Like Cinderella, wines based on the Merlot grape have too often been forced by their older and better- established sisters to sit in a corner, just a bit ashamed to make a public appearance. In Bordeaux, where the grape originated, and is, in fact, the most often planted grape in the region, Merlot grapes have a reputation for producing soft wines of limited character. The grapes have never been ignored however. Because wines made from Merlot are said to reduce the sharpness of other wines, they are often blended in relatively small quantities into some of the great Cabernet Sauvignon wines. For many years very few European winemakers gave much thought to bottling a pure Merlot. Even in California, Italy and Chile, where a good deal of Merlot wine is produced, many wineries have a problem selling it because potential buyers have been fairly well convinced that a Merlot simply cannot be as good as a Cabernet Sauvignon. The image of Merlot was tarnished even further in the 2004 film “Sideways,” in which one of the protagonists devoted a great deal of time to derogating it.
All of which is not entirely fair, for the Merlot grape is the basis of the wine of Chateau Petrus, unquestionably one of the greatest Bordeaux red wines. Known as the “king of Pomerol,” Chateau Petrus has produced more consistently great wines year after year than any other chateau in Bordeaux. Rich, supple and elegant at all times and reaching extraordinary heights of finesse in good vintage years, these wines are highly prized and accordingly priced. Simply stated, the fact that Chateau Petrus is based on 95 percent of Merlot grapes demonstrates that in addition to the grape, climate and soil play dominant roles in the creation of great wines. At this writing, the Merlot grape is alive and doing quite well in Israel, the wines giving good competition to many other red grapes.
The first local winery to come out with a wine based primarily on Merlot grapes was The Golan Heights Winery in 1986. Based on 85 percent Merlot and 15 percent Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, the 1986 wine was little short of superb and the winery has continued to release fine wines made from Merlot, some of those from single vineyards. Many other wineries have now followed this trend.
Unlike the wines of Chateau Petrus that should never be drunk before they are 10 years old, the best Israeli Merlots are drinkable as early as three years after the harvest. Fermented for about two weeks with their skins, the wines are then aged for 10-16 months in 225 liter oak barrels – some from France, others from the United States. After that, the wines are aged in the bottle for 10-12 months before they are released to the market.
Following are reviews of some of the very best current releases of Israeli kosher Merlot:
Bustan, Bustan, Merlot, 2006: A luxuriant and rich wine, dark garnet toward royal purple in color, reflecting its 22 months in oak with notes of vanilla and cinnamon and soft, supple tannins that caress rather than “grab.” On the nose and palate a generous array of plums, black cherries, currants, mocha and toasty oak, all lingering comfortably on a remarkably long finish on which tannins and spices rise nicely. A supple and generous wine, perhaps best matched with large or small cuts of lamb or mutton. Drink now-2016. Score: 93.
Yarden, Merlot, Kela (Sha’al) Vineyard, 2008: Full-bodied, concentrated and well-focused, showing layer after layer of blackberries, plums, espresso coffee and fresh sage, and roasted herbs. Give this one time and it will show hints of leather. An intense wine, but with the potential for elegance. Drink now-2018, perhaps longer. Score: 93.