When good grapes go bad

Although popular, merlot may not make it to some shelves.

One of the three primary grapes of Bordeaux, merlot continues to be one of the most popular varietals. Next to cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, it dominates the wines made on the region’s right bank (cabernet sauvignon dominates the left). It is an early-ripening grape, which makes it a good grape for many of the world’s wine regions, including Ontario and BC.

But while BC continues to make outstanding merlot, Ontario vintners have a love/hate relationship with the grape due to its lack of winter hardiness. Because two winters (2013-2014 and 2014-2015) saw extremely cold temperatures, the merlot grapevines suffered a lot of winter kill, producing fewer crop loads than usual during the following harvests. This has forced many vintners in Ontario to rethink the grape’s viability in that province; in some cases, the grape has been ripped out and will soon be a scant selection on some winery shelves.

But all is not lost for merlot. It continues to be one of the most popular red wines in the world. France, Italy, California and Washington State produce some of the best merlot wines in the most popular style: soft, approachable and easy drinking. This seems to be the hallmark of this grape these days, and potentially the knock against it. Merlot has the ability to lull us into a sense of calm, while at the same time repulsing us because of that ability. It reminds me of the quiet kid in the schoolyard: liked by everyone yet no one wants to admit it. This grape makes you wonder whether you should like it or shun it. Only you can decide, but beware: disliking merlot means a whole world of easy-drinking wines are off the table for you — and you wouldn’t want to put yourself in that position.

Interesting and enticing examples can be found from the likes of J. Lohr from California (jlohr.com), Columbia Crest from Washington (columbiacrest.com) and Wakefield from Australia (wakefieldwines.com). Canadian labels include Burrowing Owl from BC (burrowingowlwine.ca) and Creekside from Ontario (creeksidewine.com).