Extremely popular though underappreciated by some, merlot is characterised by a softness of texture and fruit-forward character. It is capable of producing juicy and enjoyable single-varietal wines as well as playing an invaluable role in numerous blends.
Merlot is the most widely planted variety in Bordeaux, and tends to be the dominant grape in the lauded reds of the right bank – most famously in the Clarets of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol.
Though it undoubtedly shows its best in these hallowed appellations' clay soils, the classic Bordeaux blend (merlot, cabernet sauvignon and sometimes cabernet franc) is responsible for many fine wines far beyond French borders.
Merlot is comparatively easy to grow and makes soft, juicy easy-to-drink wines.
While its relatively early budding and flowering leaves it open to the dangers of spring frosts, it is a comparatively easy grape to grow, and is prolific in the South of France, Chile, Italy, Romania, South Africa, Australia and, to an extent, New Zealand.
Depending on where it is planted, merlot wines tend to be medium-bodied with plum, red berry and currant flavours. These are particular hallmarks of the so-called 'international' style of merlot; low in tannin and full of appealing fruit flavours, such wines are very popular in much of Europe and the New World. More traditional Bordelais examples can exhibit tertiary notes of spices, mint and pepper.
Bordeaux | Rest of Europe | Chile | Rest of the New World
- Red fruits
- Summer pudding
How do I pronounce merlot?
'Merlot gives colour and the richness of alcohol making round, supple wines. It has aromas of plum, strawberries, redcurrant, violet and truffle.'
Joanna Locke MW
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.
Merlot dominates in St Emilion and the Clarets of Bordeaux's right bank.
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.
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Rest of Europe
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.
Chile has had great success with 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.
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Rest of the New World
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.