Grape varieties

Merlot: The ultimate grape guide

What does it taste like?

  • Red fruits
  • Plums
  • Summer pudding
  • Chocolate
  • Baked figs
  • Gentle spices

Where does it come from?

Despite being the most widely planted grape in the region, merlot's role in many Bordeaux blends leaves it susceptible to some image problems. Plaudits tend to be heaped instead upon its more austere half brother, cabernet sauvignon, which usually contributes the lion's share of the blends in the top wines of the left bank. By contrast, many seem to discuss the role of merlot as though comparable to the water in a glass of squash.

In the vast majority of cases nothing could be further from the truth, and without merlot these great left bank wines would taste greener and more astringent, lacking the harmony of flavours that warrant these Clarets' lofty praise (and price tags).

Compared to the classed growths, merlot does tend to play more of a part in blends from the Médoc and Haut-Médoc. The reason for this, and indeed its dominance in most wines produced in the right bank, lies primarily in the difference in soil types. The majority of the right bank, as well as the enclaves of the left where merlot performs best, have a richer abundance of clay soils. Merlot flourishes more readily in these soil types than in the limestone found throughout much of the left bank.

Its supremacy in the right bank means that merlot is the main component of wines as iconic and astronomically-priced as Saint-Emilion's Ausone and Pomerol's Petrus and Le Pin. Though many wine lovers would donate an appendage to try these merlot-dominant wines, they will often recoil at the idea of drinking a 100% varietal wine from elsewhere if a cabernet alternative is available.

This peculiar discrepancy may lie in merlot's natural roundness and easy-going character being misconstrued as a lack of complexity. It is perhaps less easy to discern its influence in these great wines than cabernet's. Merlot ripens earlier than its most common blending partner and will also tend to have a degree or so more alcohol, with higher sugar levels and a thinner skin (meaning it contributes lower levels of tannin). This goes some way to explain why the varieties contribute different structural elements as well as flavours: cabernet sauvignon gives Bordeaux blends backbone and sturdiness, while merlot offers fullness and approachability.

View our Bordeaux merlot wines

Merlot is increasingly popular in the South of France, and its use in the Languedoc-Roussillon has grown increasingly prolific. Here it is often blended with other varieties noted for their comparative severity, such as carignan. Indeed, many producers have replaced vines of grapes perceived as coarser in flavour (e.g. aramon) and replaced them with merlot.

In the rest of Europe, merlot's influence is wide, capable of producing many delicious and easy-drinking wines, though it makes few fine wines of great quality or distinction. There are however notable exceptions, such as the wines of Vega Sicilia in Spain's Ribera del Duero (which still produce wines using original cuttings taken from Bordeaux in the nineteenth century).

Italy holds sizeable and widespread plantings of merlot. It is particularly popular in the northeast, particularly in the Veneto regions of Piave and Friuli. It is also the dominant variety in the northern DOC of Trentino. Merlot is popular in Eastern Europe, making substantial contributions to the vineyards of Hungary, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania.

With a small domestic market, Chile has embraced so-called international varieties to cater for the export market, and in merlot it has found one of the most drinkable wines in the world, which tend to be offered for excellent prices.

The rise of Chilean merlot has been relatively rapid, and to many the style is almost a brand unto itself. It was during this early increase in production to meet the rising demand that merlot became involved in one of the most high-profile cases of mistaken identity in recent winemaking history. It transpired that much of what was thought to be merlot throughout Chile was in fact carmenère, an ancient Bordeaux variety thought to be a genetic sibling of merlot.

Though the richer, spicier carmenère is very popular, it is the softer and more fruit-dominated merlot that continues to be Chile's best-loved vinous export. The best examples tend to come from the Central Valley region, south of Santiago. Single-varietal wines are the most popular, though there are a wide number of Bordeaux-style blends.

View our Chilean Merlots

In Argentina, plantings are rising steadily, with the Uco Valley in Mendoza proving particularly well-suited to a soft but full-bodied style of merlot.

Australia produces large quantities of merlot, though the grape has not enjoyed as much exposure or plantings as shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. There are nonetheless a wide array of single-varietal and blended wines, many showing excellent quality with a richer texture and darker fruit flavours than its European counterparts. The most sophisticated examples come from the cooler regions in Western Australia, such as Margaret River.

Though there are surprisingly few fine single-varietal wines in South Africa and New Zealand, Bordeaux blends are responsible for many of the finest reds each country produces. Merlot is therefore used extensively in areas such as Stellenbosch and Paarl in South Africa (where the grape performs well in cooler sites) and in Hawke's Bay (New Zealand's North Island), albeit first and foremost as a blending partner to its traditional cabernet bedfellows (both sauvignon and franc).

America, of course, is also capable of producing superb Bordeaux blends that include merlot. There are several excellent examples to be found in California, whose climate lends its merlot a denser texture and Washington State also produces a large amount of single-varietal wines.

What style of red wine is merlot?

Merlot is characterised by its soft texture and easy, fruit-forward character ? think ripe plums, summer fruits and touches of vanilla and spice. Brilliantly versatile, it's the grape behind lots of good-value anyday reds as well as some of the most expensive wines in the whole world. On its own, it produces juicy, soft, plump reds, but also plays an important role in blends, especially with cabernet sauvignon; here merlot's friendly, fruity flavour counterbalances cabernet's more obvious tannins and structure.

Where should I start with merlot?

Old world: Merlot is a native of Bordeaux in south-west France and its most widely grown grape. An entry-level claret will have flavours that are unoaked, simple and fruity, drinkable young and very approachable. But merlot can scale the heights too and is the majority grape in most right bank clarets (ie those made on the right bank of the Garonne river) alongside cabernets sauvignon and franc. The top wines of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol are majority merlot and some of the most expensive, complex, age-worthy and sought-after wines made anywhere.

Merlot dominates in St Emilion and the Clarets of Bordeaux's right bank

New World: Chile is known for its full-bodied, plummy, spicy merlot and good examples make for very easy drinking at an anyday price.

Australia produces large quantities of merlot, some simple and easy drinking, but the most sophisticated examples come from the cooler regions in Western Australia, such as Margaret River. Cullen are masters of the cabernet-merlot blend and make some of Australia's most iconic wines.

A Chilean vineyard

Though there are surprisingly few fine single-varietal wines in 'Bordeaux blends' are responsible for many of both South Africa and New Zealand's finest reds. Merlot is extensively planted in areas such as Stellenbosch and Paarl in South Africa and in Hawke's Bay on New Zealand's North Island, mainly for use as a blending partner to cabernet sauvignon and franc.

The USA also makes some beautiful merlot-based Bordeaux blends, especially in in California and Washington State.

Merlot gives colour and the richness of alcohol making round, supple wines. It has aromas of plum, strawberries, redcurrant, violet and truffle.
Jo Locke MW
Rosie Allen

The Society's Brand Marketing Manager

Rosie Allen

Rosie joined the team in 2016 and oversees all our content including 1874 magazine and Discovery pages.

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