Soft on red

What gives merlot, and other wines, their character?

It's time for a confession: I just don't get the superstar popularity of Merlot. Over and over I hear people say they prefer Merlot to other red wines. Why? "Because it's softer."

Softer than what?

Zinfandel? Well, Zinfandel can be as round and lush as red wine gets. Cabernet? The best Cabernets are as soft as cashmere pajamas. Pinot Noir? The top Pinots are downright sensual.

So where does this idea of Merlot being "softer" come from? Just what is softness in wine, anyway? And why is one wine soft and another not?

My theory is that the Merlot-softness connection began decades ago in Bordeaux, where Merlot (not Cabernet Sauvignon, as many assume) is the most widely planted grape. Most red wines from Bordeaux are blends primarily of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. When asked what each of these grapes contributes, the Bordelais typically answer: "Merlot adds softness; Cabernet Sauvignon, structure; Cabernet Franc, aroma."

It's a tidy response ― but a bit misleading. Recent advances in enology and viticulture paint a far more complex picture. Merlot, as it turns out, doesn't have a lock on softness. "Merlot is not a soft little feminine thing," says Robert Brittan, winemaker for Stags' Leap Winery in the Napa Valley. "We add Merlot to our Cabernet Sauvignon to give it structure and concentration. Great Merlot is not so much about softness as fullness."

"The word soft is overused, and wrongly used," agrees Richard Arrowood, wine master of Arrowood Vineyards & Winery in the Sonoma Valley. "Merlot is more a question of roundness. The tannin in Merlot gives the impression of roundness, while the tannin in Cabernet feels more sturdy on the palate."

Tannin. Now we're zeroing in. A compound that helps red wine age, tannin occurs naturally in grape skins. Red wines, which are always fermented with their skins, have a large amount as a result. "People talk about Cabernet having more tannin," says Arrowood, "and it's true. But what counts is not the total amount. It's the character of the tannin, the way it feels in the mouth." Tannin can feel dry and scratchy ― or smooth and round. In the end, both Merlot and Cabernet can be soft ― or not.

Which brings us to the question of why the tannins in some wines feel soft, while others don't. And the truth is, we know only part of the reason. "To get fullness, finesse, and what we call 'yummy Merlot flavors,' we have to get the grapes very, very ripe," says Brittan.

Elias Fernandez, winemaker for Napa's Shafer Vineyards, agrees. "Softness comes from ripeness," he says. "Really ripe grapes have tannin that coats your mouth in a silky, pleasant way. Unripe grapes make wine that feels hard and bitter."

You would think that picking grapes when they're perfectly ripe would be easy. But it's not. There is no mechanical instrument that can assess complete physiological maturity in a grape. Winemakers today must rely on what winemakers have relied on for millennia: instinct and past experience. Unfortunately, the window of opportunity is narrow. If the winemaker picks too early, the wine will taste hard. If he or she picks too late, the grapes will shrivel like raisins and the wine will taste like prune juice. The perfectly ripe grape is as elusive as the perfectly ripe peach.

In the end, Merlot is not necessarily softer than other red grapes. But when the winemaker does nail ripeness on the head, a round, full, and, yes, soft wine can emerge.

I like Merlot, by the way (though it may have seemed otherwise at first). But what I really love is softness ― no matter what flavor it comes in.

TOP FLIGHT

Truly soft wines tend to come from top vineyards, so are fairly expensive.

Andrew Will "Klipsun Vineyards" Merlot 1997 (Washington), $40. Spicy and saturated with soft, syrupy black cherry flavors.

Fetzer "Barrel Select" Merlot 1996 (North Coast, CA), $14. Not as rich as the others here, but the price is right. A soft, plummy wine for weeknight drinking.

Livingston "Stanley's Selection" Cabernet Sauvignon 1995 (Napa Valley), $24. Sweetly ripe, super-soft blackberry fruit.

Markham Merlot (Napa Valley), $20. Fascinating flavors of menthol and tobacco around a soft core of cassis.

Paradigm Merlot 1995 (Oakville, Napa Valley), $30. Mouthwatering blackberry flavors and lots of soft "baby fat."

Shafer "Hillside Select" Cabernet Sauvignon 1994 (Stags Leap District, CA), $85. One of the great classics when it comes to softness. Totally hedonistic.

Stags' Leap Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 (Napa Valley), $32. Soft and concentrated, with delicious chocolate and blackberry flavors.

Wente "Charles Wetmore Vineyard" Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1995 (Livermore Valley, CA), $21. Full of personality, with smoke, tar, and spicy mocha flavors, and a lovely soft texture.

SUNSET'S STEAL OF THE MONTH:  Hedges Cabernet/ Merlot 1997 (Washington), $10. Amazing for the price. Beautiful soft cassis flavors with notes of vanilla.

Sunset's Wine Club

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