It’s time to settle this once and for all, merlot is NOT a sub-par grape variety, and yes, you should be drinking it. After the “Sideways effect” of 2004, merlot went through some serious trauma, thanks to Paul Giamatti’s character’s snobby merlot-based remarks. However, merlot is responsible for making some of the best wines in the world. In fact, merlot is the second most-widely planted grape variety in the world.
Merlot, which in French means “black bird”, is known for being soft, ripe and elegant. Most merlots are easy-drinking reds that go well both with food as well as on their own. This is an approachable varietal and is often recommended as the first red wine someone new to red wine should drink.
It is believed that the first time the grape was used in making wine was in the late 1700s when a French winemaker in the Bordeaux region formally labelled the grape as an ingredient in his Bordeaux blend. From that moment on the grape spread across Bordeaux and became known for its unique ability to add softness and luscious fruit to a wine when it was combined with the region’s favourite grape, cabernet sauvignon.
As the popularity of Bordeaux wine spread across the globe, so too did merlot. Merlot is a varietal that contains at least 13.5% alcohol, but can approach 14.5%, especially when it is grown in a warmer climate such as South Africa, Australia, California or Chile. The wine is often said to have a plummy taste and notes of chocolate. It’s also considered to be smooth and very easy to drink.
Derived from the French word merle (black bird), merlot is planted in nearly every wine-producing country in the world. In addition to such key players as France and the U.S., merlot is found in Italy, Spain, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Switzerland, Bulgaria, and even China. A grape born of the parent varieties cabernet franc and magdeleine noire des charentes, merlot is known for providing lush fruit and full body to wines with lower tannins and acidity.
Originally from the heralded Bordeaux region, merlot gained immense popularity in California throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, but the grape saw a significant decrease in consumption after the movie Sideways and catapulted pinot noir to fame. (Protagonist Miles Raymond’s line, “…if anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any f***ing merlot!” probably didn’t help the grape’s cause!)
But merlot’s decreasing popularity in the U.S. wasn’t just due to Sideways. California’s merlot boom had also caused many vintners to plant the grape in areas that likely weren’t top regions, resulting in cheap, uninteresting wines.
Merlot responds best to cool, moisture-retaining soils like clay. While styles vary around the world, in addition to classic structural markers, merlot typically has aromas and flavours of blackberry, black cherry, violets, mint and chocolate, as well as vanilla and baking spices, due to common new oak usage.
Today, producers are recognizing and reclaiming merlot, giving it the attention it needs to show its best character rather than viewing it as a secondary, throwaway variety. A group of producers has even banded together to declare October International Merlot Month, using the hashtag #MerlotMe. If winemakers around the world can continue due diligence into searching the best terroir for the merlot grape, a new generation is sure to discover the grape’s potential.
While this just scrapes the surface of regions producing merlot, here’s a guide to the most prominent international styles of this classic grape variety.
Merlot was first discovered on the Right Bank of Bordeaux in 1784 and remains the most widely planted grape in the area. In contrast to its Left Bank counterpart cabernet sauvignon, merlot is thought to be fleshier, juicier and more approachable at a younger age. While much of the region’s merlot goes into value-driven and blended wines, some of the region’s most famous bottles, such as those of Château Pétrus, are merlot-based and can develop for decades.
Merlot that’s planted in clay, as it is in many pockets of the famed Pomerol, tends to be broader and most robust, often verging on opulence. Merlot that is planted on limestone, as in St-Émilion, has more freshness and minerality. Merlot-based Bordeaux wines have much more prominent earth and minerality than those from any other region and can range from unoaked to swathed in concentrated amounts of new French oak.
Although Italy has hundreds of local grape varieties, international varieties play a big role in many of the country’s regions. Merlot is the fifth-most planted grape in Italy, and much of it is used in the Bolgheri DOC or Toscana IGT blends of Tuscany, more commonly known as Super Tuscans. These famed and often expensive wines can feature merlot as a varietal wine or blended with other Bordeaux varieties like cabernet sauvignon, local varieties like sangiovese, or both. The warm Tuscan sun often plumps merlot’s fruit and softens any harsh tannins, but bottles can range from big, oaky and New World-styled to restrained, earthy and long-developing.
Surprisingly, considering the fact that Italy’s northeastern Friuli-Venezia Giulia region has become well-known for indigenous white grape varieties, merlot is the area’s most planted red grape. It is either blended with cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc for Collio Rosso or produced as a single varietal wine. Some cult producers such as Miani produce extremely coveted, expensive cool-climate versions with nuances of anise, spice, stone and more.
Merlot is currently the second-most popular red grape variety of California and is as wide-ranging as the state’s many regions and producers. It can range from cheap, sweet, grocery-store plonk to high-end, nuanced, ageable cuvées. Classic warm-climate regions includeNapa Valley and Paso Robles where wines are typically round and smooth with lush and jammy fruit character, along with sweet spice and vanilla flavours from new oak. The best, such as Duckhorn, Darioush and St. Supéry, are both elegant and concentrated at the same time. Some areas of California, such as Sonoma’s Bennett Valley, make a cooler-climate style of merlot with less fruit and richness.
During California’s merlot boom, Washington winemakers were also enthralled with the grape, but unlike the former, Washington didn’t turn away from its signature variety. As pinot noir does in Oregon, merlot from Washington combines the best of Old World and New World attributes, combining rich, lush cherry and berry fruit and body with crisp acidity and a tannic bite. The Columbia Valley is producing the largest quantities of merlot, but the Walla Walla Valley, Horse Heaven Hills and Red Mountain are producing particularly excellent versions.
Chile’s red wines have largely been based on cabernet sauvignon and carménère, but merlot is gaining prominence. While some “merlot” vines were actually incorrectly identified carménère vines through the mid-1990s, many producers imported true cuttings after this was discovered, increasing the grape’s production. High-end, top-quality examples are being produced in the Colchagua Valley’s Apalta region, often similar to bold, richly-fruited, oaked versions from California.
Plantings of merlot in Australia didn’t even register until the late 1980s, but the grape’s vineyard acreage has grown immensely over the last 30 years. The country’s vintners are still learning, however, which sites work best for the grape, and Australian merlot still gets a bad reputation from areas in which it doesn’t thrive. In the coming years, look for merlot from Coonawarra, Margaret River, McLaren Vale and the Barossa Valley.
With softer tannins than its Bordeaux partner cabernet sauvignon, merlot is an easy-drinking variety that is widely grown in South Africa. The wine has strong red fruit notes – think cherries, plums, red berries and even fruitcake. Certain merlots will have a herbal aroma, and still others are fuller, with flavours of coffee and chocolate. With its soft, round tannins, it is bottled as an easy-drinking varietal wine in most wine-producing countries.
Merlot’s smooth tannins can be attributed to the grapes’ thin skins. Primary flavour characteristics include raspberry, strawberry, black cherry and plum, as well as mocha, vanilla and cloves.
While the variety has been in the country since the 1920s, production only took off around the mid-1990s because of its popularity in cabernet blends and as a single varietal wine. Production increased from only 1 hectare in 1979 to just over 5 500 ha in 2016. Overgaauw outside Stellenbosch is credited as the first wine estate to release a wine made only from merlot.
Merlot performs well in cooler climatic conditions on medium potential soils. It is planted throughout South Africa, with Stellenbosch having the biggest area under production, followed by Paarl.
Clones in South Africa generally produce dark coloured wines with prominent berry or grassy flavours. More than one clone might be planted per hectare to add complexity to the wines.
When asked to define merlot, a well-known oenophile answered:
Merlot is a mercurial lover. One minute she seduces you with the earthy loaminess of her loins and oaken aroma of her underbrush; the next minute she indulges you with the plummy depths of her fruity bosom, the delectable wantonness of her concupiscence enveloping you with the fruits from her tree.