White Merlot

April 07, 2002

White Merlot is the same as white Zinfandel, except it is made from the Merlot grape.

What is white Merlot?

White Merlot is the same as white Zinfandel, except it is made from the Merlot grape.

There was a time when pink wines were known as "rosé" wines. Now they are known as "blush" wines. As with white Zinfandel, white Merlot derives it's color by leaving the grape juice in contact with the red skins of the grape for a short period of time, usually hours or days. A deep red wine has the juices in contact with the skins for weeks.

So, how did white Merlot come about?

It started in the Languedoc region of France, which is located Southwest of the Rhòne region, along the Mediterranean Sea. That region does not grow the Zinfandel grape. Wanting to get into the white Zinfandel market, ten years ago Fortant Winery, of the Languedoc, invented the category of "white Merlot".

Blush wines are tremendously popular during the hot months of the year, because they are served chilled, and they can be drunk with fish or meat, and are generally inexpensive. Data from ACNielsen/Adams indicates that Chardonnay is still the leader in sales in the U.S., holding 19% of the market. But right behind is white Zinfandel, with 13% of the market. That's a big market, and the Languedoc region of France, (no pun intended) was languishing. So, not to be left behind, it created its own category, i.e. "White Merlot".

One of the big reasons white Zinfandel is so popular in the U.S. is that many newcomers are moving into the wine drinking category. Per capita consumption in the U.S., and around the world is going down. Not so much in the U.S., which over the last twenty years has gone down from 2.11 gallons per capita in 1980 to 1.95 in 2000, but in Europe substantially. France is down from approximately 24 gallons per capita in 1980 to about 16 gallons per capita today. That's quite a drop.

Nonetheless, in the U.S. overall wine consumption has almost doubled. Which means that newcomers are coming into the market, and the bridge between a Coca-Cola and a tannic Cabernet Sauvignon is oftentimes a white Zinfandel.

Americans do not grow up with the same palate as Europeans, although with the MacDonaldisation of the world, that will soon change. Americans drink about 58 gallons of soft drinks per capita, which means our taste buds are accustomed to sweet drinks, and when we move to wine, we have to be weaned from the sugar. Hence the incredible popularity of white Zinfandel, which is usually sweet.

Fortant's white Merlot, on the other hand, is not sweet, and can be a wonderful summer drink. It's slightly sweet, inexpensive, selling for about $6 a bottle.

Other producers are jumping on the white Merlot band wagon.

Beringer (never to be outdone) is producing a white Merlot for $5 a bottle, although theirs is quite a bit sweeter, and therefore more along the line of the classic white Zinfandel. Sutter Home is making a Merlot Rosé ($7), slightly sweet, and Napa Ridge is making a white Merlot ($8) that is really sweet.

There is a surplus of Merlot grapes in California this year, so white Merlot could be the perfect use of this very popular varietal. Look for substantial growth in this category, especially if they offer both sweet and dry choices. Many long time wine drinkers do not like overly sweet wines, but would like nothing more than a bottle of fresh blush wine, such as Fortant's White Merlot on a hot summer day, especially if it doesn't break the bank!