We call Merlot the “Team Player” because it is such a good blending partner with other red wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon.
Merlot’s home area is the Right Bank of the Bordeaux region of France.
- Merlot originally meant “young blackbird”– the grape has blue/black skin
- Cool climate Merlot has flavors of plum, berries, and tobacco
- Warmer climate Merlot may have flavors of chocolate and fruitcake
Traditional Style of Merlot
- Early harvest maintains acidity
- Medium-bodied wines
- Moderate alcohol levels
- Fresh, red fruit flavors and leafy vegetal notes.
International Style of Merlot
- Late harvest for deeper flavors
- Inky, purple colored wines
- Full body, high alcohol
- Lush, velvety tannins
- Intense, plum and blackberry fruit.
Worldwide Merlot Production
- France, Italy, Switzerland, Romania, Croatia, Montenegro, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Turkey, Australia, South Africa, Canada, Argentina
The Ups and Downs of Merlot
Merlot sales skyrocketed in 1991 when a feature on the television show “60 Minutes” linked red wine consumption to heart health. This was based on the so-called “French Paradox,” the belief that the wine-consuming French have lower levels of heart problems even though they eat fatty foods.
- Moderate consumption of red wine protects against cancer and heart issues by increasing HDL cholesterol and reducing LDL cholesterol
- Red wines have high levels of antioxidants
- the darker the wine, the higher the antioxidant content
- Red wines are also sources of resveratrol, linked to longevity and cancer prevention
- Merlot has lower tannins and less acidity than Cabernet Sauvignon and so is considered smoother and “easier to drink”
- Merlot is less expensive than Pinot Noir
- Merlot is easy to pronounce
- Merlot is easy to pair with a wide range of foods
Merlot Quality Declined
California Merlot acreage grew from a few thousand acres in 1985 to over 50,000 by the end of the century
- Much Merlot was planted in unsuitable climates, usually too warm for the variety
- Following the American rule that a wine labeled with a varietal needs to only have 75% of that grape, much wine labeled Merlot was plumped up with unsuitable blending grapes, which could be anything.
A reaction against Merlot set in. In the 2004 film Sideways, the wine-obsessed main character Miles exclaims, “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I’m not drinking any ____ Merlot!”
But Merlot didn’t sink that low…
- The Merlot market declined but stabilized a few years after Sideways
- Higher-end Merlots are now holding their own
- Example – some of the quality Merlots coming out of Washington State
- Lower-end Merlots suffered (deservedly) from a reputation problem