Variety Focus: Merlot
It may have been dissed in the wine movie “Sideways” and received a lot of scrutiny shortly thereafter, but Merlot is actually an incredibly popular grape: along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot, Merlot is one of the primary grapes in Bordeaux wine. Its dark color and smooth tannins add complexity to these popular French wines, and it has received acclaim the world over for its soft yet bold flavors.
Although it is one of the world’s more fuller-bodied wines, Merlot has lower tannins, higher sugar levels, a rounder body and more fruit than its blending counterpart, Cabernet Sauvignon. The two are often blended because Merlot adds a softness and fruitiness to wine that Cabernet does not have on its own.
According to research at UCDavis, Merlot is an offspring of Cabernet Franc and is a sibling of Carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon.
No one truly knows when Merlot originated, but the earliest mention of the grape is from the 1784 notes by a French wine professional. It is believed that the grape received its named from its dark black color, which the French likened to a blackbird. (The Old French word for young blackbird is merlot, a diminutive of merle.
France is home to nearly two thirds of the world’s total plantings of Merlot. Beyond France it is also grown in Italy (where it is the country’s 5th most planted grape), California, Romania, Australia, Argentina, Bulgaria, Turkey, Canada, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa, Switzerland, Croatia, Hungary, Montenegro, Slovenia, Mexico and other parts of the United States such as Washington and Long Island.
Merlot ripens 1-2 weeks before Cabernet Sauvignon, another reason that it is often grown in the same areas as its counterpart. Merlot grown in cooler climates is softer and fruitier than Merlot grown in hotter regions, and in hotter regions, it tends to ripen too quickly.
Merlot is known for being soft and velvety wines with plum and blackcurrant flavors.
According to E. Goldstein’s book “Perfect Pairings”, there are three main styles of Merlot-a soft, fruity, smooth wine with very little tannins, a fruity wine with more tannic structure and, finally, a brawny, highly tannic style made in the profile of Cabernet Sauvignon. Common fruit notes include blackberry, blueberry, cassis, cherry and plum; common vegetable and earth notes include black and green olives, bell pepper, clay, fennel, leather, mushrooms and tobacco. In addition, Merlot is known for its floral and herbal notes, such as eucalyptus, black tea, pine, rosemary and sage. Merlot can also exhibit caramel, chocolate, coffee, mocha, smoke, and vanilla and walnut.
As stated above, some Merlots are made in a Cabernet style: these wines pair well with many of the same things that Cabernet Sauvignon would pair well with (such as grilled and charred meats).
Softer, fruitier Merlots (particularly those with higher acidity from cooler climate regions like Washington State and Northeastern Italy) are perfect accompaniments to salmon, mushroom dishes, bitter greens like radicchio and chard.
Like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot is not a prime candidate for bleu cheese or other strong, ripe cheeses but it goes well with milder ones such as cheddar, brie and port salut. It also does not pair well with spicy foods.
Serve Merlot at 60 degrees.
Some of our favorite Merlots include Carr, Chappellet, Clos du Val, Duckhorn, Hall, Provenance, Mollydooker and Whitehall.