Merlot has often been overlooked as a rather safe option, lacking excitement and pizazz. But is this fair? It is in fact a key component of some of the most renowned wines in the world, from the very serious (and expensive) Château Petrus to everyday, quaffable wines.
So let’s take a closer look at the hard working, humble Merlot grape.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Merlot (coming from the French word for blackbird) originates in the Bordeaux region of France. The first mention of the grape was in the late 18th Century, and it remains the most widely planted variety in Bordeaux today.
Nowadays it is planted throughout South West France, as well as Italy and is also prevalent across the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Merlot is an early ripening grape (useful in the tricky Bordeaux climate) with a lush, velvety texture and a distinctive plummy character. In the New World, with the benefit of a warmer climate, it produces full bodied ripe, smooth wines that are easily approachable when young, although the very best do continue to improve with age.
To blend or not to blend
Throughout its history this humble grape has played an important role as a blending partner to Cabernet Sauvignon, and sometimes Cabernet Franc. Because Merlot has less tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon, it is ideal to soften out the often austere and tannic young Cabernets. It also matures quicker, helping to make young Bordeaux wines more palatable in their youth. But don’t be mistaken, Merlot is also capable of making top quality single varietal wines.
Merlot is a great match for a variety of dishes, red meats in particular, from juicy steak to beef wellington and lamb roast. This versatile grape produces a wide range of styles in a dazzling array of climates and conditions. Find out more about the different styles and the best food pairings, read on below.
Bordeaux is the home of Merlot, and it is arguably here where it produces its finest wines. Bordeaux is effectively split in two by the Gironde River, with Merlot dominating on the clay and limestone soils of Pomerol and St Emilion. On the left bank, it makes a perfect blending partner for the robust, tannic Cabernet Sauvignon, adding lush ripeness and early maturing approachability.
Pair with: Classic Merlots and Merlot blends from Bordeaux are a great match for a variety of dishes, matching particularly well with red meat, for example roast lamb or beef wellington. Due to its softer texture, it’s a great wine to pair with sauces, such as a red wine sauce, where a more tannic wine would overwhelm it.
Merlot is widely planted throughout the Old World, but is especially used in Italy where it makes easy drinking, juicy single varietal wines as well as a blending component in the so called Super Tuscans (wines where international grapes like Merlot and Cabernet are blended with traditional Italian varieties like Sangiovese).
Pair with: These opulent, velvety wines with their ripe fruit flavours and smooth tannins are a great match for a juicy steak.
Throughout the 80s and 90s Merlot was a star of the North American wine scene, with its approachable ripe, bold flavours and luxurious mouthfeel proving a real hit. It is still widely grown today, although it’s star has been a little eclipsed by Pinot Noir, among other varieties.
Particularly good examples can still be found from California and the cooler climate of Washington State, where the wines retain a freshness and crisp acidity to balance out the ripe fruit flavours.
Likewise, Chile has also carved out something of a niche for itself producing an array of Merlot styles, from the everyday tipple to opulent, full-bodied examples that are more akin to the rich Californian style.
Pair with: These fruity, modern styles of Merlot with their ripeness are a great match for spaghetti and meatballs, gourmet burgers or chicken and pork dishes that have a fruit element-eg apricots or prunes.
Another country that has embraced Merlot and its blending prowess, is South Africa. They have excelled in recent years at producing elegant Bordeaux style blends. With a warmer climate than Bordeaux, they can produce riper wines, with more richness, yet retain the complexity that comes from oak ageing and careful handling. Although more approachable in youth than their more austere French counterparts, South African blends are just as capable of improving with extended ageing.
Has this made you look at Merlot differently?
The humble Merlot grape: often overshadowed by the more glitzy pinot Noir, or the more gutsy Cabernet Sauvignon, yet it remains an integral part of some of the most exciting wines in the world. Has this made you look at Merlot differently? Explore some of the fascinating Merlots and Merlot blends available at Winebuyers.com.