Poor merlot. For decades in the United States, this venerable, interesting and useful grape has been made into wines of beauty and depth. They’re gradual and measured, sacrificing flash for a sober, dependable, gently worn completeness too little valued these days.

Every niche has its denizens, so the merlot nerds must be out there somewhere. But who hears their call?

I’m speaking now specifically of merlot wines from California, whose rumpled elegance, faded gentility, muscular intelligence and overall decency are like the moderate Republican presidential candidates of wine. We didn’t appreciate them when we had them, and now they’re drowned out by louder, more destabilizing voices.

Of course, there was That Movie, too. “Sideways,” the 2004 film in which Paul Giamatti’s frustrated wine-snob character, Miles, memorably eviscerates merlot for its industrialized blandness, effected a woefully fierce body blow against merlot. Real customers really reacted, and merlot sales suffered.

Merlot vines got ripped up to make room for more pinot noir, which poet-souled Miles had championed as the more subtle grape.

Ironic side-note No. 1: Many of the wineries that most successfully leveraged “Sideways”-boosted pinot noir into the market juggernaut it remains today churned out pinot wines that increasingly tried to be like merlot wines. That is to say, pinot’s innate delicacy and luminance have been smothered by overripe, alcoholic, super-concentrated manifestations that attempt to ape the body and drive that come so naturally to merlot.

Ironic side-note No. 2: The wine Miles guzzles with such satisfaction at the end of the film is a 1961 Cheval Blanc, the legendary Saint-Émilion Bordeaux that contains no pinot noir but is about half merlot.

Miles was right, kind of. A lot of California merlot has had every last vestige of originality and verve sanded down to smooth, opaque nothingness. It’s crap – but a lot of everything is crap. Good merlot is a special thing, equal part ragged edges and mellow curves. I often taste a spectrum of chocolate in the wine, from milky smooth to red-fruity to bittersweet to tangy to mint-flecked. There’s licorice, currant, a long-braised savory sweetness, coffee, coffee with cream, strawberries. What other red wine made on a large scale in America is so effortlessly delicious?

Many wineries producing merlot these days seem almost embarrassed. Several, in their marketing materials, call their wine “a cabernet lover’s merlot!” Even the good wines seem not to be trusted to stand on their own. We’re not going to fool anyone into thinking this is pinot, the PR crews seem to acknowledge, but maybe we can get the big cab drinkers.

Merlot generally lacks cabernet sauvignon’s levels of power. And it’s not nearly as dusty-textured, green or tannic as cab. In the vineyard, it’s more vigorous and requires a bit more water than cab, which the clay-based soils most ideally suited to it are happy to hold and provide. You can drink the wines younger, and you can’t age them as long (but they still age pretty well).

Due to its low tannins relative to cab’s, merlot ought not be subjected to as much new oak as its more prestigious comrade. While some drinkers like the flavor effects that new oak has on a wine, the true purpose of that treatment is to tame rambunctious tannins, to settle and build a wine for aging over the long haul.

Merlot has some tannins, so it needs some oak, but excessive oak, especially from previously unused barrels, has a much more dramatic – and deleterious – effect on the wine.

The other extreme is exclusively anaerobic containment in stainless steel. Merlot needs to move around and breathe as it becomes wine, and stainless-steel fermentation restricts and diverts merlot’s destiny, neutering the wine and causing Miles and others no small amount of angst.

Time spent in real microporous oak casks – not stainless steel tanks with oak chips thrown in to add flavor – is crucial. Real oak containers cost real money, alas, which is one of the reasons good domestic merlot doesn’t come especially cheap. Sorry.

Inexpensive merlot wines are more easily found in southern France, as well as in some simple merlot-heavy blends from Bordeaux. But you owe it to yourself to seek out a high-quality California merlot at some point, and what better time than around the holidays?

Other than price, my most pressing parameter when finding the right merlot is how rough I want it. I stick by my claim that merlot ultimately ought to be a relatively genteel wine, but some sort of contained rebelliousness is welcome. I like to sense a touch of badass.

Grgich Hills Merlot 2010 ($45) is what reignited my interest in the varietal. I should say, several vintages of this wine did, as I had the good luck to be able to taste three successive years’ wines, side by side. The differences were remarkable, vivid reminders of how variation from year to year can expand our understanding much more than confuse our expectations.

The 2010, from a warm, steady season in Napa Valley weather-wise, is mature, and ought to be drunk now by someone who appreciates old wine. It has that old-California feeling in spades, with notes of stewed fruit, dried tomato and plum, tobacco leaf. Turkish coffee and a distinctly maple-y sweetness linger, too, but the wine has exceptionally balanced acidity as well, and fine tannins that are, surprisingly, more pronounced than in more recent vintages.

I also drank the 2011 and 2012. These are not yet available in Maine, but they will be at some point, and isn’t it fun to know how varied these things can be? The 2011 is so comparably mellow, restrained and light on its feet, with alcohol listed at 13.5 percent, while both the 2010 and 2012 are 14.8 percent.

Though it has more dust and rawhide character, the 2011 is the most pleasurable for me, if not the most serious. It’s also the closest in character to a Right-Bank Bordeaux, cinnamony, sprinkled with green peppercorn and smelling like old, worn wood.

The Grgich 2012 returns to the bolder style of the 2010, and by the time you can buy it here, its rich blackcurrant and purple-fruit character will be on its way toward the character of that older wine.

In looking for a classy but complex merlot that could express at a lower price some of what California’s venerable merlot-loyal wineries bring forth at a premium, I had to pay attention to Duckhorn. This Napa-based estate produces a broad array of wines, but is best known for its flagship Merlot ($50, or its top-tier Three Palms for $85).

Duckhorn’s second label, the Sonoma-based Decoy, puts out an intriguing, correct merlot, too, for less money. The Decoy Merlot 2013 ($18-$25), is a blend of fruit sourced from Sonoma, which is generally cooler than the Napa floor that brings us Duckhorn, as well as from Alexander and Dry Creek valleys.

It’s definitely a more polished merlot than that of Grgich Hills, Silverado, Robert Sinskey Vineyards and others. The badass edge is taken off. But it’s a consistently interesting and balanced wine, and would not incur Miles’ wrath.

Those delicious echt-merlot chocolate notes are evident in the Decoy, along with spicy tones and tingling acidity that make the wine behave like a black-and-white milkshake for adults. A lush, rich mouthfeel is brought about by vinification in 40 percent new French oak, whose soothing presence you feel without tasting.

What would Miles say about the Decoy, or Grgich Hills, or Duckhorn or another merlot of character? That’s probably not the right question.

The right question has something to do with how we come to blindly avoid certain categories, follow certain trends and make certain decisions. without really knowing why. The right question has to do with how somewhat old-fashioned notions such as decency, appropriateness, quiet and humility might remain relevant at a time when too many people resort to yelling.

Joe Appel is the wine buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

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