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File photo The Kansas City Star

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The much-maligned merlot has some versions worth toasting

By Dave Eckert

Special to the Star

October 06, 2017 07:00 AM

I don’t often pay much attention to “International this or that day, week, or month,” but when I read that October is International Merlot Month I felt I had to weigh in.

It’s been tough treading for merlot ever since that famous line in the movie “Sideways.” You remember it, right?

“I’m not drinking any f#@%$# merlot!” That’s all it took to make merlot persona non-grata and pinot noir the apple of everyone’s eye.

Well, to turn a phrase, I come here today not to bury Merlot, but to praise it. I like merlot. Heck, sometimes I really like merlot. There, I’ve said it. Now let me explain why and send you on your way with some of my personal favorites.

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First, a bit of background. Merlot is one of the five grapes used in the creation of Bordeaux, considered by many to be the greatest red wines in the world. It is complex, elegant, and delicious.

Merlot, like its cabernet sauvignon cousin, is also extremely flexible, capable of growing in many different soils and climates. This can be both a positive and a negative. An example? Merlot can be found all over the world, and, well, merlot can be found all over the world!

By that I mean that some merlot is soulless, thin, and insipid when planted in the wrong soils, the wrong climate, or when the vines are allowed to produce too much fruit.

Other merlot bottlings that benefit from the perfect growing conditions and crop loads express the very best the grape has to offer: tons of rich, ripe fruit, layers of flavors and aromas, and marvelous pairing opportunities with a wide range of cuisine.

The top merlots in the world, often blends with merlot comprising a majority of the juice, can be found in the grape’s home region of Bordeaux in the Pomerol appellation. Because they’re very expensive, I haven’t had a Pomerol in years. But, if you have the means, seek out a Pomerol from Petrus or Le Pin and you will taste merlot at its apogee.

Merlot has also made a name for itself in Italy’s Tuscany region, mainly as a blending grape for a host of so-called super Tuscans, blends that fall outside the lines of traditional appellations such as chianti classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, or Brunello di Montalcino.

I am a big fan of Luce, a blend of merlot and the native Italian grape sangiovese. This wine emphasizes all I love about both grapes, and that is saying quite a lot because these are two of my favorite grapes on the planet.

From the other side of Italy in Abruzzom I happened upon Masciarelli’s Marina Cvetic Merlot, a lovely fruity, flowery, less expensive version of merlot that I quite liked. At $25 retail, this is one of the best merlot values for the quality you will find in the market.

Despite “Sideways” and its bashing of California merlot, you will still find many terrific merlots out the state. Almost all California merlot discussions include Duckhorn.

A merlot specialist, Duckhorn produces both a Napa Valley and Sonoma County merlot as well as a single vineyard merlot blend from the Three Palms Vineyard.

Duckhorn’s Three Palms Merlot, which is 86 percent merlot, is a classic right bank merlot blend. It is delicious. Find it if you can. Buy it if you can afford it.

This is a complex wine that will entice you now or age for ten years or more! Other Napa Valley merlots that pleased my palate include BV, Stags’ Leap, Provenance, and Clos du Val.

If I had to pick a favorite of the four, I guess it would be Clos du Val, which sources its merlot from the cooler climes of Carneros, giving the wine more of an Old World feel to it.

In Sonoma County, I’ve found many merlots to my liking. You can certainly never go wrong with any merlot from St. Francis, which built its reputation on the grape. Try its Sonoma Valley merlot and you’ll see what I mean.

To the north in Mendocino County, Parducci, celebrating its 85th anniversary, makes a tasty and affordable Small Lot merlot that I would recommend buying by the case.

And to the south in the hot Paso Robles region, I quite enjoyed J. Lohr’s Cuvee Pom, another merlot-dominated bordeaux-style blend that hits all the right notes.

So there you have it, a list of some terrific merlots and merlot blends. Personally, I don’t care if Miles from “Sideways” will be drinking any merlot. That’s just more for me!

Dave Eckert is a Kansas City-based food and beverage journalist, a two time Emmy winner, and the producer and host of “Culinary Travels with Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS for 11 seasons.