By The Glass
Top 2 reds offer mix-match possibilities
WHAT are you pouring with dinner this evening? Will it be cabernet sauvignon or merlot? For all the fashionability of pinot noir these days, that wine can't touch the popularity of the Top 2 reds.
Cabernet sauvignon and merlot both offer their own styles, but those styles can overlap to offer a cross-pollination of wines and palates.
Cabernet sauvignon is seen as heavier, darker and more full-bodied. It does have more intrinsic tannin in its skin and tends to have darker fruit tones: cassis, dried plums and blackberry. Merlot's strengths are what some consider its weaknesses: It is lighter, softer, more accessible, without as much tannin. It also speaks of more fleshy, red and black fruits.
But in many cases these grapes are blended. In California and Chile, winemakers can add up to 25 percent of another grape and still call it by the name of the primary grape. So a California merlot may contain up to 25 percent cabernet sauvignon. In Australia, up to 15 percent may be blended; in Bordeaux, France, there is no limit.
The possibilities are endless. Winemakers do this for several reasons. First, some believe that blends create a more complex wine. Second, especially in cooler growing regions, merlot ripens before cabernet sauvignon, so if rains come, no matter when, there will still be healthy grapes worth making into wine. Lastly, many winemakers blend the two so they can appeal to both sides of the red-wine aisle -- cross-marketing of sorts.
Here are some merlots and cabernets that will have you wondering which varietal is your favorite:
The 2002 Neyers Neyers Ranch Merlot, Napa Valley ($28) made me wonder, "How come more people can't make merlot like this?" It has a heady and intense scent of currants, berries and spice and a well-integrated vanillin scent that rounds out when you taste it. It's super ripe, plump, round, voluptuous (you get the picture) and really tasty! Its beautiful complexity keeps me coming back for more. All I could think about was making some braised oxtail with a little port wine reduction to pair with the wine.
A bottle of Bordeaux that gives gobs more pleasure than you'd imagine from the price is the 2002 Chateau de Fontalem Bordeaux Superieur ($12). This merlot-cabernet blend is really elegant, with dried cranberry, plum and a hint of tea. It is soft, open and really easy to drink -- smooth, with very soft tannin with no "bite." Veal Scallopine with mushrooms and pasta would work wonders with this wine, as would a fried pepper steak.
Some say Napa Valley makes some of the best wines in the world and it is hard to argue with that when you taste the 2002 Napanook Vineyard ($45). It has sumptuous amounts of ripe and overripe fruits and is warm and inviting, with a velvety texture. The Napanook is loaded with complexity and provides plenty of power in every sip. Pound some garlic and salt into a prime rib steak and light the grill, folks.
Cabernet and merlot are here to stay. I enjoy them both, blended or straight, as long as the wine is good. So if you're a merlot or cabernet fan, reach across the shelf next time and see if you can appreciate a great example of the "other" wine. You may be surprised at what your palate has to say.
Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier and wine educator with Southern Wine & Spirits.
This column is a weekly lesson in wine pairing written by a rotating panel of wine professionals.
This column is a weekly lesson in wine pairing written by a rotating panel of wine professionals. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org