Merlot is one of the world’s most well-known grape varieties. While the film ‘Sideways‘ did cause a dip in the sales of Californian Merlot, this grape was too big to fail. It is planted across the globe and has found great success in both old and new world wine-making countries.
If you love wine, then it may have been impossible to avoid Merlot. However, it is not a one trick pony. It can vary greatly in price, quality and style. If you’re not keen on the stuff, then this article can serve as a guide to find you the perfect style of Merlot. If you like Merlot, but you’re happy sticking to Bordeaux, then maybe we can help to broaden your horizons.
The world of Merlot is wide and deep. If you dip a toe in, you may never get out. Yet, there’s an endless amount of wine to try, so why would you?
We will take you through the different styles of wine which this grape variety can take and the different tastes you can expect, before taking you on a world tour, which will include some of our favourite destinations for this well-travelled grape variety.
Let’s dive into this topic and take you on our tour of all things Merlot.
Merlot – The Grape Variety
Merlot is often a ‘right down the middle’ kind of grape. You’ll often find it with medium levels of tannins, medium levels of alcohol and medium levels of acid, although these can vary depending on what the winemakers chooses to do with it.
This middle ground stance means that it is very good at producing simple, fresh and fruity table wines Winemakers are able to produce a wine with a reasonable amount of body, tannin and acidity that has a mix of red and black fruit flavours. These are simple and cheaper wines, but far richer and complex offerings can be found across the globe.
It is also very good for blending with other grapes varieties. It can soften tannic wines, or add body to lighter ones. Then, in terms of the more premium wines, there are two distinct styles of Merlot of which you should be aware. The first consideration is the time of harvest.
One style looks to harvest as late as possible which brings out the intense purple hue, as well as concentrated notes of blackberry and plums in a soft, velvet texture. You’ll often find these wines matured in new oak to add toast and spice. This is referred to as the ‘International Style’.
The other style is done through harvesting the grapes early. This makes the Merlot have a medium body and level of alcohol, but they are leaner, with more acidity and red fruit flavours. It is also not unusual to have a vegetal or leafy aroma. This approach is generally reserved for wine production in Bordeaux.
You’ll also get similar winemaking methods to those employed in the production of Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes will be destemmed and crushed. Then, they are macerated for extended periods to ensure that colour, flavour and tannin can be extracted. Merlot is a bit more supple than Cabernet Sauvignon though, so less rigorous extraction is required.
Old World Merlot
There is really only one place to start with Merlot and that is in Bordeaux. Merlot is the shining star of Bordeaux wine, as it constitutes 60% of all planted acres. It is consistently paired with Cabernet Sauvignon which occupies a further 20% of plantings in Bordeaux.
Merlot instills Bordeaux wine with suppleness and ripe, fruity flavours. On the other side of the coin, Cabernet Sauvignon is tannic and gives powerful structure, as well as body. This is why the wines of Bordeaux possess a great ageing potential. The duo’s relationship is one which has stood the test of time, in that Merlot is the “flesh on Cabernet Sauvignon’s bones”, (MacNeil 145).
Bordeaux is broadly split into two main areas. The Left and Right Bank. The Left Bank sits to the west of Gironde river, while the Right Bank sits to the east. The Right Bank is the area which is most well known for Merlot. The two most well-known regions are St.Émilion and Pomerol.
The Right Bank tends to be family vineyards and operations, producing smaller quantities of wine. The town of St.Émilion itself is a small medieval town, with a 12th century church carved into an underground cave.
In St.Émilion, you’ll find just red wines, which almost always contain Merlot. St.Émilion has hills of limestone, clay, chalk and sand which make a perfect base for rich and fruity wines. Cabernet Franc also has an important role in St.Émilion, sometimes more so than Cabernet Sauvignon. It represents an almost equal percentage of the blend in a number of notable examples of St.Émilion wine. Merlot and Cabernet Franc blends tend to be particularly heavy on red fruit flavours, with vegetal and spicy aromas.
Now, we move onto Pomerol. This is one of the smallest, but most prestigious regions in Bordeaux. Small farms, (which are often less than 10 acres), produce exclusively red wine, with 80% of the vines being dedicated to Merlot grapes.
Veneto & Tuscany
Merlot will crop up in vineyards across all of Europe, but we thought we’d suggest a couple of Italian wine regions that you may not have associated with this grape variety. The Veneto wine region is a sprawling land mass which covers vast portions of the north of Italy. Globally, (and especially in the UK), it is most well known for the wonderfully fresh and floral sparkling wines of Prosecco.
Then, in terms of red wine, most people associate Veneto with Valpolicella, but a great deal of good Merlot is being produced here and it is often great value for money. This is similar to Tuscany, which is slightly to the south. Most people purely think of Chianti, when they are in Tuscany, but wonderful Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon exists there. Super Tuscans can provide a Bordeaux experience from Italy.
Expect Merlot from Veneto to be that classic ‘International Style’. Veneto Merlot is dry, with soft tannins and a reasonable amount of body. You’ll frequently get notes of cedar, spice and vanilla, which meld with powerful notes of cherry, blackberry and plum.
New World Merlot
Now, we move into the new world winemaking nations. It should come as no shock that we could pick almost any new world wine nation and find some great Merlot in its borders. Chile and South Africa have both found success with Bordeaux-style blends. You may associate Argentina with Malbec, but top tier Merlot can be found up and down the country. Even some of the lesser known countries, (such as Slovenia or Mexico), have begun to produce some exciting Merlot wines.
However, we will keep our focus on three countries in particular and they are perhaps the most famous new world winemaking nations, so you won’t struggle to try them for yourself! We will be taking a deeper look into the Merlot wines of the USA, Australia and New Zealand.
We will discuss California in greater depth. Yet, we will start with an honourable mention for Washington State. This climate can border on cool and has a maritime influence. All these things point to an affinity with Bordeaux. As such, you should look for Bordeaux-style blends. The success of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon here was something of a revelation.
Winemakers had assumed that white grape varieties would thrive here and while excellent white wine can be found, the rich and complex Bordeaux-style blends have become a regional speciality for Washington State.
Now, we move onto the powerhouse of the American wine world – California. California burst onto the global wine scene when it beat a number of Bordeaux first growths in a blind tasting, which is known as the Judgement of Paris in 1976. The red wines were led by Cabernet Sauvignon, but where you have this grape variety Merlot is not far behind.
We mentioned that plantings of Merlot in California were reduced following the film ‘Sideways‘, (while the Californian Pinot Noir thrived), but this actually caused an increase in the quality of the Merlot wines being produced. Frequently, they were being made into simple, fresh and fruity wines. They were mass-produced inexpensive offerings from the fertile floor of the Central Valley. Californian Chardonnay can often be confined to these unexciting offerings as well.
As a consumer demand for Merlot dropped, many of these winemakers opted to plant other varieties in their place. Interestingly, many more serious winemakers stuck with Merlot. They recognised its potential for high-quality wine and were undeterred by the public opinion backlash from a joke in a film.
Sideways may have taken out the low-quality Merlot, but the structured, intense and complex offerings that you really want to look out for remained. Look for both single varietal Californian Merlot in the jammy and oaked international style, or Bordeaux-style blends.
Australia is first and foremost Shiraz country, with this grape variety occupying 30% of all the plantings in the country. However, as is so often the case, there are pockets of Merlot to be found throughout this great landmass. Again, you’ll often find unremarkable examples which display an excessively jammy and somewhat sweet character, likely due to the addition of sugar to mask some impurities or faults.
However, do not be dismayed. If you’ve had a dodgy Aussie Merlot, it does not mean you should write off the whole country. We think the Merlot of Western Australia is particularly good quality. Within Western Australia, the sub-region of Margaret River is most well known. The soils have high gravel content, which is similar to Bordeaux. This means that you will find good quality Bordeaux-style blends as well as great single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Beware, you’ll have to get these grapes before the birds do! The local silvereye birds have been known to eat 60% of the crops in the Margaret River region, before winemakers deployed big nets to protect their vines, (MacNeil 837).
Last on our list of New World wine nations is New Zealand. Marlborough is the region which holds people’s attention in New Zealand and this is more well known for both Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, but Merlot crops up yet again.
You may have noticed a theme here. It is that many of these new world wine regions have a terroir that can be seen as similar to Bordeaux. In these regions, you will find high-class Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Well, you guessed it, this theme reoccurs in New Zealand. For top-tier New Zealand Merlot we will be looking at the region of Hawke’s Bay, in New Zealand’s North Island.
Hawke’s Bay, (and the smaller sub-region of Gimblett Gravels), is known for high quality red wine. Hawke’s Bay is the second largest New Zealand wine region and the rich gravel soil aids the ripening of red grape varieties in this relatively cool, coastal climate. Expertly wonderfully ripe and structured wines, with a nice level of acidity locked in. This keeps them fresh and balanced.
That concludes our article on all things Merlot, we could have kept going on and on. Merlot is truly planted everywhere in the world, but we think these places are a great place to begin, (or continue), your Merlot journey.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this look into one of the world’s favourite grape varieties. Go pick out a bottle of Merlot, from the list of wine regions that we’ve provided. We are certain that you will not be disappointed!
MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. 2nd ed., Workman Publishing, 2015.
Not done learning yet? Good on you! Why not check out some of our other guides to the key wine grapes in the world!
- Grenache – The Spicy and Well-Traveled Grape
- Syrah – Star of the Rhône Valley and Beyond
- Malbec Wine From Around The World
- Cabernet Sauvignon – One of The World’s Most Famous Grapes
- Chardonnay – A Controversial Global Favourite
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