“I’m not drinking any [bleeping] Merlot”. Actor Paul Giamatti in his role of Miles Raymond, an unpublished and struggling novelist, delivers this memorable line in the 2004 classic movie “Sideways”. It created what has become known in the wine industry as the “Sideways Effect”: the impact of adverse or favorable publicity in the media on trends in product sales. In this case, sales of Merlot failed to keep up after the release of “Sideways” with increasing sales of Miles’ favorite wine, Pinot Noir. “The ‘Sideways’ Effect: A test for changes in the demand for Merlot and Pinot Noir wines” by Steven S. Cuellar in the January 2009 Issue of Wines & Vines ( https://winesvinesanalytics.com/features/article/61265/The-Sideways-Effect) presents strong evidence for the Effect.
So what does this have to do with Bordeaux? Recall so-called “right-bank” Bordeaux usually has Merlot as its primary grape varietal, judiciously blended with smaller proportions of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, or Petit Verdot. In the French tradition, labels on Bordeaux bottles have no mention of varietals, which have different proportions in different vintages of the same brand. This tradition may have saved right bank Bordeaux from the “Sideways Effect”.
Bordeaux vineyards have selected Merlot clones that thrive in the red clay on the right bank of the River Dordogne and yield superior grapes for winemaking. Not so in many California plantings of the grape where neither soil or climate proves ideal for growing Merlot. At a time when people new to red wine found it fashionable to say “Merlot” when ordering wine, “Sideways” reflected as much as it created a growing dissatisifaction with increasing volumes of inferior California Merlot.
Bordeaux wines in general have not kept pace with growth of wines sales in international markets during the last decade, but for reasons that have nothing to do with declining popularity of Merlot in the USA. Wine collectors engaged in the Bordeaux futures markets have seen the demand for fine wines shifting to other regions. French Burgundy, Champagne, and Rhône wines have gained a much larger share of the futures market than a decade ago, but so have Italian, Californian, Spanish, Argentinian, and Chilean wines. Data compiled in a July 2020 Decanter article by Chris Mercer (https://www.decanter.com/learn/bordeaux-wine-investment-20-years-438877/ ) show that the Bordeaux share of fine wine futures declined from 95% in 2010 to 50% in 2020.
Bad news for Bordeaux means good news for wine buyers with a taste for robust red wines. Now’s the time to take advantage of easing of demand for bargain right-bank Bordeaux in the $15 to $50 range. Jorg Decressin, an international economist and longtime buyer of Bordeaux wines recommends wines from the Saint-Emilion 2015 (though rarely available), 2018, and 2019 vintages. The 2018 Chateau La Marzelle ($15), the 2018 Chateau du Bousquet (from Bourg, $18), the 2019 Chateau Laroque Saint-Emilion Grand Cru ($37), and the Chateau Fombruge Saint-Emilion Grand Cru ($46) have high ratings and even higher quality/price ratios. These wines require less aging in the bottle to soften harsh tannic acids and will in due time develop soft and silky tastes of dried stone fruit, vanilla, and cocao.
These wines work well as alternatives to pricier Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Rhône Syrah, and Italian Piedmont Nebbiolo and Tuscan Sangiovese. They have potential for improving with age during the next decade. If opened now, decanting the bottle and letting the wine breathe for a few hours helps open up tart plum and blackberry flavors.
An ironic twist in Miles’ damning of Merlot in “Sideways”: Miles was holding back a bottle of the 1961 Cheval Blanc to open when celebrating the publication of his novel. This iconic wine, from one of the more famous Chateau in Bordeaux, blends its primary varietal, Cabernet Franc, with an almost equal proportion of Merlot. S. W. Hermansen has used his expertise in econometrics, data science and epidemiology to help develop research databases for the Pentagon, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Agriculture, and Health Resources and Services. He has visited premier vineyards and taste wines from major appellations in California, Oregon, New York State, and internationally from Tuscany and the Piedmont in Italy, the Ribera del Duero in Spain, the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in Australia, and the Otego Valley in New Zealand. Currently he splits time between residences in Chevy Chase, Maryland and St. Armand’s Circle in Florida.
Rich Hermansen selected has first wine list for a restaurant shortly after graduating from college with a degree in Mathematics. He has extensive service and management experience in the food and wine industry. Family and friends rate him as their favorite chef, bartender, and wine steward. He lives in Severna Park, Maryland.