Merlot is a red wine variety with strong historic ties to Bordeaux and the south-west of France. It is the predominant variety in most wines from Saint-Emilion and Pomerol, the area in which the variety originated. The variety is now widely planted in wine regions across the world, and in terms of the volumes of wine produced internationally, it is rivaled only by its Bordeaux companion, Cabernet Sauvignon.
In France, Merlot is the most widely planted red wine variety of all, and it is also extremely popular in northern Italy and the warmer areas of southern Switzerland. The popularity of Merlot in the United States resulted in a significant increase in planting in the late 1980s and early 1990s, particularly in California and Washington on the country’s west coast. However, while Merlot-based wines were the height of fashion then, popularity has since dropped significantly in favor of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir.
Chile, a country which has long been known as a source of good value wine, has built its reputation mainly on its Merlot-based cuvees. The country has made good use of Merlot in both the high-production wines and some of its finer wines, particularly those from Apalta and the wider Colchagua Valley.
Investigations into the genetics of Merlot suggest that it is closely related to Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, its Bordeaux blending partners. Carmenere, an historic member of the extended Bordeaux variety is also a close relative, and has been mistaken as Merlot for many years in the vineyards of Chile. Worthy of mention here is 'Caberlot', reportedly a crossing of Merlot and another variety (possibly one of the Cabernets, whence the name), discovered by Italian agronomist Remigio Bordini. This almost mythical grape variety exists only in a small vineyard in Tuscany, where it is used to make Il Carniscale's varietally labeled 'Il Caberlot' wine.
The precise flavors that Merlot imparts to a wine are not easily grouped. It is a grape used for producing wines of a particular texture, rather than a particular taste, relying on organoleptic properties other than just flavor and aroma.
Smooth, rounded and 'easy-drinking' are common descriptions of Merlot wines. The main reason for this is that Merlot grapes are relatively large in relation to their pips and the thickness of the skins, in which tannins are found. For this reason, the variety is used to soften wines made from more tannic varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon (in the Medoc) or Malbec (in Cahors). It is also used in cooler vintages to balance the austerity of under-ripe grapes and to make the wines more approachable at an earlier age.
Merlot might be seen as the 'reliable' grape variety, or as an insurance policy. Along with its capacity to soften wine, it is early-maturing – meaning that it ripens even in slightly cooler climates. Its key drawback is that the early-developing flowers are more susceptible to frost damage in spring.
Popular blends include: Cabernet Sauvignon – Merlot, Cabernet Franc – Merlot, Cabernet – Merlot – Shiraz, Cabernet - Merlot - Tempranillo, Merlot – Sangiovese, Merlot - Tempranillo, Cabernet – Merlot – Sangiovese.
Food and wine matching suggestions:
Europe: Braised lamb with truffles; osso bucco (braised veal shanks)
Asia: Pork belly baked in a miso sauce
Americas: Brazilian pork and black-bean stew (feijoada); stuffed and roasted bell pepper
Australasia/Oceania: Braised Angus beef cheek