I have written a series of posts on Italian Merlots and, while tweeting a link to my latest post on the topic yesterday, I received a query from a follower who was unaware of the existence of the genre. Having previously written a post on Tuscan Merlots of note, I tweeted a link in his direction. The interchange got me thinking, however, about a comparative tasting (Italian Merlots versus Right-Bank Merlots) we had done and the contrasts that I have observed between the two main Merlot-producing regions (Tuscany and the Right Bank of Bordeaux) represented in that tasting. In this post I summarize those contrasts, specifically as it relates to Tuscan Merlots that I have previously covered in this blog.
While both the Right Bank and Tuscany have two major Merlot areas (Pomerol and St. Emilion for Bordeaux and Maremma and Chianti for Tuscany), the intra-regional differences are greater for Tuscany. In the case of Bordeaux, Pomerol and St. Emilion have similar climates (mild maritime) while, in the case of Tuscany, the Maremma region is temperate while the Chianti region is continental. As I have pointed out in previous posts, the ideal climates for vitis vinifera are Mediterranean and marine west coast climes. In this instance, the Bordeaux and Maremma locales would be advantaged over Chianti.
Merlot rose to prominence in Bordeaux and has been planted on the Right Bank since 1784. A significant amount of knowledge and expertise regarding the Merlot vine and wine has been amassed in the region over that time. Merlot has been planted in the northern regions of Italy since the late-19th century but the move into the Tuscan region is of a more modern vintage and, relatively speaking, the lessons are still being learned and internalized. Further, the adoption of Merlot in Tuscany is not as broad-based as it is on the Right Bank, so the opportunities for winemakers to learn from each other are not as plentiful. Additionally, there is no Bordeaux L'Ecole du Vin in Tuscany with all of its research resources dedicated to the study and advancement of Bordeaux varieties.
The average size of a Right-Bank estate is 5 ha but between 75% and 85% of the land is dedicated to the growth of Merlot vines. The largest devoted Merlot planting that I have been able to identify in Tuscany is the approximately 7 ha that is used to grow the Masseto grapes. The next nearest is 3.8 ha for L'Apparita. In terms of production, Masseto leads the way in Tuscany with 33,000 bottles annually with Galatrono next with 13,500 bottles. In all of the cases in Tuscany, the Merlot production is a small percentage of the estate's production which is instead focused on Sangiovese or multiple other varieties. On the Right Bank, Merlot is the main focus. and production in St. Emilion, for example, averages 42,000 bottles per producer.
By far the most significant difference though is the predominance of blends on the Right Bank and Merlot-only wines in Tuscany. Looking at the Right Bank wines, they are primarily blends (notable exceptions are Petrus, Le Pin, Peby Faugeres, and La Gomerie, among others). All of the Tuscan wines studied are mono-variety. Vieux Chateau Certan's Alexandre Thienpont (cited in winecellarinsider.com) held that "it is the blending that adds the extra special dimension to the Merlot grape." On its own, Merlot tends to have higher alcohol levels and lower acidity, problems that are mitigated when it is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon which also lends structure to the marriage.
Overall, the paucity of Merlot labels on the market today is a reflection of the Tuscan winemakers' level of commitment to the variety. Minimal. However, the quality exhibited, and the market acceptance attained, by Masseto provides a signpost for the interested.
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