Dark purple and covered with a romantic layer of frost, the Merlot grape is one diverse little lady. Packing a powerful punch of flavor and with the ability to grow abundantly in a variety of climates, it's not surprising that this group is used not only as a solo wine variety but also as a key ingredient in many red blends.
It’s soft, fleshy, and ripens early in the season meaning that it is ideal for blending with late season grapes. The result is that Merlot grapes are planted in abundance. In fact, Merlot is the most widely planted grape variety in France’s Bordeaux region and serves as a primary ingredient in that famed wine.
Merlot is among one of the most planted red grape varieties in the world and has earned her designations as one of the world’s favorite red wine varieties.
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Merlot at a Glance:
Most Prominent in: France, Switzerland, and Italy
Looks Like: The grape itself is known for producing thin skinned, large berries that hang in loose clusters. The grape itself is a dark blueish purple with a white frost appearance to the surface. Once turned to wine, Merlot has low opacity and presents as a deep ruby color.
Tastes Like: Merlot is known for offering a thick, lush flavor palate that plays homage to a variety of berries. The essence of blackberry, raspberry, strawberry, and plum are most common, but cherry, mulberry, olives, and rhubarb are also common.
A Bit about Her History
The first traceable mention of Merlot comes from the Bordeaux region of France where, in 1784, a local official wrote of the wine (then called Merlau) and noted it as one of the best in the region. From here the mention of Merlot begins to pick of speed around the globe as sommeliers began to debate about the origins of the variety. While an 1824 publication notes that the wine derives her name from a local Blackbird (The Merlau) who was often spotted eating the grapes directly from the vine, descriptions from the early 1900s indicate that the grape may have originated on one of the islands found along the Garonne River in France.
The vines began to grow widely along the left banks of the Gironde in the early 1900s but were wrought with trouble. A severe frost in 1956, and the loss of entire vintages to rot through the 1960s led the French government to ban any new vines of Merlot from being planted from 1970-1975.
While France was battling the problematic Merlot vine, the Italians were thriving with it. Italian references to the grape are recorded as early as 1855. The Italians would later introduce the Swiss to the grape variety in around 1905 where it would go on to become a local favorite.
As research and DNA testing evolved, researchers in the United States were able to conclude that Merlot grapes are actually a second generation heavy hitter in the wine world; the offspring of Cabernet Franc crossed with an obscure vine found growing in Brittany. Merlot is part of a celebrated family tree with direct sibling relations to Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Sales of Merlot and all red wine varieties soared in the 1990s following a report by news outlet 60 Minutes that explored the potential positive health impact of red wines. This boom leveled off before ultimately crashing in 2004 with the release of the movie, “Sideways.”
Regions of Prominence
Unsurprisingly, France leads the world in Merlot planting with more than 2/3rds of the world’s Merlot vines planted here. Other areas that host sizeable Merlot vineyards include Italy, Switzerland, Croatia, Hungary, Slovenia, Israel, Turkey, and Mexico. Merlot is grown in the United States in smaller vineyards, most of which are located in Washington State, Virginia, and on Long Island, NY.
Merlot grapes tend to be at their best when planted in areas where the soil stays cool. Due to their early season budding, the vine is highly fragile and often at risk of being lost to heavy frosting or rot due to their thin skin. In addition, the strain is also susceptible to Downey mildew, infection from leafhopper insects, and colure. Merlot is most often planted on slopes with excellent water run-off and in areas where it can be easily pruned.
As a result, winemakers need to take great care in where they choose to plant these vines and pay special attention to them through the season.
Two Main Styles
While Merlot is grown all over the globe (an estimated 640,000 acres globally, to be exact), most Merlot varieties can be broken down into two main varieties. These are:
- International Style- Favored by wine enthusiasts in the new world (as opposed to Europe), this version is picked later in the season. The result is a deep, inky color and a high alcohol content. The international style focuses on a flavor that is high in tannins and offers a full body flavor. The flavor highlights deep blackberry and plum notes while providing a thick, lush experience across the tongue.
- Bordeaux Style- While many Bordeaux style producers have also begun harvesting grapes later in the season to produce the “International” style of Merlot, the original method called for harvesting the grapes far earlier in the season. The difference is less body and a higher acidity level in the finished product. The alcohol content will be lower with the earlier harvest, and the flavor bouquet will highlight red berries like strawberry and raspberry.
Made using the same methods as Zinfandel, White Merlot is a more rare variety offering a light pink juice that has hints of raspberry. The grape is crushed with the skin on, allowing for the lighter colored run off. It is this runoff that is then fermented to create the white Merlot variety. This option is relatively new, introduced only in the 1990s, and is often labeled as a form of Rose.
The Bordeaux Blend
As a favored son of the Bordeaux region, it comes as no surprise that the Merlot grape plays a large part in the famed Bordeaux blend red wines. While the types of grapes and proportion of each in the blend are not regulated, it’s left solely up to the individual winemaker, every Bordeaux Blend contains as least three of the grape varieties traditional to the regions. These varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verds, and of course, Merlot.
The different ratio of these grapes will, of course, lead to a different flavor palate. In general, left bank Bordeaux blends will keep Merlot in second place, favoring the Cabernet Sauvignon grape. In contrast, a right bank Bordeaux revolves around the Merlot grape. In either blend, the role of the Merlot grape is to offer body and softness to the overall experience.
If you choose to serve a Bordeaux at your table, know that unlike many red wines, it does best slightly below room temperature and after spending some time in a decanter.
The Perfect Pair
With her lush flavor palate and fruity bouquet, it’s no surprise that when the Merlot comes out, the hearty, savory dishes aren’t far behind. Merlot is full of body and, as such, can hold up to a flavorful and heavy food pairing. Fatty red meats and heavier fish (think salmon) pair flawlessly with the acidity and tannin levels in a Merlot. Heavy cream based sauces and mushroom accompaniments will bring out the depth of the Merlot as well. If you’re kicking up the spice on dinner though, you’ll want to move past Merlot. The capsaicin in spicy food can cause the Merlot to taste bitter and undesirable. On a cheeseboard, you’ll want to avoid blue veined cheeses as well as softer, delicate flavored cheeses. Merlot is a bold flavor and demands an equally bold cheese. Instead, opt for a sharp, aged cheddar or Stilton.
Betcha’ Didn’t Know…
- Merlot is often nicknamed the “Easy Red” since its low tannin level makes it more appealing to wine drinkers who primarily prefer whites.
- Merlot can age! While most wines are best enjoyed within a few years of their vintage, Merlot has shown that it can continue to mature and change inside of the bottle for several decades.
- Merlot is often the first grape variety to ripen in any given season.
- One of the most expensive and sought after Bordeaux blends in the world, Château Pétrus, is made almost entirely of Merlot grapes. A bottle of this wine can run up to $2,600.
- The movie Sideways, released in 2004, may have cost Merlot producers upwards of $400M in revenue. Through the film, one of the main characters speaks in glowing terms about Pinot Noir, while belittling and demeaning Merlot. The result was a 2% slump in Merlot sales and a 16% spike in Pinot Noir.
- Italian Merlot varieties are often noted for their lighter, fruitier flavors. The sweeter blend is often thought of as a “sweet and sour” Merlot. It is this blend that has given Merlot the common association of being a smooth, laid back red.