In Sideways Paul Giamatti famously and vulgarly declares (paraphrasing here; this is a family booze site) that he will not under any circumstances drink Merlot. Although equally famously partial to Pinot Noir, in so doing he throws in his hat with the cult of Cabernet Sauvignon centered in California, Pinot and Merlot belonging as they do to the antipodal ends of the spectrum of noble reds. No, the reason for the ghettoization of Merlot is that does not adhere to the cult’s ideology of gigantism, complexity, and tannins.
This perspective does violence to the history of wine. Cabernet’s cache derives from its centrality to Bordeaux, but the silencing of Merlot obscures the fact that it is the most planted varietal in Bordeaux and predominates on the right bank of the Dordogne River, including in Saint-Émilion, a world heritage site by the light of the United Nations. Saint-Émilion generally runs about 60% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, strong evidence that Merlot isn’t all that bad.
These thoughts and others were on my mind last night as I cracked a bottle of 2007 Chateaux La Croix St. Georges from Pomerol, another right bank commune. The St. Georges is more than 90% Merlot, and in drinking it I was reminded simultaneously of why the Giamatti snobs look down their nose and how wrong it is to do so. After a nice decant, the bottle revealed itself as nearly perfectly balanced and delightful from a sheer drinking perspective.
When I dropped that line as we were pouring our second glasses, one of my dinner companions less devoted to the oenological arts asked me just what I meant by “balance.” This is, of course, one of those terms that the Giamattish aspects of our character delight in deploying to signal our erudition. In its most basic application it means balance of flavors, that neither, say, blackberry nor stone fruit nor leather nor tar predominate but all are allowed their moment in the sun of the mouth. This is not what I meant here, though; rather, I mean that the impression of strength in the mouth was constant from the front of the palate through to the finish. It was as if one were drinking a piece of Amish furniture.
Balance is not to be conflated with structure, which is where Cabernet has been adjudged by the Giamattis as decisively superior. If balance is workmanship then structure is craftsmanship, the fine detailing of an exterior gargoyle as expressed by tannic nuance and explosion. The St. Georges is a lakeside cottage, not an imitation of Versailles. Why this should render it fit only for the spit bucket is beyond me.
The 2007 Chateaux La Crois St. Georges had mild but firm tannins and classic plum and coffee on the nose and palate. We drank it with a bison top sirloin in a ginger sesame sauce. It was imported by Julienne Importing and cost $39 from the Chicago Wine Company. (Rating: Very Good)