Even before the movie “Sideways” made hating Merlot fashionable, Merlot was never my favorite wine. If given a choice between Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, I would invariably choose one of the Cabernets or the Pinot. A surprising admission from someone who is a big fan of Long Island wines. After all, Merlot is one of the signature grapes of Long Island. Given my feelings towards Merlot, going to a Merlot Madness event might be considered by many to be, well, madness. But drinking wine is always fun and a night with your least favorite wine can still be a great night. After all we’re not talking about bad wines here, just wines that normally don’t excite me. So, it was with reservations that I signed up for a Merlot tasting event. I knew it would be fun, I knew I would have a good time, but in the back of my mind I was prepared for disappointment. Kind of like going to a Knicks game the past few years.
The event at Jamesport Vineyards, on the North Fork of Long Island, was organized by tasting room manager Laura Hoch and wine club manager Meghan Cerola and was a take-off on the NCAA March Madness. But instead of college basketball teams, in this tournament we chose the winner for each pairing of wine and the winner from one group advanced to the next round, with the winner of the final round declared the champion.
- 2005 Block E Merlot – “The Favorite” – Old world aroma, with hints of beach wood, tobacco and rose pedals. An undefeated regular season. Should breeze through round one against an unproven 2012.
- 2012 East End Merlot – “The Rookie” – Most youthful of the Merlots in the tournament. Shows bright berry, cherry and plum with a slight oakiness. Performed well during the season, but this is the championship. It would be a real bracket buster if this wine moves on past round one against the highly favored Block E.
- 2001 Merlot – “The Veteran” – Some of the scouts think this Merlot has passed its peak and is now coughing and wheezing into the tournament, while some of the more seasoned analysts think this is actually the one to beat. Molasses, hazelnut and caramel apple dominate the nose due to the age of this wine. The tannins in this wine have mellowed and are softer than any of the other Merlots in the Sweet Sixteen. But how soft tannins will hold up in the pressure cooker environment of the finals remains to be seen.
- 2003 Merlot – “The Cool One” – Because the 2003 vintage was a rather cool one, this wine shows lighter fruit and a lighter mid-palate. Bottle aging has tamed the tannins giving it a graceful finish. But can this wine keep its cool in the first round matchup with the 2001 Merlot?
- 2010 Montauk Merlot – “The New Kid in Town” – Medium toast on the nose, followed with cured meat aromatics from the high toast of the oak. Also, higher than usual alcohol due to the heat of the vintage. Unproven in competition this wine will have to be operating on all cylinders to make it into the championship round.
- 2007 Merlot – “The Middle Child” – At this point in its development, this Merlot is showing a distinct blend of both dark and brighter fruit. Crowned an underdog by the media, the smart money had clearly made this the bet of choice. But it has a tough Round 2 with the winner of the ’01 vs. ’03 matchup.
THE EARLY ROUNDS:
As expected the 2005 Merlot blew away the East End in a laugher in the first round. And in double-overtime, the ’03 Merlot beat the ’01 Merlot in a last minute buzzer-beater. In the 2nd round, the 2005 Merlot continued its dominance by thrashing the Montauk Merlot. The Montauk Merlot showed promise for the future, but it is just not ready for competition now. And as the saying goes, wait until next year. And in the other 2nd round qualifier, ’07 Merlot upset the ’03 Merlot. Maybe not be as much a shocker as Duke getting knocked out in the first round, but this outcome left many in the crowd stunned in disbelief.
Lots of excitement in the house as the favorite (The 2005 Merlot) was matched up with what had become the crowd pleaser (the 2007 Merlot). For this reporter, the matchup was too close to call. But after several sips of each, I went with the 2005 vintage. Unfortunately, I was in the minority as the crowd roared as one rooting for the 2007. Nothing like a Cinderella story to get the crowd pumped up. What was expected to be a close game, turned out to be a runaway with the 2007 controlling the game from tip-off to buzzer. The 2007 Merlot was the clear winner, the Most Valuable Pour of the night.
POST GAME ANALYSIS:
As I’ve already confessed, I’m not a big fan of Merlot. They are usually too heavy with too much of a tannin aftertaste for my palate. When I do run across a Merlot that I like, it’s going to be either well aged to lower the tannins or a lighter Merlot from a cooler vintage. Or both. Accordingly I had picked the 2001 and the 2003 in my pre-game analysis as my favorites. Unfortunately my tastes were in the minority and 2007 was the popular choice and my picks for the Merlot competition fared no better than my NCAA brackets.
Was it madness for a non-lover of Merlot to participate in a Merlot tasting? Definitely not! Would I have preferred a Cabernet Franc tasting? Undoubtedly. Was I disappointed? Not in the least. In the final analysis it was a great event. It was fun handicapping the wines, comparing notes with fellow drinkers during the tournament and kicking around the question “What makes a great Merlot?” I know I’m mixing my sports metaphors, but for this reporter, attending the Merlot Madness tournament was like going to a baseball game and watching your least favorite teams. Maybe not your ideal matchup, but hey it’s still the Major Leagues.