Food and drink 

To merlot or not to merlot, that is the question

It wasn't all that long ago that merlot was the whipping boy of the wine industry. Overproduced and under-flavoured, it was infamously damned in the movie Sideways during a pre-dinner scene where would-be novelist and pinot noir snob, Miles, informs his pal, Jack, that "if anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any f------ merlot!"

In the months that followed, merlot's image took a battering, as did its sales. Fortunately for merlot producers, what goes around comes around, and just when it seemed the grape was doomed, its modern day competitor, shiraz, began losing its lustre.

Eerily reminiscent of merlot's demise, shiraz has found its reputation marred by a sea of mediocrity, especially at the fighting varietal level where soupy, cedar-y, sour reds are driving consumers to consider not drinking any f------ shiraz.

It's music to the ears of the merlot producers hoping to get back in the game. In fact, while shiraz and pinot noir were competing for shelf space, some fairly intense self-examination by growers, producers and retailers has resulted in a merlot renaissance among consumers who crave rich, dark fruit-flavoured wine with supple textures and glossy fruit.

There is little doubt some of the finest merlot still comes from Bordeaux's Right Bank in St. Emilion and Pomerol, although current prices make most Right Bank labels little more than trophy wines that are literally bought and sold at auction with very little drinking in between.

Modern-day merlot, at least the stuff that gets drunk, is more likely to come out of Sonoma, Chile and Tuscany or, as we are witnessing repeatedly of late, from Washington and British Columbia, with the latter two regions showing a great deal of promise.

There is something about Pacific Northwest merlot that places it well above the norm. The fruit is rich and, for the most part, ripe. The tannins are mostly soft or at least fine-grained at the top end and the flavours come with a supercharged, spicy savoury thread and just enough acidity to keep it lively on the palate.

Of course, talk is cheap. It's what is in the glass that counts.

In British Columbia the single best practitioner of merlot has to be CedarCreek. The CedarCreek Classic Series 2006 Merlot ($20) proves we can do something special in B.C. Big and open with higher toned, spicy, fruit pudding with vanilla and black cherries, it is Bordeaux with fruit. This is delicious, well made, affordable merlot.

Equally appealing with a grilled bird is the Mission Hill Merlot Reserve 2006 ($25) , with its dry, round, supple styling and coffee, peppery, herbal, vanilla flavours. It's lean but with finesse. Similar in style is the Road 13 Merlot 2006 ($24) , with its smoky, vanilla, cherry, cedar aromas and coffee, cedar, tobacco, peppery, cherry, mineral, stony flavours.

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