Bordeaux Thoroughbred, The World’s Workhorse
Merlot is up there with Grenache Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon as the world’s most planted variety, although it’s undoubtedly in France where it is planted most, with nearly 66% of the red grape vineyard area of Bordeaux alone being taken up by Merlot.
It turns out that Merlot is, genetically, the half brother of Cabernet Sauvignon.Its smooth silkiness is indeed the perfect pair for Cab Sav’s sometimes austere tannic structure.So interlinked are the two varieties, that all French wine appellations that allow Cabernet Sauvignon also allow Merlot.
Merlot is often used in partnership with other grapes in a vineyard as insurance, as its early ripening nature and good yields makes it a safe bet in marginal climates where other grapes may struggle to fully ripen in tougher years.
Merlot is famed for fresh fruits, both red (raspberries) and black (cherry and plum) depending on where it is grown.
It has an affinity to oak, adding vanilla and mocha flavours.
Bottle ageing allows it to develop cedar and tobacco aromas
Merlot is mostly used as part of a blend although some varietal Merlots do exist, notably in California and northern Italy.
It takes the dominant role in the vast majority of the red wines from Bordeaux providing fresh, fruity table reds. Better examples have a bit more flesh on the bone and much more concentrated fruit.
A lot of Italian Merlot is varietal and is light, fruity, and easy to drink.
Merlot is an early flowering, early maturing and plump grape that offers a lush fruitiness.
It’s not without its dangers in the vineyard. Flowers don’t always turn to fruit reducing yields, and the big and tight grape bunches and thin grape skins make it a nightmare if there’s a whiff of fungal infection in the air.
Harvesting as soon as the grapes are ripe is vital.This is not only to guard against the aforementioned rot, but also as the grapes lose acidity fast if left on the vine too long.
The resultant wines are relatively light in colour, and lower in acid and tannin than many of its blending partners.
Merlot produces a medium bodied wine with plenty of fresh fruit. Its easy-drinking nature makes it a great all rounder with food, from chicken to game meats, and its slightly lower alcohol makes it cope well with chilli heat.
Juicy Merlots also pair very well with roasted red peppers, which are often served in Bordeaux as an accompaniment to a duck confit.
FRANCE – BORDEAUX
Merlot, unlike its blending mate Cabernet Sauvignon, loves to have wet feet.Damp and cool soils are perfect – none more so than the clay soils of Saint Emilion and Pomerol on Bordeaux’s right bank. It’s here where, arguably, Merlot achieves its peak as a grape variety.
In fact, Merlot dominates across the rest of Bordeaux, with the exception of the Médoc and Graves, where the well draining gravel soils suit Cabernet Sauvignon much better.
FRANCE – LANGUEDOC
It’s sometimes used in Vin de Pays as a blending partner to add a lighter touch to some Syrahs, although it’s only allowed in two AOCs, those of Cabardès and Côtes de la Malepère.
Merlot is grown in nearly three quarters of Italy’s wine regions; however, most plantings are in the North, especially in the North-East.Its planted alongside Cabernet Franc on the plains of Grave Del Friuli and the Piave River basin. In Friuli there’s even a Strada Del Merlot, a tourist route down the Isonzo River.
One area of big interest for Merlot is in Tuscany, where its role in the blends of Ornellaia’s Super Tuscans has shown how well it can add to blends with Italian varietals, maybe even more so than Cabernet Sauvignon.
ELSEWHERE IN EUROPE
Merlot is widespread across central and eastern Europe, with plantings in Switzerland, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Grape growers have to be slightly careful as if Merlot is in a place that’s too hot, it will lose its acidity fast.
Californian grape growers found a passion for Merlot in the mid 1980s, as plantings increased by 15 times by the start of the 1990s.This was exacerbated following a phylloxera outbreak in 1996, where over half the replanted vines were Merlot.
Lots of Merlot was planted in the hot Central Valley, and often lost the due care and attention it needed. It was purely an effort to meet demand rather than make serious wines. So infamous did Merlot become that the main wine-geek protagonist in the book Sideways famously quoted “if they order Merlot, I’m fucking leaving!”.
Perversely this had an interesting effect on Californian Merlot. Demand dropped like a stone, the bulk growers abandoned Merlot to the lower yielding, quality conscious producers, and the average quality of Californian Merlot rose significantly.
Some was attempted in Washington and Oregon states, but Oregon was too cold, and Washington’s Merlot was devastated by a major frost in 1996 that burned a lot of fingers.
There are lots of damp, clay soils in Chile’s central southern valleys, which are perfect for Merlot.In the past the vines were often confused with Carmenère, but more care and DNA testing has improved the varietal Merlot here.
Merlot is also widely grown in Uruguay, Brazil, and Bolivia.
AUSTRALIA & NZ
Both countries saw a surge in plantings in the 1990s, and there is huge potential in well chosen, cooler regions.New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay region, where Merlot is the fourth most planted red, is showing some high-quality returns.
Merlot has been grown across South Africa for many years, making varying qualities of varietals and also Bordeaux style blends.Again, there was a boom here too in the 1990s as Merlot plantings quadrupled to become SA’s fourth most planted red.
Wanderlust’s Merlot selection
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If you love Merlot you should also explore….
Best buddies in Bordeaux, Cab Sav shows off all the traits Merlot doesn’t and vice versa. They might be different wines but it’s great to compare and contrast the two.