What is Merlot?
Merlot is derived from the French word, merle, meaning black bird. Merlot, with its distinctive dark blue skin, is planted almost everywhere in the wine world. It is the lovechild of Cabernet Franc (father) and the extinct varietal, Magdeleine Noire des Charantes (mother). It is most well-known for being part of the controlled red blends that make up wines from Bordeaux, which also include the varietals Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Carménère and Petit Verdot.
Merlot’s softness and fleshiness, combined with its earlier ripening, makes it ideal for blending with bolder, later ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, which is more tannic. Merlot is fruity and soft, while Cabernet Sauvignon is more austere and finely structured. Merlot is also very suited to blending with other red grape varieties.
Ideally, quality Merlot should be medium-bodied with softer tannins. Because of its softness, New Zealand and Australian examples are generally approachable when young.
The main characteristics of Merlot include plum, cherry, mulberries, mint, dark chocolate, with herbs, old leather and sweet tobacco. Region, as well as the hand of the winemaker, plays a big role in the resulting wine.
Pairing with food
Merlot is an excellent food wine. Like other Bordeaux-style reds, Merlot stands up to richer, meaty dishes such as beef and lamb. Barbecued or grilled meats are perfect for traditional Merlot or Merlot-based blends. Rich, hearty winter casseroles are a favourite. Merlot can also pair also well with chicken and pork, pizza, pasta, lasagne, mushrooms and Mediterranean grilled vegetables. Mild to medium hard cheeses match well, as long as they are not too strongly flavoured.
Notable regions for Merlot
Bordeaux, France - Merlot is the most planted grape in France, with Bordeaux the premier region for the varietal. Many French wines from Bordeaux use Merlot in their blends to lesser or greater degree.
New Zealand - For a long time, Merlot was predominantly grown as a blending variety for Cabernet Sauvignon. However in recent times, it has become recognised as a premium varietal in its own right. New Zealand’s cool climate and longer ripening season means Merlot can ripen slowly, concentrating its flavours, resulting in wines known for their plumpness, softness and purity of fruit. Approachable while young, good examples will develop complexity with age. Merlot is grown in most regions. However Hawke’s Bay, with its warmer climate, dominates New Zealand’s Merlot production. Only small amounts are planted in other regions, including Waiheke Island, Nelson, Waipara, Wairarapa and Central Otago.
Australia - Australian wineries produce many Merlots and Merlot blends that are very accessible and suit early drinking. However region and winemakers can influence wines dramatically. Wine brands in Australia produce some excellent examples, though they may not share the limelight in the domestic market. Black Wattle produces excellent Merlot in the cooler climates of South Australia’s Limestone Coast.
International - Merlot is grown and produced in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Central Europe, California, Washington State, Canada, Mexico, Chile and South Africa.