Merlot Strikes Back

As some have already guessed, the subject here is a reference to the movie Sideways, in which the Miles character disses Merlot in favor of Pinot Noir and, as a result, the movie producers unwittingly cost Merlot producers millions of dollars due to lost sales. The setting for this unplanned payback was this weekend’s annual Merlot and Mignon vertical at Keuka Spring Vineyards (KSV). As with their Shrimp and Chardonnay and the recently added Going Gewürtz events, it is a fun opportunity to see how recent vintages compare and are holding up, and to share food and friendship.

Menu with tasting notes.

Menu with tasting notes.

Our emcee and Keuka Spring winemaker is August Deimel, a fairly recent graduate from the Cornell graduate program, an incandescent ball of energy, and a bellyful of laughs per minute. August introduces the program by asking the question, “why Merlot?” and answers it by stating that in his experience making KSV wine with KSV fruit, Merlot has proved both consistent and flexible. It makes a consistently good varietal, and is also included in KSV’s two red blends – Miller’s Cove Red and Epic. Before returning to Pinot Noir, a brief review of the program.

Vertical awaiting enjoyment.

Vertical awaiting enjoyment.

All of us were delighted with the bounty, which included Merlot from 2007 and each succeeding year through 2012. The wines were served in two flights, with the younger three (2010, 2011, and 2012) served first. They were accompanied by a plate of food, the pièce de resistance of which was co-owner Len Wiltberger’s famous Filet Mignon slider. Len has been making this recipe for years, bonds with it as a mother hen does with her chicks, and may be as proud of the sliders as he is of the successful business he and wife Judy built with their daughter Jeanne and son Mark.

Of the first flight, 2010 and 2012 were fairly similar, since they came from fairly similar hot and dry seasons. Both had nice cherry noses, were well balanced, and exhibited a nice finish. The 2011 was the product of an odd wet-at-the-end year that caused growers fits, and it had a decidedly earthy nose. Surprisingly, it seemed to be more complex, and it kept kicking around in the finish doing all sorts of interesting things. As to why, August said (2011 was his first vintage) that sometimes it is better to be lucky than good considering the challenges of that season, but he was certainly happy.

Turning to the second flight, I tried the 2009 first. The year was pretty bad for reds since it was so cool, but I have been really surprised sometimes. Today was not one of them, as the wine to my taste was just OK. The 2008 was quite good, and the 2007, which I have had several times, is one of a kind. It is still deep garnet, still has amazing fruit and tannin, and is simply the complete package.

At the end of the event, the conversation returned to a remark August had made at the outset, when he talked about the history of KSV and expressed gratitude to Len and Judy for allowing him to drop Pinot Noir. One of the guests asked why, and this turned into the best Pinot Noir rant ever. Two minutes into it, I was kicking myself for not recording it, but the highlights included:

  • Pinot Noir is a genetically damaged grape.
  • It is falling apart in the vineyard due to genetics, and once you make it, it can fall apart in the barrel.
  • Some people like to chase Moby Dick, and some like to sleep at night.
  • And so on.

It was a devilish rant that had all of us in stitches, but it actually begs a serious and controversial question, which is: of the grapes we are growing in the Finger Lakes, which should we drop?

The answers vary dramatically between winemakers. Whereas August thinks Merlot is consistent, others view it as finicky. Whereas Pinot Noir certainly is, others are totally committed to it. Some say we should lose Gewürtzraminer, because we have a tough time competing with Alsace and it’s less popular with customers. We also have varietals like Sangiovese that only do well in good seasons and are less winter hardy, so why do it? Bob Madill, who is a Finger Lakes luminary, was recently quoted wondering (paraphrase alert) if we should even be bothering with reds. And aside from plusses and minuses of particularly varietals, we are also prone to criticism from wine journalists that we are doing too much and don’t know what we want to be when we grow up.

These are tough questions for wineries, and they are tough questions for the Finger Lakes wine industry. Regardless of the outcome though, the journey is fascinating.


About keukaharv

Living and loving life in the beautiful Finger Lakes Wine Country.
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