Merlot wines are often easier to drink than ‘heavier’ wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. It is one of the red wines drunk most frequently in the UK. This is due largely to its fruity lushness, which underlies its reputation as a crowd pleaser. The generally softer tannins are also one reason it is commonly blended with the more tannic Cabernet Sauvignon to create smoother wines. In cold or damp soil Merlot thrives better than Cabernet Sauvignon, and ripens up to 2 weeks earlier.
It is an attractive blue-black grape. Until recently its precise parentage was uncertain. But genetic analyses showed the Merlot grape variety to be the offspring of a cross between Cabernet Franc and an ancient and forgotten cultivar, now called Magdeleine Noire des Charentes.
Countries of Production
The precise origin of Merlot is uncertain; nevertheless it has been grown as a secondary variety in Bordeaux vineyards for more than 200 years. It became very popular worldwide, notably in North America during the 1990s, when popularisation of the health benefits of red wine led to many new wine drinkers selecting Merlot blends as their wines of choice.
In Bordeaux, the best Merlot dominated wines come from the right bank appellations (north of the Dordogne river) of St Émilion and Pomerol. The famous Château Pétrus is made almost entirely from Merlot grapes. On the left bank, Merlot plays a supporting role in Médoc blends.
It is grown in many other wine producing regions, especially in conjunction with its big brother, Cabernet Sauvignon, albeit in cooler areas. Too much warmth will encourage it to ripen early.
In Italy, Merlot is a popular variety in Friuli, where it is made into a varietal wine, and also blended with Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. In other Italian regions it is often used as a blending grape to balance the acidity of local varieties. For instance, in Tuscany, it is blended with Sangiovese. In Hungary, it can be a component in Bull’s Blood along with local grape Kékfrankos.
In the USA, Merlot has been a notable success in the eastern districts of Washington State. Merlot blends from the Walla Walla Valley AVA have been compared favourably with some Bordeaux right bank wines.
In Chile, Merlot is blended extensively with Carménère to such an extent there can be confusion over which is the predominant grape. In Argentina, cultivation of Merlot is gaining popularity, particularly in the Mendoza region.
The cooler climate of New Zealand means Merlot often outperforms Cabernet Sauvignon.
Merlot tends to be medium bodied, smooth and juicy and, unlike its big brother,Cabernet Sauvignon, doesn’t need long to mature. It can be made more tannic, but generally it is plump and soft with a medium to dark red hue.
The wine tends to be quite fruity with plum playing a starring role among cherry, blueberry and blackberry highlights. Tannin levels are much lower than Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the same area and this is why it can make an excellent introduction to red wine for the uninitiated.
Matching with Food
Being medium bodied, Merlot is fairly versatile when it comes to food. It handles red meat, pork, duck, pasta and salad, all well. Wines from cooler regions can go well with salmon dishes. Italian Merlot goes well with charcuterie.
Starter — Chicken Liver Pate
Main — Roast Duck with a Red Wine Sauce
Dessert — Poached Pears in Merlot
In this menu, all three courses can be made with Merlot. Try a Merlot and mustard reduction with the pate. The chicken liver will prefer a lighter Merlot, perhaps an Italian blend. A robust Californian or French Merlot will complement the meaty duck.
Merlot is one red wine that can benefit from being chilled to slightly below room temperature.
Did you know?
The word Merlot is thought to have originated from the French word for Blackbird.