Lush, ripe and elegant, Merlot has existed as a wine varietal since its use was first recorded in France’s Bordeaux region in the late 18th century, from there spreading into winemaking traditions throughout the Old and New Worlds. In Bordeaux, Merlot is a Right Bank wine, where it is the most-planted varietal, preferring the moisture-retaining limestone-and-clay-rich soils of the gently sloping landscape north and east of the Gironde Estuary and Dordogne River. Pomerol and Saint-Émilion are the most famous appellations. Here, proprietary châteaux vinify wines that are elegant, supple and voluptuous with naturally softer tannins, lower alcohol levels and increased presence of acidity. Right Bank Merlots are often blended with Cabernet Franc or used as one of the elements of the classic Bordeaux blend, where they add red fruit complexity and help to round out Cabernet Sauvignon’s fierce tannic structure.
By the mid-19th century the grape had arrived in California’s Santa Clara Valley, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that Merlot experienced a boom in popularity. This prompted winemakers to allocate more and more space to the easy-to-grow vines, often in inappropriate soils and climates, producing less-than-spectacular bottlings. By the early 2000s Merlot’s star had begun to fade, with public favor usurped by Pinot Noir and sweet red blends. Today, however, the grape is enjoying another surge in popular approval, with California and Washington state increasing their plantings. Merlot is also successfully grown in Italy, Australia, Argentina and Chile.
Typical Merlot flavors and aromas are raspberry, strawberry, blackberry, black cherry and plum, coupled with notes of chocolate, mint, violets and herbs, as well as — if oak aging is implemented — notes of vanilla, cedar and baking spices.
Two major stylistic differences depend on where Merlot is cultivated. In the Bordeaux region, the grapes are harvested earlier in the growing season, producing dry wines with higher acidity, more moderate in body and alcohol level, and characterized by red fruit flavors with earthy or mineral notes. New World winemakers, on the other hand, prefer the "international" style, which entails leaving the grapes to hang longer on the vines, resulting in deeper color, more fullness of body, higher levels of tannin and alcohol, and highlighting blackberry and plum flavors.
Oenology 101: The Basics of All Things Wine
Merlot is one of the six "noble" varietal grapes, along with the reds Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, and the whites Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Riesling. Some experts include a seventh, red Pinot Noir.
Merlot’s name translates to "little blackbird," either referring to the grape’s blue-black color or its preference as food for these same birds.
Classically, Merlot has been regarded as a blending grape. It is one element of France’s Bordeaux Blend, an amalgam of two or more red varietals typically grown in the Bordeaux region of southwestern France. The other constituents are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and (sometimes) Carménère. The incorporation of the Merlot’s soft, fruit-laden profile helps round out Cabernet’s aggressive mouth-drying tannins.
Merlot can also shine as a stand-alone varietal bottling, producing highly approachable, easy-drinking wines that can be enjoyed not only on their own but which make excellent pairings with savory dishes and with hearty cheeses.