Merlot: The Team Player

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.

The logic:

  • 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

Why Merlot?

  • 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