Classic vino is a sugary superstar
By Josh Perilo
“If you had to describe a Merlot to someone who had never had it before,” my friend Bryan challenged, “how would you do it?”
This was the statement that started me thinking about the metaphor that I eventually obsessed over: wine and music. These were, after all, my two greatest loves (after my beautiful wife, of course). The thought went round and round in my head, and I started coming up with some entertaining comparisons. The first and most obvious to me, however, was this:
Merlot is Pop Rock.
Merlot, a grape that is low in tannin and acid, almost coats the tongue. It is the dulcet tones of a four-four beat at a moderate tempo with hand-claps in the background. The rhythmic G major, D major, E major chord progression that goes down smooth and fruity. It’s a lead singer that is a “nice boy” but still sexy (albeit “safe sexy”).
The classics are the classics, and with Merlot the great oldies reside in Bordeaux. Layer upon layer of intricate, intertwining harmonies and melodies, five tracks devoted entirely to backing vocals, horns and timpani, and a Theremin. The classic example of Right Bank Bordeaux brilliance is Chateau Petrus, and its brilliant, complex and easily digestible audio equivalent (and perhaps the most beautiful pop song ever written) is “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys.
When Merlot grabbed its foothold on the West Coast of America, its lush, fruit flavors softened even more. The amazing Duckhorn Merlot creeps in, finger-picking its guitar, rambling “I am just a poor boy though my story’s seldom told…” The verse builds with a simple harmony as the plum fruit on the front of the palate becomes dates and spice. Then pepper and vanilla. Then the guitar is joined by a thump and a mouth harp. And the flavors race around and the story evolves and the palate expands and you realize this isn’t just a wine. And this isn’t just a song. Until the finish, when you swallow and are overcome with…
“Lie-la-lie! Lie-la-lie-lie, Lie-la-lie!”
When Merlot moved to the Pacific Northwest it grew bigger and riper. In Washington State, especially from the Walla Walla area, the Merlots are monsters with their Peavey amps turned up way louder than they should be. The grapes get riper, so the alcohol level gets higher, which in turn gives the fruit and structure further amplification. It sounds like too much, but somehow the combination of the weather, soil and sunlight works. One sip of this over-amped juice and Big Star’s “September Gurls” mows down your taste buds with chewy riffs and addictive hooks. This is Power Pop… or power Merlot. The three-chord structure is turned up and taken to the edge with the exaggerated fruit flavors of “Go All the Way” by Raspberries, “Just What I Needed” by The Cars, and later “Girlfriend” by Matthew Sweet.
Merlots from Australia became popular later in the game, offering lighter bodied, almost syrupy, overripe strawberry flavors. It’s so sticky sweet, you almost feel guilty about indulging in it. “Paparazzi” by Lady Gaga and “TiK ToK” by Ke$ha pound through your head as you swallow the fruity extract, trying to remind yourself that you’re actually drinking wine, and not unfermented juice.
Merlot has tended to have mass appeal in this country for the last several decades, but many “connoisseurs” will dismiss them for their lack of complexity. One could argue that even though “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies is a classic, it doesn’t have much depth. That doesn’t matter, though, to people who just want a catchy tune that’s easy to snap your fingers to.
The wine snobs of the world can huff and puff all they want, but it won‘t change the fact that Merlot will always go down easy.
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