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As you start drinking and learning about wine, it's good to, at some point, to start paying attention to the varietal and its general characteristics. This will help when you taste a winery's Cabernet Sauvignon and compare it to, say, its Zinfandel. Knowing the characteristic of a varietal will also help note differences between the grapes taste and body when compared across wineries, regions, or from a different country.
When looking for wine info, I often turn to the Wine Spectator, both for its broad reporting and its attention to basics. They have some introductory information on Varietal Characteristics, here are some starting with the letter M:
MALBEC (Red) [MAHL-beck] - Once important in Bordeaux and the Loire in various blends, this not-very-hardy grape has been steadily replaced by Merlot and the two Cabernets. However, Argentina is markedly successful with this varietal. In the United States Malbec is a blending grape only, and an insignificant one at that, but a few wineries use it, the most obvious reason being that it's considered part of the Bordeaux-blend recipe.
MARSANNE (White) [mahr-SANN] - Popular in the Rhône (along with Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Viognier). Australia, especially in Victoria, has some of the world's oldest vineyards. At its best, Marsanne can be a full-bodied, moderately intense wine with spice, pear and citrus notes.
MERLOT (Red) [mur-LO] - Merlot is the red-wine success of the 1990s: its popularity has soared along with its acreage, and it seems wine lovers can't drink enough of it. It dominates Bordeaux, except for the Médoc and Graves. Though it is mainly used for the Bordeaux blend, it can stand alone. In St.-Emilion and Pomerol, especially, it produces noteworthy wines, culminating in Château Pétrus. In Italy it's everywhere, though most of the Merlot is light, unremarkable stuff. But Ornellaia and Fattoria de Ama are strong exceptions to that rule. Despite its popularity, its quality ranges only from good to very good most of the time, though there are a few stellar producers found around the world.
- Several styles have emerged. One is a Cabernet-style Merlot, which includes a high percentage (up to 25 percent) of Cabernet, similar currant and cherry flavors and firm tannins. A second style is less reliant on Cabernet, softer, more supple, medium-weight, less tannic and features more herb, cherry and chocolate flavors. A third style is a very light and simple wine; this type's sales are fueling Merlot's overall growth.
- Like Cabernet, Merlot can benefit from some blending, as Cabernet can give it backbone, color and tannic strength. It also marries well with oak. Merlot is relatively new in California, dating to the early 1970s, and is a difficult grape to grow, as it sets and ripens unevenly. Many critics believe Washington state has a slight quality edge with this wine. By the year 2000, vintners should have a better idea of which areas are best suited to this grape variety. As a wine, Merlot's aging potential is fair to good. It may be softer with age, but often the fruit flavors fade and the herbal flavors dominate.
- There is also an unrelated Merlot Blanc.
MOURVÈDRE (Red) [more-VAY-druh] - As long as the weather is warm, Mourvèdre likes a wide variety of soils. It's popular across the south of France, especially in Provence and the Côtes-du-Rhône, and is often used in Châteauneuf-du-Pape; Languedoc makes it as a varietal. Spain uses it in many areas, including Valencia. In the United States it's a minor factor now, pursued by a few wineries that specialize in Rhône-style wines. The wine can be pleasing, with medium-weight, spicy cherry and berry flavors and moderate tannins. It ages well.
MUSCAT (White) [MUSS-kat] - Known as Muscat, Muscat Blanc and Muscat Canelli, it is marked by strong spice and floral notes and can be used in blending, its primary function in California. Moscato in Italy, Moscatel in Iberia: This grape can turn into anything from the low-alcohol, sweet and frothy Asti Spumante and Muscat de Canelli to bone-dry wines like Muscat d'Alsace. It also produces fortified wine such as Beaumes de Venise.
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