Merlot: The Chicken Of The Wine World?

Is Merlot the chicken of the wine world? I don’t mean like scared or “birdbrained.” I mean that it is a wine that is the “safe bet.”

Let me elaborate.

When people go out to dinner when traveling or even at a new restaurant, and they see exotic dishes on the menu that they are not familiar with, what do they order? More often than not, they order the chicken. This is because it is the safe bet – the one thing that is non-offensive and that won’t be too outside the box, or I should say palate, for them to stomach.

I could argue that Merlot has many of the same parallels. Merlot as a wine is most often categorized in flavor and commonly found on a wine list somewhere between Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot Noir is a bit too light in body and color for some red wine drinkers. To them it doesn’t have enough “stuffing” or structure. I’ve even heard that it is too soft and wimpy. (I cringe at the thought, since Pinot Noir is my favorite; delicate yes, but never wimpy.) Pinot Noir usually expresses the red spectrum of fruits such as cherries, strawberries and the like. On the other end of the spectrum you have Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet is king and it shows in every glass. It is quite often the heaviest wine of the evening. It does not want for body, thickness, tannin, color or obvious flavor when made properly. Cabernet has darker fruits – black fruits abound usually combined with significant amounts of oak influence. In many cases, it is the ultimate for red wine drinkers.

Merlot fills in the gap between the two. It is not light and it is generally not heavy or as heavy as Cabernet Sauvignon. It exhibits both red and black fruits: plums, cranberries and blackberries at times. It also can take a judicious amount of oak treatment without losing its varietal character. Merlot is quite often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon to soften Cabernet in addition to adding complexity, so it makes sense that Cabernet drinkers also can make space in a glass for it.

I have also heard that Merlot is like the chicken of the wine world because it is simply a vector for other flavors. Do we really eat chicken because we like the taste of chicken? Or is it because we love to put the shoyu, curry sauce or sweet and sour sauce all over the rice? Do we really like chicken, or is the salty, crunchy skin and batter that drive us crazy for it? Some think Merlot doesn’t have a whole lot of intrinsic flavor, but I think it actually does. It just isn’t as provocative or impactful as Cabernet. It is not as easy to recognize and therefore can be mistaken for a lack of flavor.

Merlot also has only two syllables just like chi-cken … go check ‘um, go check ‘um, go. My apologies to Rap Replinger, but it also might help to explain why Merlot is easy to order. It is very easy to say, much easier than Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon. Now, if Merlot is the chicken, I suppose Pinot Noir is the fish and Cabernet Sauvignon is the beef.

So what’s for dinner? Recommendations: 2008 St Clement Merlot ($24) Plenty of stuffing in this one. Sweet and dried plums, smoky and spicy nuances lead to a medium plus body and an overall impression of satisfaction. 2009 Santadi Carignano “Grotta Rossa” ($15) This Sardinian wine is full of the Mediterranean sun. It boasts with cooked notes of sweet strawberries and cherries along with savory spices. It lingers with mocha and even a hint of chocolate – yummy.