Wine drinkers looking for reds with breed and distinction that are easy to drink and less expensive than cabernet sauvignon might try merlot. The merlot grape produces a softer wine, one that matures earlier and usually lacks cabernet's complexity. At its least distinctive, merlot tends to be flabby, without the backbone required for robust meat dishes, and ultimately boring. But well-made merlot is soft and satisfying and can sometimes be great.

Traditionally, some merlot has been blended with cabernet to produce the wines of bordeaux. There are notable exceptions to the secondary role of merlot there, the most famous being Ch.ateau P,etrus, the Pomerol estate that currently commands some of the highest prices of any wine. P,etrus is made almost entirely of merlo. Anyone who doubts the grape's power and finesse need only sniff P,etrus from the '82 or '83 vintages -- rich, powerfully concentrated wines with layers of sensual reward, some of the best I have tasted. The '82 and '83 came straight from the barrel, offered up last summer as a kind of vinous noblesse oblige by a producer that needs no publicity to sell everything it makes; I will never forget it.

P,etrus will not produce an '84 vintage because of the poor merlot harvest last fall, but at those astronomical prices not too many customers will find themselves slighted. Ch.ateau Ausone in neighboring St.-Emilion, about 50 percent merlot, is also a giant of a wine at a gigantic price. The other wines of Pomerol and St.-Emilion use a lot of merlot and are considered lighter and sometimes more approachable than their counterparts from the M,edoc.

You can also drink pure merlot from California, or what is in fact merlot that has a bit of cabernet added to give it edge. The first plantings of merlot in America were not a success, since merlot is temperamental. Fertile plots don't suit the grape, and not until fairly recently did growers learn to plant it in poorer, well-drained soils. There is still not enough merlot grown in California. Much of it goes into quality California cabernets, and merlot choices are somewhat limited.

One good California merlot with some pedigree is the one from Sterling Vineyards, which has been making merlot since 1969. It is still aged in small oak barrels, but has lately become softer, with minimal tannins. It costs about $10.

Another good one comes from Rutherford Hill Winery. It contains 24 percent cabernet and is a fuller, more demanding wine for about the same price. The '80 Rutherford Hill, purplish and full of varietal aroma, has a lot of body and balance, but needs some time before drinking, as many of the '80s do.

A less expensive, light-style merlot, not from California but from Washington state, is Ch.ateau Ste.-Michelle's, for about half the price.

The monarch of California merlots is that from Duckhorn Vineyards, a recently established small winery devoted to supplying quality wines. The Duckhorn merlot is also in the bordeaux style, being a blend of about 15 percent cabernet sauvignon and sometimes a touch of cabernet franc. The '82 merlot has a deep cherry color and a big, ripe nose; it is astonishingly complex, with overtones of red fruit and a smoothness remarkable in such a young wine, despite the tannin.

The '83 leaves a similar impression of fullness and richness, with a long finish. It may not be a P,etrus, but it is definitely a wine for remembering. And like many wines being made in California today, it lays great claims on the future.