Merlot, or more properly Merlot Noir (as there is a Merlot Blanc) is fast becoming one of the most sought after red wine varieties, thanks to Bordeaux’s Pomerol and Saint-Emilion wines. It has an almost cult status in California, where more concentrated Bordeaux-style wines are produced. It is also on the increase in Australia, New Zealand Chile and even South Africa.
Merlot is the most commonly grown grape variety in France, and is one of the most widely planted in Bordeaux. It is a grape variety that has been on a massive expansion drive throughout the world in the past ten years. Merlot wines can be described as being smooth and rich with forest fruit aromas and flavours of plums, blackcurrants and damsons.
What makes Merlot so special?
- It is adaptable to most soils and can withstand damp, clayey soils much better than Cabernet Sauvignon.
- In the vineyard it buds and flowers early resulting in an earlier harvest.
- It is a moderately vigorous high yielding grape variety that requires quite a lot of summer pruning. This is good from the winegrowers point of view, but not necessarily in the eyes of the wine drinkers. Higher yields usually mean lower quality. So it is important to pick the grapes at optimum ripeness otherwise varietal characteristics will be lost. Sensible winegrowers will control yields to gain extra quality.
- It responds to barrel oak ageing very well. When the wine has been in oak for some time notes of caramel, chocolate, coffee bean and vanilla will show.
- It is a very fruity wine with a good body and lower tannins, ideal for a single varietal wine. It also has great alluring characteristics for blending with more tannic wines. So the softness from the Merlot helps to make a complex blend with the harshness of the Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Merlot matures in the bottle earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, so it does not need to be laid down in a cellar to soften unlike the harsher wines. This is what makes it attractive to many wine drinkers who like to buy a wine and drink it immediately, rather than lay it down for several years. We are not as patient as our forebears – or maybe we can’t afford to wait!
In order to avoid the main drawback of excessive yields, Merlot needs a relatively cool microclimate. It is now grown in nearly all wine growing countries and is particularly successful in California, Chile and Northern Italy.
What food pairs well with Merlot?
The slightly harsher Merlots with more intense flavours pair well with grilled and charred meats – something like ‘Grilled Leg of Lamb with Rosemary and Garlic’ would be good. The softer, fruitier Merlots from cooler climate regions go well with salmon or mushroom based dishes or even one like ‘Spiced Duck Breasts’. At the other end of the scale, the softer, lighter bodied Merlots pair well with shellfish like prawns or scallops wrapped in bacon or even straight forward macaroni cheese.
More about Merlot
A wine buyer describing what the success of Merlot was down to said,
“It exactly matches the popular modern drinking style, because it makes wines that have sweet, ripe fruit and are nice and smooth.”
Jancis Robinson from ‘The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition’ says,
“Merlot is now so popular worldwide that it competes only with Cabernet Sauvignon as the most planted dark-skinned grape variety overall.”
One of Bordeaux’s most famous wines, Château Petrus, whose prices nearly always exceed £500 a bottle, is almost exclusively made from Merlot.
The ideal serving temperature for Merlot is 63°F / 17°C.
Merlot is very much an all round wine and with world vineyard plantings on the increase, we are going to see a lot more from this versatile grape variety.