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Wine 101: The difference between Chardonnay and Merlot

Editor’s note: While recognizing that many RVers truly enjoy wine as an essential part of the RVing experience, we know there any many people who wish they knew more about wine. We are privileged to introduce Richard Peck, a certified sommelier in The Court of Master Sommeliers, as well as a certified wine educator in The Society of Wine Educators. He will be penning regular columns to introduce wine to newbies and help others make wine an even more flavorful part of their travel experience.

 

“OK,” you may be thinking to yourself.  “This guy cannot possibly know anything about wine, if he believes he has to explain the difference between Chardonnay and Merlot.  Chardonnay is white and Merlot is red.  What more could be said?”

Well, to start, let’s pretend for just a minute that we’re in botany class.  Don’t worry, this class will be quick and then we’ll get back to wine immediately!

Both Chardonnay and Merlot are what wine enthusiasts call varietals. “Varietals” is a fancy word for “grape types.”  But we can go one step farther (and this is the important part): both Chardonnay and Merlot are vitis vinifera.  That Latin label describes the genus and species of almost all popular wine grapes.  Wine is not made from the same kind of grapes that we eat as table grapes or in grape jelly.

So, when you hear the varietal names like “Merlot,” “Chardonnay,” “Pinot Noir,” “Malbec,” “Cabernet Sauvignon,” and so on, now you’ll be able to speak up and say, “Oh, yes. Those noble grapes, those vitis vinifera, that we all enjoy as wine.”

But now let’s move on to fun wine facts with which you can amaze your friends next time you are having a glass of Chardonnay or Merlot.

First, let’s talk about the differences between these two varietals.  Merlot is the more popular of the two grapes.  Did you know that Merlot ranks No. 2 in the world in terms of popularity, right after Cabernet Sauvignon?

Surprisingly, that is still true even after the two guys in the film Sideways made fun of Merlot!  What’s more, even with Malbec’s extraordinary rise in popularity over the past few years, Malbec doesn’t make the top 10.  Pinot Noir just barely squeezes onto the list in the 10th spot.

Did you also know one reason for Merlot’s popularity is because it is widely used as a blending grape? In the Bordeaux region of France, Merlot is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and other grape types to make red wines more drinkable.

Merlot adds body and softness to the finished blend. Merlot also ripens before some other red grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, making it a winemaker’s “insurance policy” against an early freeze that might damage the Cabernet Sauvignon before harvest.

Why are some red wines a blend of varietals? Some of the most expensive wines of California and France are blends that include Merlot. Bordeaux wines established many of the standards that exist today for winemaking around the world.

Wine from French estates in the Bordeaux region like Lafite, Latour, Haut-Brion, Mouton, and Margaux cost hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars per bottle.  In California, proprietary blends like Opus One, Insignia, and Isoceles, not to mention more expensive cult wines like Harlan and Colgin, can easily run into the hundreds and beyond.  Many of these wines use Merlot in their blend.

“OK, OK.  Enough about Merlot.  What about Chardonnay? But be quick about whatever you say, because I don’t even drink white wine,” you might be thinking.

Let’s start with the fact that the “I only drink red” movement arose largely because 60 Minutes did a segment in the early 1990s about the so-called French Paradox.

The French Paradox is a term coined to describe how the French can eat a diet high in saturated fat, but have a lower incidence of heart disease than much of the world.  The basis for that statistic is still debated, but one possible reason is a substance called resveratrol, which is present to a much larger degree in red wine than white.  Suddenly, everyone wanted to drink red wine.

Despite that, Chardonnay still ranks as the No. 5 most popular grape in the world.  As you might expect, three red grapes rank above Chardonnay — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Tempranillo from Spain.

The spoiler varietal that knocks Chardonnay out of the top spot for white is Airén, a Spanish white grape most wine lovers have never tried.  That said, Chardonnay is a more noble grape than Airén, or at least has a more noble history, having produced superb white wines in the Burgundy region of France for centuries.

Still, Chardonnay had a “bad hair day” about 10 years ago — maybe a bad hair decade?  The grape is only now recovering.  What happened?  In simple terms, Chardonnay became too popular. Restaurant-goers learned that, rather than asking for “a glass of white wine” before dinner, they could say, “give me a glass of Chardonnay, please.”

That sounds much more knowledgeable and romantic.  The wine tasted OK, too, so Chardonnay became a hot item. In response to demand, the wine industry planted thousands of acres of Chardonnay. However, to differentiate one Chardonnay from another in a competitive market, winemakers began using various techniques to change the taste of Chardonnay.

The result was that too many Chardonnays became more oaky and more “buttery.” This didn’t turn out to be a good thing for many wine drinkers.  Consumers rose up in protest to form the ABC movement— “I’ll drink Anything But Chardonnay.”

The poor grape really didn’t deserve this, but Chardonnays became too big, too flavorful to be good food wines.  You can’t have two divas competing with each other on an opera stage.  In the same way, you can’t have your food and wine trying to out shout each other on the table. Chardonnays sang too loudly for many wine drinkers.

A number of Chardonnay producers today have stepped back from the brink and renounced their overly buttery, overly oaky Chardonnays.  If you want to try a lighter, brighter version of Chardonnay, be sure to look for bottles labled “unoaked Chardonnay” or bottles that say “fermented and stored in stainless.”

By the way, none of this means there is something wrong with the wine (or for heaven’s sake, something wrong with you), if you prefer the bigger, buttery style.  A lot of folks do.

One of the joys of wine is that, somewhere, some winery, produces a wine for every palate and every occasion.  Your preferences matter!  Chardonnay’s ABC days stemmed from winemakers focusing too much on just one style, rather than offering a variety of styles to consumers.

So tonight, enjoy a glass of Chardonnay or Merlot.  Offer some to your friends and amaze them with how much you know about these two popular varietals!

The Sojourning Somm will be back in two weeks with some tips on what to look for in a good wine.  What should we look for as we taste?  What are some wine flaws we should avoid?

We’ll be back soon with the answers.  Until then, “Cheers!”

About Richard Peck

Richard Peck is a certified sommelier in The Court of Master Sommeliers, as well as a certified wine educator in The Society of Wine Educators. He and his wife, Susan, are full-time RVers based in Sonoma County, Calif. They are currently doing a survey of Texas Hill Country wineries and planning a series of articles about everything you wanted to know about wine, but were afraid to ask. To pose a question, email Richard at rich@sojourningsomm.com. To follow their adventures, visit http://www.sojourningsomm.com.

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