Ah, the Mel Tormé of wine grapes. It produces a smooth, luscious, thick red from its black grapes – when well made, its blackberry notes sing in your glass like a blackbird… which in French is merle. Oh, I know, French wines don’t traditionally go by the grape variety, and merlot is in the French context best known as one of the three varieties that go into red Bordeaux (or, as the British call it, claret). But in the New World, where wines quite often go by varietal name, many merlots have been made. And it is a wine that you can pour on a date as you murmur low, or with this blackbird (yes, merlot does come from merle) you can be singing in the dead of night…
But in recent years things have gone a bit Sideways for merlot. Ah, yes, that movie with Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, and Sandra Oh, wherein the lead character waxes poetic about pinot noir (the grape of the great Burgundies, true, but also a grape that has produced more overpriced crap wine than probably any other – you’re at the high-stakes table with pinot) and inveighs against – cannot abide – threatens to leave if anyone pours – merlot.
Well. That almost seemed to deal a coup mortel against merlot, at least among the mid-level wine snob set. The pretty-plumed blackbird gained the look of a molter; the merle was nudged closer to merde. And it will be some time before the word will be largely free of the taint it acquired from that movie. But merlot is not some harlot – nor does merlot rhyme with harlot. No, to quote a probably apocryphal bon mot from Margot Asquith speaking to Jean Harlow about the pronunciation of Margot, “the t is silent, as in Harlow.”
Indeed, one may rhyme it with Margaux, which just happens to be one of the best châteaux of Bordeaux – and, of course, Margaux wines contain merlot, along with cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. In Margaux the merlot sings beautifully, smoothly but not without tremolo.
And the word? Well, it depends in part on how New World or Old World you want the style. The most New World style – I really mean anglophone – starts it like murmur: smooth and quiet and without any real edge. But if you keep a taste of the French influence, it starts like mare, and then it can be a real dark horse. If you go with a Spanish way of speaking it – they do make rather nice merlots in Chile, for one – it gains just a touch of spice with the thrill of the trill. Say it in the Old World style – like the French – and you get the tongue gurgling a little in the back, but that deep tone is not of the gutter; it is shy but inviting, revealing depths that then come out to a pure finish, no contracting to a diphthong… a word best said by a beautiful Frenchwoman. And drunk with a beautiful person of whatever culture and sex.