Wine: Is Merlot set to be the Chardonnay of reds? Anthony Rose investigates

The late James Rogers, one of this generation's best wine tasters, used to think our enjoyment of wine would have been considerably enhanced if the New World had adopted Bordeaux's Merlot grape instead of Cabernet Sauvignon. It was a typically heretical notion. Despite its numerical superiority as Bordeaux's most widely planted grape variety, Merlot has until recently always come second to Cabernet Sauvignon.

In a decade, though, the New World focus on grape variety has led to a pecking order of glamorous and not- so-glamorous grapes in which Merlot now features more prominently than ever before. Despite the ubiquity of Cabernet Sauvignon and the charms of France's other two classic grapes, Pinot Noir and Syrah, Merlot's attraction lies in its immediate appeal. And now that the world's thirst for red wine has outstripped the demand for white, it is set to fulfil a similar role to Chardonnay's for white wine.

The phenomenon is essentially marketing-led. America in particular, has gone overboard for Merlot ("Mrr-lo"). In their desperation to supply the market, big companies are falling over themselves to track down supplies from anywhere. Raids on stocks in Chile, in the Languedoc, wherever it grows in fact, are often controversially combined with labelling cunningly designed to disguise the fact that the origins of the wine are not Californian.

That Merlot is relatively bland, and sometimes plain boring, doesn't seem to matter. On a value-for-money level, Merlot delivers the most flavour from Chile at the moment, the least from California. Between the two, it's promising in the Languedoc, parts of northern Italy, Navarra, and even Bordeaux itself. In fact Bordeaux, with the biggest plantings of Merlot in the world, has the greatest potential. Ironically, because of the French preoccupation with vineyard, its appellation system refuses to allow the M-word on the label.

Mellow Merlots

1996 Richemont Old Vine Merlot Reserve Vin de Pays d'Oc, pounds 4.49, Safeway. Sweet wood aromas and chocolatey Merlot fruitiness combine in spicy Languedoc red made in a mini-Saint-Emilion style.

1997 Errazuriz Merlot El Descanso Vineyard Curico, pounds 5.99, Tesco, Wine Cellar, Berkeley Wines, Victoria Wine, Thresher, Fuller's, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. Deep purple, with the scent of herbaceous borders, an undertone of green pepper and a deeper, sweeter core of juicy blackcurrant fruit.

1996 La Palma Reserve Merlot pounds 6.99, Fuller's. With a touch of woodsmoke, this is a plush, powerful Chilean red with plum and blackcurrant on a firm backbone of tannin and substantial alcohol.

1996 Temple Bruer Reserve Merlot pounds 9.99, selected Tesco's. Distinctively Aussie, with aromatic notes of vanilla and eucalyptus complemented by velvety-textured plum-like fruitiness and polished oak treatment

White of the week

1996 Artadi, Vinas de Gain, Rioja Crianza pounds 5.99, Majestic Wine. With few exceptions, barrel-fermentation is better suited to Rioja's Viura grape than the traditional style of white Rioja, which is aged, but not fermented, in oak. The modern treatment here produces a yellow-gold white with ripe, honeyed aromas and a rich dried fruits character freshened by Viura's lemony tang.

Red of the week

1996 Mas Collet, Tarragona pounds 4.99, Majestic Wine. This polished red from Celler de Capcanes in north-eastern Spain is distinctly Catalonian, a pure, well-proportioned red using Garnacha, Tempranillo and a dash of Carinena and Cabernet Sauvignon. Aromas of red fruits and the pure berry flavours are well rounded by a subtle oak-infused sweetness.

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