The 2004 Oscar-winning film Sideways notwithstanding, merlot remains one of the world’s most recognised and respected grapes. Alone, it offers delicious red-fruit character, supple tannins and oodles of charm, but the great merlots of the world, more often than not, have a sidekick.
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No region reflects this Batman and Robin partnership like Bordeaux, where merlot’s Dark Knight is supported by the blackcurrant-fruited, tannic cabernet sauvignon, or the floral, herbaceous cabernet franc. For fruity pleasure with a bit of bite, Château La Grave de Bertin’s Réserve 2020 is a good place to start. Blaye, situated just over the river from Saint-Julien, is home to Monconseil Gazin 2019, whose two-thirds merlot includes a dash of malbec for extra depth, concentration and savoury spice. Château Pey La Tour’s 2018 Réserve is worth jumping the £10 barrier for classic cassis flavours and extra power after 12 months in French oak.
Merlot’s finest expressions are found in Saint-Emilion and Pomerol on Bordeaux's right bank, but what’s the difference? While it’s hard to generalise, the former tends to have a bit more tannic structure and savouriness, while Pomerol delivers fruity richness, often with new oak providing glamorous spice. Jean-Pierre Moueix’s 2018 is a great intro to Saint-Emilion and cabernet franc’s floral charm, while Château Carteau Côtes Daugay from the lovely 2016 vintage is starting to show the dark fruit and liquorice notes that often develop with age. Compare and contrast them with Château Bel-Air’s Pomerol from the same vintage, 100% merlot aged in oak for 18 months, a third of it new, giving exotic spice and cedar notes alongside the plush mulberry fruit.
For deliciously affordable merlot, head south to the Languedoc, and Domaine du Bosc, Pays d’Oc 2021. Packed with plum and bramble notes, it’s a stand-out.
Italy might not be your first thought for merlot, but it’s widely grown in the north east, as well as in Chianti and Bolgheri on the Tuscan coast. Baccolo Appassimento 2020 gains richness from partial air-drying of the grapes in this charming Veneto red, and Poggio al Tesoro Il Seggio 2018 shows the tightly woven tannic structure of Bolgheri merlot underpinning its herbal charm and bright acidity – decanting is encouraged.
Chile is a hotbed of value for stand-alone merlot, and Lascar’s Classic 2021 is a guarantee of plummy pleasure. In South Africa, Villiera offer both affordability and maturity with their savoury, tobacco-laden Stellenbosch Merlot 2017, whereas the pure and fresh expression from Eagles’ Nest 2016, a 2021 Wine Champion, shows the grape’s mettle in good cool climates.
Australia produces some of the world’s finest Bordeaux blends, especially in Margaret River, but merlot is also turning heads in Victoria’s Yarra Valley. Merlot-dominant Gathering Field 2019 by Thousand Candles showcases the richer, sweeter fruit and chocolate notes typical of Australia with refreshing acidity and lift. New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay, famed for its Médoc-like gravelly soils, yields a more ‘classic’ interpretation of the Bordeaux model, with Mission Estate’s 2019 delivering grainy tannins and menthol lift alongside cassis and well-judged cedar spice. For sheer concentration and class Craggy Range’s 2016 Sophia is just starting to open up with big, ripe tannins and plenty of new-oak extravagance. Delicious now but with a long life ahead.
Closing the circle with America – the land of the free, home of the brave and producer of BIG merlots – the classic Cali style is typified by bold, juicy tannins, sweet fruit and vanilla, thanks to maturation in American oak. Bogle’s 2019 epitomises this ‘big is beautiful’ style and is a true taste of America. But increasingly there’s a more restrained approach, with wider use of alternative maturation vessels for a more intricate character. Ryder Estate’s Central Coast 2019 benefits from the cool morning fogs and a combination of American and French oak for a more vibrant, red-fruited American merlot, whereas the brilliant Once and Future champion American redwoods for their 2017 Sangiacomo Sonoma County Merlot giving the wine tighter, firmer structure, purity and spice as well as power and concentration.