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, Merlot increasingly plays a prominent role in blends with the more austere and aristocratic Cabernet Sauvignon. Early ripening with lush fruitiness, Merlot, unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, thrives 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 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.

Origins

Recent research suggests Merlot is an offspring of Cabernet Franc and a sibling of Carménère and Cabernet Sauvignon. It was first documented as a good-quality vine variety in the Libournais 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 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 Bordeaux - with its clay and limestone soils is still arguably the place to go for this beautiful varietal. Merlot is Bordeaux’s most planted black grape and one of the region’s most iconic wines Chateau Petrus, in the heart of the Pomerol plateau, is made almost exclusively with the Merlot grape. Consumers are often unaware of Merlot’s dominance in these classical wines because Bordeaux wineries do not normally list varietals on the label. There are also major plantings in Italy in the north-east and particularly in Tuscany. Outside the traditional Old World strongholds of France and Italy, Merlot was 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.

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 in Chile this varietal has played a major role in the country’s prolific wine exports even if Carménère is now increasingly common. Merlots from the Casablanca Valley tend to be rich and chocolaty, with possible aromas of tobacco and the Veramonte Merlot Reserva 2009 is a prime example of this well-travelled varietal’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 and Cabernet Sauvignon blends respectively, 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. As discussed, in Bordeaux Merlot is often used in a blend but wines made entirely from this grape tend to have a lovely juicy fruit character on a soft, rounded, silky palate. 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 profiles 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 and become much more refined. Merlot is also often 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.

When to drink Merlot

The basic wines from Chile and the south of France are made to a light, fruity style and should be enjoyed whilst relatively young but those from the Saint-Émilion Premier Grand Cru Classé 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.


Our top three Merlot wines under £15

 
Veramonte Merlot Reserva 2009, Casablanca Valley

An invitingly drinkable Merlot from the Casablanca Valley that is made from hand-harvested fruit from the hillside plantings in the Veramonte Estate vineyard, this excellent New World Merlot is fresh and direct. This beautiful wine boasts aromas of blackberries, plums and blueberries with subtle hints of black pepper and elegant oak characters on the palate. A ripe wine that is ready to drink now but equally it will age in the bottle nicely for three to five years.

Drostdy-Hof Winemakers Collection Merlot, Western Cape 2010

Made from 100% Merlot grapes sourced from the beautiful Stellenbosch region in South Africa, this is typical of the popular grape varietal with fruity aromas of ripe cherry and berries and creamy plum. It is oak-aged for just over six months which adds a delicious hint of vanilla to the finished wine. On the nose this dark red has lashings of strawberries, while it is rich and juicy on the palate with the perfect amount of tannins. This is a perfect food wine, delicious with pasta or red meat and for just £8.99 it really is great value.

Château des Bardes, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2008

Merlot dominates this historically award winning St Emilion Grand Cru with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc making up the remaining 12%. The wine is aged for over a year in oak barrels which make the wine rich and fruity with a juicy, sweetness and soft touches of vanilla toastiness from time spent in oak. This wine is the second wine of prestigious Château Boutisse and it has plenty of round tannins is best enjoyed two hours after decanting.


CellarVie Wines’ best value Merlot

Luis Felipe Edwards Lot 18 Merlot 2010

A Silver medal winner at Decanter World Wine Awards 2011, this is a classic Chilean Merlot at a great price that is smooth and approachable with rounded cherries and spiced plums, and a velvety textured palate. A simple yet effortlessly drinkable and inviting ruby-red wine that is excellently balanced with cherry fullness and raspberry softness on the tongue, its weighty enough to be enjoyed with food so why not serve with something gamey like duck or pheasant.

 
Did you know?

When Paul Giamatti’s character in the film Sideways uttered the fleeting words; “I’m not drinking any fu*king Merlot!” this darkly blue-covered wine grape’s demise was widely predicted. In some cases, and particularly in the Napa Valley area, the impact of the Oscar nominated and globally popular film certainly had a detrimental effect on Merlot sales. Within the industry sales plummeted in direct contrast to Pinot Noir sales (Myles’ 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 of the 1980s. While there is an argument for that, eight years after the movie’s release, Merlot sales are back on the rise and the general consensus is that it is as good as ever having shaken off its staid 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.


What food to eat with Merlot

The fuller-bodied, higher-end Merlots from Bordeaux or those more concentrated versions in California are ideally suited to rich dishes like beef, lamb or venison. Food pairings with Merlot really does depend on the style and weight of the wine in question but the lighter fruitier merlots, particularly from the New World, are relatively flexible. As a general rule, Merlot tends to be softer, riper and fleshier than Cabernet, but lacking the tannic levels and it is therefore a good food match with Italian tomato-based dishes, or roast chicken and parmesan.

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.

Full-bodied rich Merlots are similar to Cabernet Sauvignon in regards to suitable food pairings. So stump for chargrilled steak, roast beef and roast lamb. Generally a Californian Merlot, like the Rugged Ridge, goes best with grilled and roasted vegetables or a nice piece of seared salmon.


Perfect Merlot food match

Errázuriz Merlot 2010, Curicó Valley and spaghetti Bolognese

Merlot tends to be riper, fleshier and softer than the more powerful and full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon wines and therefore you must be sensitive when pairing it with food. Merlot is perfect with tomato-based Italian dishes and so why not pair it with the archetypal Italian classic, spaghetti Bolognese. The Errázuriz Merlot has a richness and sweet spiciness that will marry delightfully with the tomato sauce and the minced beef. It’s very easy-drinking which is typical of Merlot from Chile, and soft tannins will not intrude on the spaghetti. For a smidgen under £9 this is a lovely wine that is intensely aromatic with plenty of berry fruit.
 
 
Main image by Jacob Childrey 
 

Written by: Ben Moss

Ben Moss 

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