June 8th, 2017/ BY Michael Pinkus

Age-old battle between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wages on

Cabernet and Merlot, two words that appear more times together than the words “blackberry and cherry” do in a tasting note. These two varieties make the scene together everywhere and anywhere they go, from Bordeaux to Tuscany, California to Washington, Spain to Canada … you name the place, if one is present you can believe the other isn’t far away. They are the Laurel and Hardy of winemaking. They have a symbiotic relationship — it almost seems that one does not work without the other. It’s like the relationship between the crocodile and the plover bird that cleans its teeth. They are two great tastes that taste great together; they are the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups of the wine world.

But what happens when you do separate them? Is Merlot the weakling it has been made out to be? Is Cabernet Sauvignon the powerhouse it makes itself out to be? Do they work better apart?

Would the world be a better place if these two called up a divorce lawyer and split their assets?

The original reason to co-mingle the two was to augment the other, “combat” vintage variation and promote wine consistency. It’s the Bordeaux equivalent to non-vintage Champagne, but instead of hiding variation it is celebrated. And that makes this a good place to start, by taking the Bordeaux example. Sure they could bottle each separately, but in weak vintages Merlot (an earlier ripening grape) bolsters Cabernet Sauvignon (a late ripener), while in a strong vintage Merlot can soften its more robust bottle-mate.

So where does that leave us? Are these two grapes the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton of the wine world — star-crossed lovers who wish to be together but are better apart, or are they more like Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, unmarried, free to see whomever they wish, but seemingly destined to be together forever.

Let’s take a look at the many faces of these two grapes … then I recommend going out and trying your favourite blend starring these two. See what you think.

The father-son winemaking team from Sbragia Family Vineyards - Ed and Adam.

the juicy versions

It used to be that Merlot was the juicy one and Cabernet the more serious, brooding type — that’s what made these two such wonderful opposites to pair together, but in today’s wine world it can be hard to tell them apart:

Black Sage Vineyard Merlot 2012, British Columbia ($22.95)

Juicy fruit, mostly red, with vanilla, mocha cherry, gentle spice, and blueberry skin like tannins; this is really enjoyable, and above all it’s that juicy fruit that keeps you coming back for more.

Napa Cellars Merlot 2012, California ($23.95)

Exactly what you picture in your head when I say California Merlot; juicy blue and black berries with just the right hint of smoke.

Jackson-Triggs Grand Reserve Merlot 2012, Ontario ($24.95)

Seductively enticing wine with aromas that seduce from the get-go: sweet blue and red berry and a palate with juicy red berries, raspberry and cherry all balanced by acidity to keep everything focused.

Wines of Substance Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Washington ($24.95)

This one from Charles Smith is a rich, juicy and yes, substantive Cab with generous fruit, chocolate, vanilla and layers of dark and red fruit and herbs, a real beauty.

Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandre Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Chile ($24.95)

Rich, juicy, black cherry and cassis with touch of sweet cedar … you can almost feel the juices dripping down your chin. Bring a napkin.

Catena Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Argentina ($19.95)

Here’s another juicy Cabernet with raspberry, cherry, touches of white pepper and mocha … very well balanced, ready to drink or it can be cellared; but why waste all the juiciness of fruit it has now?

 

 

the fruity versions

Yes, both grapes contain fruit; Merlot is more on the red and blue side while the Cabernet is traditionally a black fruit monster. But even those lines can be blurred these days depending on where the grapes are grown and the where wine is made:

J. Lohr Los Osos Merlot 2013, California ($20.95)

Blueberry, red cherry, mocha and finishes gentle with the spice; another wine that screams Cali Merlot, but on a different level than the previous one.

Sbragia Family Vineyards Home Ranch Merlot 2012, California ($44.95)

Smooth and supple with lots of blueberry, blackberry and mocha, kicks it up with spice on the finish; but in here it is the fruit that truly shines.

Thirty Bench Small Lot Merlot 2012, Ontario ($45)

Aromas of blueberry, cassis and black cherry lead to a mocha-blueberry palate showing fine tannins, pleasant raspberry on the finish, a little tightness but great fruity days lie ahead.

Viña Tarapacá Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Chile ($17.95)

Minty blackberry and black cherry with cassis, chocolate, all that rich fruit is all nicely balanced.

Wakefield The Visionary Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Australia ($150)

Fruit forward with big raspberry, cassis, and blueberry with nicely integrated oak — a real silky smooth offering from Down Under.

Reif Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Ontario ($29.95)

Nose follows taste and vice versa: rich plum, cherry and chocolate accost both senses with no let-up in sight, mouthfeel is seemingly thick and with sweet richness that makes me think appassimento style, but it’s just the right side of jammy fruit.

the oaky versions

Once again the lines between these two are so close together that even when oak is added they seem almost to mirror each other. Once upon a time it was the Cabernet that was long oaked and the Merlot you wanted to keep fresh and fruity, and so limited barrel contact, but times have changed:

Airfield Estates Runway Merlot 2012, Washington ($24.95)

A little leaner than the other Washington Merlot showing off a more herbal character, but still with lovely fruit and touches of oak on the finish.

Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot 2012, Washington ($17.95)

A good value Merlot that straddles the line between the juicy and fruity with blueberry, mocha and a long finish, but ultimately it’s the oak derived spices that win out.

Huff Estates South Bay Unfiltered Merlot 2012, Ontario

This one is really meaty with cassis, blueberry and wood smoke; tannins are a little raw at the moment but are tameable with air or time, the finish is long with smoky-dark fruit.

Chateau Ste. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Washington ($19.95)

Mocha, blackberry, black cherry, liquorice with recurring mocha that slips in and out constantly from one sip to the next; lovely linger on the palate with balanced acidity and smoky notes.

Château Tanunda Grand Barossa Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Australia ($23.95)

The flavour and smells of this wine show off the barrel influence; smoky, black cherry, coffee/latte, silky smooth, black tea; thick and flavourful.

Southbrook Triomphe Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Ontario ($22.95)

The nose has the pure allure of cassis, chocolate, raspberry and damson plum, the palate is the hook with super concentrated, rich, almost jammy flavours and a touch of herbal on the finish with real staying power.

Steve Lohr, Chairman and CEO of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines.
Juan Muñoz-Oca, head winemaker at Columbia Crest Winery.
Huff Estates' Frederic Picard.