For long considered the junior partner in the great Bordeauxduo of grape varieties, Merlot has achieved growing popularity in the last decade of the 20th century thanks to the cult worship of Pomerols and Saint Emilions in Bordeaux as well as a growing taste for its lusciously plummy and flavoursome early-drinking delights in countries such as Chile and California.
With its soft texture, deliciously plummy fruit flavour and mellow tannins, Merlot is more approachable than Cabernet Sauvignon. Taking to damp, cool, clay soils rather than the warmer gravels of the Médoc, plantings of the earlier-ripening, thinner-skinned Merlot outnumber those of Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux and they are also growing extensively in the south of France.
Merlot ripens earlier and more easily than Cabernet Sauvignon, hence its popularity in France and in northern Italy. It is widely planted in eastern Europe, but outside France, it is at its most serious in California, where it has become one of the ‘hottest’ varieties. It is also extensively grown in Chile, where it produces excellent value, supple-textured reds, and, increasingly in Australia and New Zealand.
Merlot‘s soft texture helps to give it a deliciously plummy, almost fruitcake-like flavour and a mellow smoothness which makes it more approachable than its sister grape, the Cabernet Sauvignon. Like cabernet, it can be a little grassy and bell-pepper-like from cool climate regions and it develops blackcurrant, blackberry, blueberry, chocolate and spice-like characters when fully ripe. The Chilean version often produces juicy reds with blackcurrant pastille flavours.
Is Merlot a good wine?
It certainly can be! As with other varietal wines you’ll find lesser quality examples lining supermarket shelves, but Merlot has the potential to produce fine pours, with great aromatic concentration and a lovely soft texture. The regions where you’ll most likely find great examples of Merlot are Bordeaux’s Right Bank, Tuscany and Umbria. But don’t underestimate what some producers are doing further afield – Slovenia, Alto Adige, Oregon, New Zealand and Chile are also regions where Merlot has performed well.
Is Merlot dry or sweet?
Merlot is usually fermented to dry. During the infamous Californian boom of the 1980’s many single-varietal Merlots that could be found in supermarkets did have some (added) residual sugar. But the best examples are, invariably, dry wines with low tannins and a round mouthfeel. But be aware that Merlot can often mislead your palate: its rich fruitiness sometimes gives a sweet impression. That is not in fact residual sugar but a result of ripe fruit flavours.
What kind of wine is a Merlot?
Merlot is usually a low tannic, round textured, fruit-forward wine. It is almost invariably fermented to dry and, while single-varietal Merlots became extremely popular in the 1980’s, it notably plays a key role in blends. In Bordeaux, where it is the Right Bank’s dominant grape, Merlot is joined by Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot in the production of some of the world’s most famous wines. The same blending companions that go into Tuscany’s renowned Super Tuscans.
What Merlot wine is the best?
Many of the best examples of single-varietal Merlot and Merlot-based blends still come from its native Bordeaux. Merlot is the dominant grape variety in the Right Bank (while Cabernet Sauvignon covers most vineyard area on the Left) and is the main component in the wines of iconic producers Château Pétrus and Château Le Pin. St-Émilion and Pomerol remain the most renowned Bordeaux appellations in which Merlot dominates.
Italy has also produced Pomerol-like Merlot-based wines, to great acclaim from critics and consumers. The variety plays a key role in the Bolgheri DOC or Toscana IGT blends – commonly known as the Super Tuscans – for which producers such as Ornellaia and Antinori have gained worldwide acclaim.
Why does Merlot have a bad reputation?
Merlot’s low tannins, soft texture and luscious fruit flavours make particularly easy-drinking wines that appeal to a large audience. This drove an outstanding increase in demand, namely in the 1980’s, which in turn drove producers to invest in new Merlot plantings of high-yielding clones often in locations not particularly suited for the variety. The market was flood by lower quality wines, intense but lacking in complexity, and with notoriously short shelf life.
The large plantings and outstanding output volumes from California’s Central Valley is probably the best example of this phenomenon – famously immortalised in the book/film ‘Sideway’ with the line ”… if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any f***ing Merlot!”
This would eventually lead to a considerable drop in demand, as backlash, and a renewed focus on quality has since raised the profile of the average Merlot.
When should I drink Merlot?
Merlot is best drunk with food and in cooler weather. The lack of tannic structure and of significant acidity mean that it always has a warming, rather than refreshing, feel to it. It pairs well with game but also with vegetable-based dishes. It’s not by chance that you’ll often be served roasted red peppers along with duck confit in Bordeaux restaurants.