What do blackbirds have in common with wine? Plenty, if one of the most familiar varietals in the world is named after one. The old French word for a baby blackbird, of course, is merlot.
But no matter what that image conjures - either the nursery rhyme with its four and 20 chirpers or Carly Simon's warbler singing in the dead of night, few will now associate "merlot" with "bird".
Some ancient farmer was probably scratching his head over what to call his new bunch of black grapes when his eyes fell on the fledgling in the hedge. Whatever the origin, the grape itself has now hijacked the name by virtue of it being one of the most common grapes planted in the land - both in its native France and its California, South American or Australian homes.
It is an early flowering and maturing grape which some vintners regard as "insurance" against rain at the general harvest. It is less fussy in terroir demands and will happily grow in clayey soil that is damper than what its close cousin the Cabernet Sauvignon likes. The bummer is its thin skin, which makes it a lot more fragile when it comes to handling and warding off fungus and rot.
It was, and still is, used mainly as a "blending" grape, and the wines from St Emilion and Pomerol are largely Merlot blends, as are Medoc and Malbec, although the Australians like to push a Grenache-Shiraz-Merlot.
Merlot can, and should be, enjoyed on its own with no prefixes or suffixes. It is a less tannic wine than the Cabernet Sauvignon precisely because of its thinner skin and higher sugar content.
Although it shares many flavor characteristics with the Cab Sav, it is more aromatic and spicy, with a faint nose of musky rose and residues of deep dark berries. To my Asian palate, it has hints of the five-spice mix used in Thai and Chinese cooking, a mixture of cinnamon, cloves, star anise and maybe ginger.
It is this spiciness that makes it fit right on the Chinese dinner table. Its rich ruby tones add everyone's favorite color to the glass, but it has none of the over-powering tannin of more robust reds that kills a lot of the delicacy in Chinese food.
Softer on the palate, too, the Merlot is perfect for sipping in between mouthfuls of food as much as it can be slowly enjoyed glass after glass in the company of the like-minded.
It will stand up to even the spiciest of Chinese dishes apart from those liberally dosed with palate-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Anything flavored with those killer berries deserves to be washed down only by lots of ice-cold beer or nothing less than the equally numbing 57-proof local white liquor.
I have paired Merlot with fish smothered in fiery pickled chili sauce (duojiao yutou), the Hunan classic that has been adopted and adapted countrywide. It is also very nice paired with camphor tea-smoked duck (zhangcha ya), or cured meats like Yunnan ham.
Oddly enough, I found Merlot excellent with a dish of thinly sliced bitter gourd stir-fried with beef tenderloin. The slight bitterness of the vegetable gave a very interesting layer of flavor to the wine, which was not at all unpleasant.
After all, isn't it all about finding out the best experience on the palate?
There are plenty of choices in Merlot depending on how deep you reach into your pockets. There are very good vintages that will easily cost more than a thousand smackers, and there are affordable bottles that are only slightly over a hundred bucks.
Estates I prefer are Beringer from Napa Sonoma, the iconic Australian Penfolds, Petaluma from New Zealand and Perdriel from Argentina. They are all dependable.
(China Daily 09/19/2010 page13)