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Merlot: The Ultimate Guide

A bottle of merlot partially covered by some leaves.
Merlot is one of the world's most popular red wines. Photo by wendymiao chen on Unsplash.

Merlot is one of the most popular red wine varietals in the world. It is grown across the planet and is second only in production to Cabernet Sauvignon. As well as being an extremely popular wine for drinking at the table, it is also one of the most popular varietals for adding into blended red wines. The most famous of these blends is the Bordeaux blend, which incorporates Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec.

Merlot, like many wines, is a complex drink with many nuances and facets to it. This article aims to give you a brief understanding of the many aspects of Merlot, including everything from the basic information about Merlot- from where it is commonly grown and the characteristics that you can broadly expect to find in each bottle to the common methods used for fermentation and how each will alter the taste.

We will also cover things like the history of the grape, the way in which the climate affects the taste, nuances between regions that grow Merlot and the differences that you might expect to taste, and so much more.

Table of contents:

Merlot Summary

Merlot originates from the world-famous region of Bordeaux, France, and even today it is the most commonly grown grape in the vineyards there. It is also appreciated as being a key part of the equally famous Bordeaux blend. However, the Merlot grape has traveled extensively, spreading through Europe in the 19th Century and exploding in popularity in the United States in the 1990s.

Merlot Characteristics

Merlot is a very versatile grape. However, there are a couple of things that you can rely on while purchasing a bottle- you just need to look out for a couple of different things- most importantly (1) where the wine was grown- specifically, the temperature of the area it was grown, and (2) the ‘style’ of Merlot the bottle is.

The above two variables generally play together- as in, the place where a Merlot is grown will usually tell you which style it is. This is not always the case, but it’s a good enough guide for you as you begin to drink Merlot more seriously.

Typical Flavor Notes

While Merlots do vary wildly when it comes to terroir, climate, and methods of production, there are a couple of traits that you can pretty much guarantee to find when you pop the cork on the bottle.

In every bottle of Merlot you will find a fruity wine that is boasting plenty of berries, ranging from red berries like raspberries and strawberries to darker purple fruits.

What Are the Styles of Merlot?

There are two main styles of Merlot, both of which produce significantly different kinds of drinking wine. You may like both types of wine, or you may only like one of the wines. What is important to know is the different way that these styles affect the flavor of your wines, and that you will generally know which style you are buying by where the wine is produced.

Generally speaking, New World wineries (which are found in countries that have been producing wine for 400 years or less. Places such as the United States, Chile, Australia, and Canada.) prefer to use the International style of winemaking.

Old World wineries (which are found in places that have been producing wine for over 400 years. These places are typically European but can also include parts of North Africa and the Middle East- places like Italy, Germany, Israel, and Romania.) prefer the more traditional ‘Bordeaux Style’ to make their Merlots.

The International Style

The International style of making Merlot is typically used by New World wineries (defined above). This style of production happens during the harvest. An International style of Merlot has been harvested comparatively late in the season. This means that the grape has much more natural sugar in it.

The more natural sugar a grape has alters its properties in fermentation. Typically a later harvested grape will have a much fruitier flavor, it will be darker in color, and it will also have a much more noticeable body of tannins as well as having a fairly high alcohol content.

A glass of Merlot made in the International Style will be a full-bodied experience, a deep purple color, and have an undeniable and intense taste of blackberries, plums, and other dark fruits. This style of wine will be much more noticeably tannic with a side serving of sweetness than it will be acidic.

The Bordeaux Style

As mentioned above, the Bordeaux Style of wine is commonly produced in Old World wine areas- unsurprisingly perhaps, including Bordeaux itself. A wine that is made in this way will be harvested comparatively early in the year. An earlier harvest will mean that the grape is not as ‘ripe’ (although the term ‘ripe’ holds some contention- as it means different things for different vineyards).

A grape that is less ‘ripe’ will hold different qualities to one that is left on the vine for longer. These grapes will have a more noticeable line of acidity (but still relatively low), the fruit in the wine will have more of a red berry flavor- you can expect things such as strawberries and raspberries.

You will also find that the body of the wine will only be around a medium, and the alcohol content is generally lower than you will find in an International Style Merlot. This style of production is done deliberately in order to ensure the naturally occurring tannins of the wine are still prevalent. It being a medium-body will also change the kinds of food that you should pair with it.

Light-bodied Merlot

This is Merlot that is typically grown in a warmer climate. Try a bottle from Australia, California, or Argentina and enjoy the soft tannins and soft finish. If you prefer a little more structure in your wine then you can opt for one that has been barrel aged, as this will bring a little more complexity to your drink.

Medium Bodied Merlot

The Majority of Merlots that are medium bodied are produced in the Bordeaux style. You will mostly find this across old-world wines, so look out for bottles that say on the label ‘Bordeaux Style’, particularly ones that are made in old world wine areas like Italy.

Full-Bodied Merlot

Since Merlot is the child of Cabernet Franc, it makes sense that some of the Merlots you see are full-bodied. A full bodied Merlot will be found in the cooler regions of its growth- places like Bordeaux, Washington State, and Germany.

Merlot Blends

Merlot is a great grape to blend. Its low levels of acidity and its relatively fruity palate make it a great option for winemakers. Options for this include the classic Bordeaux blend, which is recreated around the world- not just in Bordeaux.

History of Merlot

Merlot has a relatively long and complex history. It is the child of Cabernet Franc, and for many years experts didn’t know who the mother plant could be. Through this turbulent history, Merlot has faced banishment from its native land, it has explored Europe, and it has revolutionized wine drinking in the United States of America.

  • 1784: Merlot first made an appearance in the notes of a wine keeper. A Bordeaux official, he wrote in his journal that Merlot was one of the best of its time.
  • 1824: Merlot seems to get its name. In an article about wine from the Bordeaux region, Merlot is referenced as ‘merlau’, a local breed of a blackbird in the Occitan language- a regional language in Southern France, Monaco, and Italy. Over time this changed into ‘merle’, the French version of the word. There are rumors that this is because of the color of the grapes, but in fact, it is because of the birds’ love of eating the grapes right off the vine.
  • 1855: The Merlot Grape makes its first appearance in Venice, under the name ‘Bordo’.
  • 1905 – 1910: Merlot appears in the Swiss wine-growing region of Ticino.
  • 1956: A severe frost in Bordeaux ruins the harvest for the year, an enormous setback for both the wine and the vineyards.
  • 1960 – 1969: Several years of vintages are lost to rot, another crushing setback for both grape and vineyard.
  • 1970 – 1975: Bordeaux officials ban the growth of the grape, owing to the huge setbacks experienced in the most recent years.
  • 1991: A 60 Minutes episode airs in the United States about the French Paradox- the idea that French people eat diets high in saturated fats but live for longer. This difference in lifespan is attributed to wine and the health benefits it can all but promise to its consumers. These health benefits include, but are not limited to, lowered chances of heart disease, lower chances of strokes, lowered chances of diabetes, and more. After this episode aired, Americans’ consumption of wine skyrockets. Merlot took center stage during this United States-based wine revolution. Partially for its easy, fruity flavors and medium body, but also because the name is comparatively easier to say than many other wine varieties available at this time.
  • 2004: Merlot becomes the third most grown grape variety worldwide, with 260,000 hectares of crop grown every year.
  • 2009: Merlot’s mother is discovered. After DNA testing, an unnamed and almost undocumented grape found in an abandoned vineyard in Brittany and proved to be the mother of Merlot.

Terroir & Climate

Merlot is a grape that is grown in many different regions across the world. As you may have guessed from this, the grape can flourish in many different climates, regions, and temperatures. This can be made particularly obvious when you consider the differences in average temperatures where the grape is grown.

In Bordeaux, what is considered a warm summer is very different from what is considered a warm summer in places like California, Argentina, and Australia. Since the grape originates from France and still flourishes in the other countries that have been mentioned, it can be clearly said that Merlot can flourish in many different climates.

In terms of terroir and the type of soil that Merlot does well to grow in, it is again, fairly versatile. It grows well in clay, where if the earth has a lot of natural iron, it will produce a more tannic profile. Limestone will produce a much more light and perfumed taste in the grape. Silt and of course gravel style soil, much like is found in Medoc, Bordeaux- where the grape originates from, work well to grow the grape as well.

In contrast to this, the Merlot grapevine does not fare so well with purely sandy soil (although soils with sandy as a partial property will hold a merlot well), as it does not hold enough nutrients. It has similar issues with peaty soil, and the acidity of this soil also affects the prosperity of the grapes.

Weather

While the majority of the flavors will be dictated by the style the wine is produced in, the weather the grapes experience will also alter the flavors of the wine. A warmer climate will bring in a more full body with a higher alcohol content, and a cooler climate will offer more acidity and a higher tannin level- often in fact, cool climate Merlot can be confused with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Often, warmer climate Merlot is aged in oak barrels in order to offer the wine a little more complexity.

While you may already have an idea of which style you prefer, it is still a good idea to try as many styles as you can in order to understand the nuances that different terroir and production styles can have on a grape.

Merlot Regions

Since the demand for the grape rose so high in the 1990s, the popularity of Merlot, and the locations where you can find it growing, has only increased. In fact, in 2004 it was estimated that Merlot is the third most commonly grown grape varietal worldwide.

One of the reasons why Merlot is so widely grown is because it is a very versatile grape. Its characteristics vary greatly, depending a lot on how it has been grown- whether it has enjoyed a warmer climate or cooler weather if the earth it is grown in is sandy or clay, and so on. This means that each wine-maker can make a Merlot that is almost personal to them and their vineyard.

While Merlot is widely grown, there are undoubtedly some regions that grow the grape more and have more of a worldwide impact on how the grape is seen and produced. This section aims to cover the more important Merlot growing regions- and the places that grown the most. Although please bear in mind that this list is by no means exhaustive.

France

The homeland of Merlot, France is the country that grows the largest amount of Merlot in the world, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Merlot is also the most widely grown grape across the entire country- coming a long way from the 70’s when Merlot production was banned.

Despite its popularity, it is still most commonly blended when produced in France- particularly in the South West regions, where Malbec and Merlot are a classic combination, and in the extremely traditional Bordeaux Blend, where merlot is added to soften the wine and to add a little body to it as well.

Italy

Italy is another country that produces vast amounts of merlot grapes, and the vast majority of these grapes are used to produce blended wines specific to regions of the country. If we travel to the North East of the country to the Friuli Wine Region, where we will find the wine that is produced to be either sold as a varietal or occasionally made to be blended with wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, or its father, Cabernet Franc.

Merlot is a popular blending wine in Italy because of its low levels of acidity, which balance out the natural acidic levels of many existing Italian wines. Usually, an Italian Merlot can be recognized because it has a much lighter body than is typical for a Merlot, and it will have herby notes to it.

United States

Predominantly grown in California and in Washington, Merlot is still grown in most wine-growing states of the US, including New York, Oregon, and Virginia. Originally planted in California, Merlot began its adventure grown entirely for varietal wine (wine that is made of a single type of grape). This changed over time, with replicas of the Bordeaux blend being pushed back onto the shelves.

Merlot from California can vary greatly depending on the way it is produced. Some Merlots, particularly the young ones, are extremely fruity and have earned themselves the title of ‘Red Chardonnay’. However, a lot of the Merlots in California are oak-aged- which offers quite a lot more complexity to the flavors.

Washington State was originally considered to be too cold to produce wines, and Merlot was one of the grapes that helped to transform this perception. The merlot that is produced here takes advantage of the long sunny days and cool nights in order to create a wine that is dark in color, higher in acidity, and successfully captures some of the best aspects of both the heat that makes New World wine and the cool temperatures that make Old World wine so special.

Australia

In terms of their Merlot growing habits, Australia is similar to the United States in that the grape picked up its popularity during the ‘Merlot craze’. In recent years, much of the plants have gone towards blends in an effort to replicate the Bordeaux blend.

However, Merlot is popular with Australian drinkers (seen by the fact it is the third most grown grape in the country, after Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah/Shiraz.), presumably because it is a softer version of the two more popular brands mentioned before.

Australian Merlot is flavorful in fruit, with a mix of purple and red berries complementing the soft palate and overall roundness.

Pairing Food with Merlot

Merlot is a very versatile wine, owing to its medium levels of tannins, relatively low acidity, and fruity, flavorful nature. However, you must still consider the differences that can appear in different styles of Merlot and different climates, which will produce a different type of wine which will, naturally, pair with different foods. For the ease of symplicity, we will be considering a medium bodied Merlot, as it is the most common style.

When pairing food and wine, we must consider the flavor profiles that exist and how they compliment each other. The flavor profiles are:

  • Salty
  • Sweet
  • Umami
  • Spicy
  • Sour
  • Bitter

Once you understand how these flavors work together you can begin to understand how to pair your food and your wine. However, there are some hard and fast rules that you can apply pretty easily.

Flavor Profiles that Don’t Go Together

Bitter is a hard profile to pair with. In wine, bitter comes through as tannins, making a heavily tannic wine harder to pair- working mostly with very fatty flavors (as the tannins and the fat bind together to create a deeper flavor of each). Bitterness usually does not pair well with sour, or spice, especially not with wine.

In fact, none of these flavor profiles go particularly well with each other. This means, with wine, that if you have a crisp wine it will not taste good with a spicy dish, or with a bitter dish (think things like asparagus and brussel sprouts).

Flavor Profiles that Do Go Together

Once you have established what absolutely will not work, you can play around a little more. While there are some pairings that will classically match much better than others (such as a high tannin and a high fat and flavor cut of steak, or a crisp white wine with a soft white fish), a lot of wine tasting and pairing comes down to personal preference.

When pairing food and wine you can choose to pair congruently, meaning that the flavors work together (such as a salad with a zesty lemon dressing with a crisp and fresh wine like Sauvignon Blanc).

Alternatively, you can also pair complementary. A complementary pairing means that the opposing flavors of the wine work together to elevate each flavor. This could be the crisp flavors of Sauvignon and a creamy pasta dish like chicken alfredo. There is a lot to know about wine pairing, so taking the time to do a little more research will help you a lot.

The Best Foods to Pair with Merlot

The nature of Merlot, its smooth and round finish and medium means that it is a versatile wine that pairs very well with plenty of foods. Try to stay away from very light foods like fish or salads, but past this, you can be a little more adventurous. Merlot usually goes very well with Italian style dishes and tomato based sauces, as well as chicken, other seasoned meats, and things like roasted vegetables. Below are a couple of our go-to dishes to pair with Merlot.

Merlot and Pizza

If you have been searching for that perfect pizza wine, then a lighter-bodied Merlot will suit you perfectly. It matches with the tomato sauce, and the fruitiness of the wine will complement the saltiness of the cheese very well.

Merlot and Burgers

Another typically difficult pairing, the roundness of a medium bodied Merlot will bring out the juiciness of the burger while complimenting the sauce and other aspects of the dish. A cheeseburger will be an even better choice of pairing with a Merlot- as much like pizza, the saltiness of the cheese will bring out the fruitiness of the wine.

Merlot and Roasted Meats

If you are the type of person who enjoys a roast dinner for Sunday lunch, then Merlot is a great go to option week in, week out- particularly if you opt for a classic Merlot from Bordeaux. This kind of merlot will go with almost all roasted meats- from beef, to lamb, to chicken, and even turkey. It’s a great table friendly choice for a roast spread- even roast duck works extremely well.

Merlot and Pasta Sauces

As mentioned, Merlot is one of the few go-to wines that pair very well with tomatoes. This means that for your pasta bakes, your spaghetti and meatballs, and even a good lasagne goes excellently with a good medium bodied Merlot. Of course, it absolutely helps that Merlot goes well with many different kinds of cheeses and cured meats as well. It really is an excellent choice for most of your Italian dishes.

Merlot, Meats and Cheeses

Merlot goes excellently with a lot of different kinds of cured meats, making it a great pairing for a chartreuse board and York Ham. It also goes very well with strong flavored cheeses- things like blue cheese, gorgonzola, and cheddar all would make for a great cheese board to accompany a merlot. If you wanted to add some berries to your cheese board then they too, would make great accompaniments to the spread.

While not technically a cheese, it is also worth noting that if you would like a good wine to go with your macaroni cheese, then Merlot is an excellent choice.

Best Merlots to Try

Since there are so many different types of Merlot, this is a good go-to list that will help you to decide which are the best types of Merlot for you.

Most Well-Known Merlot: Château Pétrus

The most well known Merlot in the world is Château Pétrus- but it comes at a price. A bottle of this wine is grown in Bordeaux and can set you back thousands of dollars- and for good reason. Its properties mean that it can be aged for many years before being opened, and critics regularly rate it extremely highly. It might be out of your price range, but if you ever get a chance to sample this wine it is highly recommended to do so.

Great Choice to Age: Beringer 2017

Straight from Napa Valley, this is a great option if you are interested in vibrant and rich wines. This bottle boasts sweet fruit notes, while also complimenting itself with a lovely mineral undertone.

A Classic Choice: Bordeaux Blends

It’s a classic choice indeed- and a rite of passage for wine tasters everywhere to sip on a Bordeaux Blend from Bordeaux. While it’s not entirely a Merlot, it is one of the bottles that makes merlot so truly known and accessible all round.

A Great Budget Option: Cannonball Merlot

A Californian wine, this bottle is an excellent, budget friendly choice that has won awards. If you’re not looking to spend a lot of money on your wine, then this is a great choice for under $20.

Merlot Facts

Here are some interesting facts you might not have known about Merlot:

  • Merlot is the most widely planted grape in the region of Bordeaux in France.
  • Both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon share a father, Cabernet Franc. This makes them half brothers.
  • Merlot is also the second most widely grown red wine variety in the world, second only to its half brother Cabernet Sauvignon.
  • Merlot gets its name from the French word for blackbird (Merleu).
  • After the rise in popularity from the famous 60 minutes episode, Merlot suffered a drop in popularity after the movie ‘Sideways’ criticized it.
  • It can be difficult to grow- thanks to its thin skin and early ripening, Merlot can suffer a lot if the weather is unpredictable. That’s one of the reasons why the French government banned the growing of the grape for five years.

Frequently Asked Questions

The following are some questions that are frequently asked about Merlot:

Is Merlot Sweet or Dry?

Merlot is a dry red wine.

What Color is Merlot?

Merlot is a deep red color- however if you tip it to the side you will see that it has an orange tinge around the halo. This is a great way to tell a full-bodied Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon apart.

What is the Alcohol Content of Merlot?

This depends a little on the brand of the wine and the style that has been used to make it, but typically Merlot will fall into the 12.5%-13.5% alcohol range.

What Does Merlot Wine Taste Like?

Merlot is a soft, round wine. It is relatively low in both tannins and acidity. It is also a very fruity wine, with flavors of red berries and purple berries- depending on the style that was used to produce it.

How Many Calories are in a Glass of Merlot?

In a 150ml serving of Merlot (one small glass) there are 122 calories.

Should Merlot be Chilled?

Usually, no. There is no need to chill a red wine, unless it is a light bodied red that you wish to pair with certain foods. Chilling a wine will dull the flavor profile.

Final Notes

Merlot is one of the most popular types of wine in the world, whether it is for blending or for varietal wines. It can also have very different properties depending on the style that it is made using. While it is a very popular wine, there are many more types of wines to be discovered, and many different things to know about each wine.

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