Merlot Wine Guide





The diversity and easy-drinking style of Merlot has made it one of the world’s most popular varietals, with this black grape - which made its first appearance on the Right Bank of the Dordogne in the early eighteenth century - proving particularly fashionable in the New World. Widely considered the red wine alternative to Chardonnay because of its mellow, easy-drinking style, Merlot increasingly plays a prominent role in blends with the more aristocratic Cabernet Sauvignon, with the former bringing a notable approachability and a supple richness.

Early ripening with lush fruitiness, Merlot, unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, can thrive in damp, cooler climates like Saint-Émilion and Pomerol - two areas where this varietal’s greatest wines are associated. Dry summers and hotter climates can sometimes render the Merlot grape underdeveloped, while its thinner skins are sensitive to frost, but because it is much easier to ripen, yields tend to be higher. Merlot produces a larger berry than its fleshier blending partner Cabernet Sauvignon, but due its tender skin, it generally produces more opulent and less tannic wines. Although Merlot has travelled far and wide it is extremely sensitive to the timing of harvest and the first and most important winemaking decision is when to pick; too late and acid levels are far too low, while picking too early can produce wines that are thin, tart and astringent.

“It is able to claim some seriousness and pedigree, but – crucially – can make wine of a fat, juicy character, mercifully low in tannic bitterness, which can be glugged with gay abandon almost as soon as the juice has squirted from the press.” Oz Clarke, Pocket Wine A-Z, 2015 

Origins

Recent research suggests Merlot is an offspring of Cabernet Franc and a sibling of Carmenère and Cabernet Sauvignon. It was first documented as a good-quality vine variety in the Libournais region of Bordeaux in 1784, according to the historian Enjalbert. The name Merlot derives from the Occitan word which means “young blackbird”, which is thought to either refer to the beautiful dark-blue grapes or the blackbirds’ fondness for eating them.

Where is Merlot grown?

While places like the Central Valley in Chile are renowned for producing ripe, young and ready-to-drink merlots and South Africa, Australia and New Zealand are beginning to produce some serious versions of their own; the aforementioned town of Saint-Émilion, 22 miles northeast of the city of Bordeaux, with its clay and limestone soils is still this beautiful varietal’s spiritual home. Merlot is Bordeaux’s most planted black grape and responsible for some of this enduringly iconic region’s most revered wines. The globally sought-after offerings from Château Pétrus and Le Pin, made at the epicentre of the Pomerol plateau, are made almost exclusively with the Merlot grape and these are amongst the most expensive and championed wines in the world. Consumers are often unaware of Merlot’s dominance in these classical wines because Bordeaux wineries tend to forsake the listing of varietals on their wine label. Although one immediately associates Bordeaux with the rarefied world of Cru Classé, more than 450 million bottles of wine are produced in Bordeaux a year and the vast majority come from the hundreds of Petits Châteaux, where Merlot is the primary varietal. Aside from the Medoc and Graves, where Cabernet Sauvignon is king, Merlot is the dominant varietal ahead of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, the third varietal in common ‘Bordelais’ blends, in south west France. The Languedoc is also a region progressively associated with the production of accessible, youthful and good value Merlots, made in a style that proved hugely popular in the US during the 1990s.

Although one would not immediately associate Italy with Merlot given the sheer volume of indigenous grape varietals, it plays a hugely important role in blends, often with Cabernet Franc, and is widely grown throughout. There are major Merlot plantings in the north-east, in Veneto, Friuli, Trentino and Alto Adige, where it produces largely jammy, plump wines. Merlot has also emerged as a noteworthy cog in the evolving Chianti blend in Tuscany. Playing second fiddle to Sangiovese, Merlot is often used to soften the wine’s texture and bring approachability to this championed style.

Outside the traditional Old World bastions of France and Italy, Merlot was initially not as readily taken up as Cabernet Sauvignon, in part due to its susceptibility in warmer climates but also due to its slightly higher acidity. This was certainly not the case by the mid-1990s when North America took to Merlot, particularly in the Cabernet Sauvignon saturated region of California. The Napa Valley produces some excellent single-varietal expressions that tend to be generous and abundant in juicy fruit flavours. Cooler-climate regions in America such as Washington State are also starting to produce some acclaimed offerings of their own, although Oregon, an increasingly pertinent region, is yet to follow suit.

Elsewhere, Merlot is important in Argentina although still someway shy of Malbec, while it has also infiltrated Brazil and to a lesser extent Uruguay. But it is in Chile where this varietal has really flourished, playing a major role in the country’s prolific wine exports alongside their signature grape Carmenère. Merlots from the Casablanca Valley tend to be rich and chocolaty, with possible aromas of tobacco, and the finest embody Merlot’s ability to thrive in transcontinental regions. Merlot is popular in Australia but it’s overshadowed by Cabernet Sauvignon and of course Shiraz, while it has also been used in South Africa and New Zealand but most commonly in Bordeaux inspired blends, meaning they are yet to truly establish a distinct identity.

Wine Style of Merlot

A deep purple in colour, Merlot’s ability to produce soft, rounded, richly textured wines with ripe plum and blackberry fruit flavours has led to its wide global appeal. Youthful wines made entirely from this grape tend to have a lovely juicy fruit character on a soft, rounded, silky palate. The aforementioned hallmarks epitomise the so-called ‘international’ style of merlot, which is low in tannin and packed full of jammy-fruit. The traditional and premium examples, when Merlot is the dominant grape in the lauded reds of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol, will exhibit more nuanced and unique tertiary notes of spices, mint and pepper and far more complex structure. Oak ageing is often utilised on the more concentrated wines, which add a hint of vanilla-spice. The tannin levels in Merlot are typically lower than Cabernet Sauvignon and because of its usually fruit-driven flavour profile it is often held up as a perfect entry-level wine for consumers eager to begin their red wine education. Once blended, particularly with Cabernet Sauvignon, it will take on greater structure, become much more refined and will become more complex with age. Merlot is also commonly associated with floral and herbal notes such as black tea, mint, oregano and thyme, while significant oak exposure will show more distinguished caramel, chocolate and mocha notes.
 
 
What food to eat with Merlot

The fuller-bodied more premium Merlots from Bordeaux or more concentrated versions in California are ideally suited to rich dishes like beef, lamb or venison. Food pairing with Merlot really depends on the style and weight of the wine in question but the lighter, fruitier merlots, particularly from the New World, are relatively flexible. Lacking the tannic levels and characterised by soft, cherry-and chocolate-driven aromas and an easy-going versatility, Merlot has a great affinity and ease with Italian cuisine.

If you have a light, quaffable Merlot, it will pair well with pizza or charcuterie, while medium bodied Merlots from New World countries like Chile go superbly with hamburgers or mild to medium-hard cheeses. Generally speaking a Californian Merlot will pair deliciously with grilled and roasted vegetables, seared salmon, or steak.

For full-bodied Merlots or Merlot dominated blends like those from Bordeaux’s Right Bank or imitators from the New World, you can enjoy these with roast lamb or beef in the same way one would with a hearty Cabernet Sauvignon.

The wide appeal of Merlot is largely courtesy of its comforting fruitiness and light gluggable fleshiness and even cheaper bottles tend to be hugely enjoyable and food friendly.

When to drink Merlot

The basic wines from Chile and the South of France are made to a light and fruity style and should be enjoyed whilst relatively young but those from Saint-Émilion or the finest Pomerol wines are often considered young at fifteen years old. In general though, Merlot is designed for immediate drinking but in truth you could just as easily leave one for five years or drink it upon release, such is its balance and gentle nature.

Did you know?

When Paul Giamatti’s character in the critically-lauded film Sideways uttered the fleeting words, “I’m not drinking any fu*king Merlot!” this dark blue grape’s demise was widely predicted. In some cases, and particularly in the Napa Valley, the impact of the Oscar nominated film had a detrimental effect on sales. They plummeted in direct contrast to Pinot Noir (the lead character’s preferred grape varietal) as casual wine drinkers followed the film’s lead by assuming that Merlot had become insipid, pedestrian and instantly forgettable due its over-production; much in the same way Chardonnay suffered in the aftermath of its heady days in the 1980s. Over a decade after Alexander Payne's film captured the imagination of cinema goers, Merlot sales are back on the rise and the general consensus is that it is as good as ever, having shaken off its staid and unfashionable reputation.

After enduring a spate of problems during the 1950s and the 1960s namely due to frost and rot, French authorities banned the planting of merlot in Bordeaux between 1970 and 1975.

Merlot played an unconscious role in saving Carmenère from extinction. Long assumed to have disappeared from its original home in Bordeaux during the mid-19th century, Carmenère was rediscovered masquerading as Merlot in Chile, where it has since emerged as the country’s most important grape. Merlot and Carmenère vines are so alike that the error was not uncovered until 1994, after DNA research was conducted in Montpellier.
 
 
 

Written by: Ben Moss

Ben Moss 

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