Drinkers today have so many opportunities to explore new wines made from obscure grape varieties, the classics can seem unfashionable. But, just like a perfectly tailored navy suit, the classics remain steadfast for a reason.
Merlot has been overlooked by wine consumers in recent years. Regardless, it’s one of the world’s greatest grapes, as exemplified by the many regions in which it thrives.
Derived from the French work merle, meaning blackbird, merlot is planted in nearly every wine-producing country in the world. In addition to such key players as France and the U.S., Merlot is found in Italy, Spain, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Switzerland, Bulgaria, and even China. A grape born of the parent varieties Cabernet Franc and Magdeleine Noire des Charentes, Merlot is known for providing lush fruit and full body to wines, with lower tannins and acidity.
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Originally from the heralded Bordeaux region, Merlot gained immense popularity in California throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, but the grape saw a significant decrease in consumption after the movie “Sideways” premiered in 2004 and shot Pinot Noir to fame. (Protagonist Miles Raymond’s line, “…if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any f***ing Merlot!” probably didn’t help the grape’s cause.)
Merlot’s decreasing popularity wasn’t just due to “Sideways,” however; California’s Merlot boom had also caused many vintners to plant the grape in areas that likely weren’t top regions, resulting in cheap, uninteresting wines.
Merlot responds best to cool, moisture-retaining soils like clay. While styles vary around the world, in addition to classic structural markers, Merlot typically has aromas and flavors of blackberry, black cherry, violets, mint, and chocolate, as well as vanilla and baking spices, due to common new oak usage.
Today, producers are recognizing and reclaiming Merlot, giving it the attention it needs to show its best character, rather than viewing it as a secondary, throwaway variety. A group of producers has even banded together to declare October International Merlot Month for the past five years, using the hashtag #MerlotMe. If winemakers around the world can continue due diligence into searching the best terroirs for the Merlot grape, a new generation is sure to discover the grape’s potential. Until then, there are some excellent, underpriced bottles hanging out on wine shelves and restaurant lists for those in the know to scoop up.
While this just scrapes the surface of regions producing Merlot, here’s a guide to the most prominent international styles of this classic grape variety.
Merlot was first discovered on the Right Bank of Bordeaux in 1784 and remains the most widely planted grape in the area. In contrast to its Left Bank counterpart Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot is thought to be fleshier, juicier, and more approachable at a younger age. While much of the region’s Merlot goes into value-driven and blended wines, some of the region’s most famous bottles, such as those of Château Pétrus, are Merlot-based and can develop for decades.
Merlot that’s planted in clay, as it is in many pockets of the famed Pomerol, tends to be broader and most robust, often verging on opulence. Merlot that is planted on limestone, as in St-Émilion, has more freshness and minerality. Merlot-based Bordeaux wines have much more prominent earth and minerality than those from any other region and can range from unoaked to swathed in concentrated amounts of new French oak.
Although Italy has hundreds of local grape varieties, international varieties play a big role in many of the country’s regions. Merlot is the fifth-most planted grape in Italy, and much of it is used in the Bolgheri DOC or Toscana IGT blends of Tuscany, more commonly known as Super Tuscans. These famed and often expensive wines can feature Merlot as a varietal wine or blended with other Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, local varieties like Sangiovese, or both. The warm Tuscan sun often plumps Merlot’s fruit and softens any harsh tannins, but bottles can range from big, oaky, and New World-styled to restrained, earthy, and long-developing.
Surprisingly, considering the fact that Italy’s northeastern Friuli-Venezia Giulia region has become well-known for indigenous white grape varieties, Merlot is the area’s most planted red grape. It is either blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc for Collio Rosso or produced as a single varietal wine. Some cult producers such as Miani produce extremely coveted, expensive cool-climate versions with nuances of anise, spice, stone, and more.
Merlot is currently the second-most popular red grape variety of California and is as wide-ranging as the state’s many regions and producers. It can range from cheap, sweet, grocery-store plonk to high-end, nuanced, ageable cuvées. Classic warm-climate regions include Napa Valley and Paso Robles, where wines are typically round and smooth, with lush and jammy fruit character, along with sweet spice and vanilla flavors from new oak. The best, such as Duckhorn, Darioush, and St. Supéry, are both elegant and concentrated at the same time. Some areas of California, such as Sonoma’s Bennett Valley, make a cooler-climate style of Merlot, with less fruit and richness.
During California’s Merlot boom, Washington winemakers were also enthralled with the grape, but unlike the former, Washington didn’t turn away from its signature variety in the mid-aughts. As Pinot Noir does in Oregon, Merlot from Washington combines the best of Old World and New World attributes, combining rich, lush cherry and berry fruit and body with crisp acidity and a tannic bite. The Columbia Valley is producing the largest quantities of Merlot, but the Walla Walla Valley, Horse Heaven Hills, and Red Mountain are producing particularly excellent versions.
Chile’s red wines have largely been based on Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère, but Merlot is gaining prominence. While some “Merlot” vines were actually incorrectly identified Carménère vines through the mid-1990s, many producers imported true cuttings after this was discovered, increasing the grape’s production. High-end, top-quality examples are being produced in the Colchagua Valley’s Apalta region, often similar to bold, richly-fruited, oaked versions from California.
Plantings of Merlot in Australia didn’t even register until the late 1980s, but the grape’s vineyard acreage has grown immensely over the last 30 years. The country’s vintners are still learning, however, which sites work best for the grape, and Australian Merlot still gets a bad reputation from areas in which Merlot doesn’t thrive. In the coming years, look for Merlot from Coonawarra, Margaret River, McLaren Vale, and the Barossa Valley.