Semillon blend.  The Semillon provides some structure and character to the Sauvignon Blanc and is a great match for this type of fish.

For crustaceans or lobster, I love a rich, aged Chardonnay, such as a Montrachet.  And Semillon goes really well with scallops, and a Riesling with crab or prawns.  Therefore, I feel I have it covered and do not need to 'compromise' by drinking a Sauvignon Blanc or Merlot.

This blog was inspired by a comment that Merlot would go really well with pizza, and it probably would, but given the choice, I am going to drink a Sangiovese or Cabernet Sauvignon (like the 1996 Lindemans St George I had with pizza the other night).  I just cannot fancy desiring a Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc when  I have so many other choices available.

If you are a regular Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc drinker, then I apologize if I have offended you, but I encourage you to try some other grapes instead.  We have a great friend with a very good palate and she started drinking Merlot for her first wines, but quickly grew out of that and to a broader and richer spectrum of good wines.

Therefore, if you think Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc are your main and easy choice for wine, then you should experiment a bit and I expect you will be happy with the results.


  1. Thanks Steve for educating me on this subject.
    I'm sorry, but I do love merlot. A good one that is, not rubbish that tastes like cardboard.
    For tomorrow night I will go to the local cellar and buy a Pinot Noir, just because you said it would go with fish and tomato, which I'm cooking then and I do need to try something else.
    I'll let you know later how it turned out.

  2. Steve, an interesting article. I think your views on Merlot, similar to mine I add, are an Australianism. We tend to focus on the full, rich bodies of Shiraz and Cab Sav. We grow them well here whereas Ozzie Merlot tends to taste a bit hollow in the middle. But if you look to Europe there is a stronger appreciation of the flavour that can be extracted from the Merlot grape. Don't forget a contender for the most expensive wine in the world, Chateau Petrus, is a Merlot.

    1. I agree with you Australian generalized perspective on rich, full body reds, but over the last decade I have backed off on that quite a bit, now favoring Pinot Noirs (and Zinfandels), more refined and elegant Shiraz (such as Andrew Thomas made Shiraz), and old world Bordeaux style Cabernet Sauvignons. Therefore, full, rich body is not the only thing I look for in a red. Merlot to me can provide flavor, but lacks complexity and nuance that I find more interesting in other red grapes. However, I have never had a 'world class' Merlot and should try one some day.