Merlot is the second most planted variety globally after Cabernet Sauvignon, and it’s the most planted varietal in France.
The grape’s juicy palate, round tannins and gorgeous black and blue fruit aromas are crowd-pleasing and suitable for any occasion. Merlot has astounding versatility at the table as well, so it’s no surprise the grape is loved in both Old and New World.
Merlot shines on its own, but it often lends its noble personality to blends. And although some of the most expensive wines in the world are made with Merlot, the grape is a splendid source for young, approachable wines, too. Here’s all you need to know about Merlot.
The History of the Merlot Grape Variety
We can find the first mention of Merlot in the notes of a Bordeaux official going back to 1784. Wines from the Right Bank or Libournais region were already amongst the most coveted in Europe.
Merlot is named after a local black bird, Merlau, instantly recognisable for its dark, almost black colour. It’s easy to see why — Merlot wine can be incredibly concentrated, displaying a deep, dark hue.
Merlot’s origins are unknown, but DNA testing showed the grape is the offspring of Cabernet Franc and a rare variety, Magdeleine Noire des Charentes. Merlot is half-sibling with Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère.
Merlot’s prominence in both sides of the Gironde estuary in Bordeaux can be traced back to the Great Frost of 1956, the coldest year in the region’s history. Growers had to replant most of their vineyards, and they chose Merlot as the most viable for the region’s varied climate.
Like many other wine grapes, Merlot is prone to mutation, and one of its variations is the pale-skinned Merlot Gris. A Merlot Blanc also exists, although it’s a Merlot offspring rather than a mutation.
Merlot is better known for being the most planted variety in Bordeaux, but it is grown successfully in many other French appellations and every wine-producing country worldwide.
Merlot is the most planted grape in France with over 116,000 hectares. Although the grape is a critical ingredient in almost every red blend made in the Bordeaux, it truly shines in the Medoc, where it’s blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Emilion, where it’s blended with Cabernet Franc, and Pomerol where Merlot reaches its greatest expression, often as a mono-varietal wine. These wines are contemplative, incredibly age-worthy and prized collectors’ items.
Merlot is also widely planted in Southern France, particularly in the region covered by the Vin de Pays d’Oc IGP, Languedoc-Roussillon and the Sud Ouest. Here, the grape produces more approachable and easy-to-drink examples.
Merlot has an enormous fan base worldwide. It’s the fourth most planted grape in California after Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. It’s also the second most planted grape in Washington. Chile champions Merlot and other Bordeaux varietals, and you can find the grape well represented in Italy, Spain and Australia.
There’s no wine-producing country without a few hectares dedicated to the pleasing red grape. Merlot is an international success, and although it sometimes plays second fiddle to Cabernet, it’s at the same level in prestige and organoleptic properties.
Wine Styles & Tasting Notes
Merlot can produce inexpensive young wines that are inexperienced-friendly, and crowd-pleasing. These young wines are often round, with tannins that are persistent but never astringent. The dark fruit aromas are intense, and the mouthfeel is juicy.
When Merlot comes from older vines, it’s grown in low yielding vineyards and is aged in oak barrels; it gains immense complexity and age-worthiness. These wines are bold and inky and might display black and blue fruit aromas along with smoke, leather and chocolate scents.
When producers use Merlot as a blending component, the grape lends its juicy, mellow personality to the wine. It adds colour, robustness and fruit aromas to the blend as well. Merlot is the major component in most Bordeaux-style blends globally.
The use of oak and its influence in the wine depends on the winemakers’ philosophy. However, it has become clear that producers in the New World prefer to infuse their red wine with vanilla and spices from new oak more often than producers in France.
Merlot has noticeable but mellow tannins, so it is the perfect partner for leaner cuts of red meat, as the fillet mignon. Young Merlot is the perfect grilling wine, and it’s so easy to enjoy it’s a popular choice for casual get-togethers.
Well-aged, concentrated Merlot has a place on long tablecloth tables and will rise to the occasion, proving to be an excellent partner for fine dining experiences.
Merlot is too robust to be paired with fish, but it’s gentle enough to be paired with white meat, including roasted poultry, veal, and pork roasts. Merlot’s juicy palate and fruit-forward bouquet makes it deliciously compatible with cranberry, plum or other sweet sauces. Browse Hourlier Wines’ curated selection and discover extraordinary French Merlot for all occasions.