Merlot – Your Guide on All You Need to Know About It

The world is moving at an incredible pace. The internet has (not) helped – emails arrive at all hours of the day, we are slaves to our mobile phones (looking at your favourite wine investing app, of course) and any information that we want to know is at our fingertips. Gone are the days when it would take a week to get the answer we were looking for (who remembers having to go to a library to look something up) – nowadays as soon as you can say it you can google it. 

Today’s fast pace is fine if you’re a digital native. Or let me put that another way – it’s fine for anyone under the age of 30. Those who have been brought up with the world wide web don’t really have a problem with the dearth of information we receive every day, I mean, when you’ve never known any different why would you worry about the past? However, those who are over 30, and I suspect that’s quite a few of you, might struggle a bit with today’s perpetual motion. Thus, these people have had to show extreme versatility to adapt themselves to fit in with the speed of the modern world. Versatility has become a benchmark for improvement, whether in a professional or personal capacity.

Why am I talking about the benefits of versatility in the modern world in relation to wine? Well, because there is one grape that has proven itself to be both versatile and enduring. Enter Merlot. This one’s for you. 

Where Does Merlot Come From?

Brief History of Merlot

The history of Merlot is a tale of two beginnings. Certain recordings infer that the grape was introduced into one of France’s greatest wine regions, Bordeaux,  in the late 18th century, probably around 1784. Originally a second grape – or grape grown exclusively for blending, it is thought a high ranking Bordeaux official mistakenly tasted a glass of Merlot and proclaimed it was the finest wine he had ever drunk. The rest of the party followed suit and behold, Merlot was born.

Others believe that Merlot originated in Italy under the name Bordo in 1855. The grape was then introduced to the Swiss (by the French, so we ,must assume that the first part of the story is at least vaguely correct) in the early 20th century. 

Whatever the origins, it wasn’t until in the late 20th century that Merlot really began to shine in its own right. Imported to the US at the tail end of last century, Merlot saw a significant upswing in popularity (and consequently, sales). This trend has continued – today it is the second most popular grape after Cabernet Sauvignon. 

What Does “Merlot” Mean?

First, let’s get the pronunciation right. The t at the end is silent. And the o is more like “oh” than “oooooooh”. And the e is long. So we want to be saying meeeerloh and not merlotte. 

Right, now that’s out of the way, where does this pretty name come from? Most people believe that the name comes from merle or merlau, which were local dialectical words to describe Blackbirds in 18th century southwest France. As Merlot quickly began to gain popularity, winemakers began widely planting the grape which many referred to as “little blackbird” or “young blackbird” in Bordeaux. No one is quite sure if the name is a reference to the dark skin of the grape or to the fact that blackbirds have a fondness for eating the grapes directly off the vine. The name could of course be a reference to the Bordelaise town of Merlo where it is believed the grape was first cultivated by the Romans around 500 BC. But the blackbird story is far more romantic. 

Merlot Tasting Notes

What Does Merlot Taste Like?

Merlot can be velvety and plummy, or rich and oaky. The grape is a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. It has a deep ruby colour with notes of blackberry, plum, spice, cedar and vanilla. You’ll also find tastes like cherries and chocolate. The beauty of Merlot is that its soft tannins won’t leave your mouth feeling dry. Much like Pinot Noir, it is known for its sensual texture and versatility. 

The approachable style has made it the second most popular grape (after Cabernet Sauvignon) in the US. What’s more, the dark-skinned grapes can adapt to a variety of climates to produce food-friendly wines that touch almost every price point. The grape is the fruit equivalent of vanilla ice cream; easy tasting, has something for everyone, is widely adored and never goes out of fashion. 

What’s the Difference Between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon?

Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon have much in common, so much so that at times it can at times be hard for the uninitiated to discern the difference between the wines.  They both top the leaderboard as the most popular red wines in America, but many people don’t know what makes each of them different and unique. 

The two varieties share their origin in France as well as their place of production. They are both high-yielding and vigorous vines with large berries that have thick skins and firm flesh. Both are usually aged in oak barrels for at least part of the winemaking process.

However, Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in a wide variety of locations and can have quite a few different tasting profiles. Wines tend to lean towards dark and full-bodied, with fruity, peppery flavours. Cab Sav wines are better when they have aged a little.

Merlot however is a bit more delicate and delivers a slightly fruitier flavour. Certainly, both wines are considered “dry”, but Merlot tends towards a sweeter profile, which in turn makes it an easier wine to drink, notably when it’s in its youth. Additionally, the taste can vary, depending on when Merlot is harvested. There is the “International” style”: which is late harvesting of fully ripe grapes and produces full-body wines with high alcohol, often with plum and blackberry notes. Or there is the Bordeaux or “Traditional” style: grapes that are harvested mid-season to produce medium-body wines that have fresh, red fruit flavours such as strawberries and raspberries.

What Is the Color of Merlot?

Whether you call it ruby, burgundy, bordeaux, marsala, claret or just plain dark red, Merlot’s colour is synonymous with red wine. Interestingly enough, the colour “Merlot” is also a designer’s favourite – it was Pantone’s 1990 colour of the year. More poetically, Merlot is the colour of fine chocolates, exotic spices, and the fragrant loam of the fertile Earth. It’s a deep passionate red and has elegance, energy and power. 

When Merlot wines are in their youth they tend to be semi-opaque. Merlot’s colour changes with age, and will lose pigmentation and brightness over time. An older Merlot will be deeper and more opaque in colour. 

Is Merlot Sweet or Dry?

In a word, dry. 

However, as we already cover in our blog covering the delicacies of dry wine, there is not one blanket definition of the term dry. Wines are described as being dry when they have little or no residual sugar content. This means that dry wines are generally not sweet wines – think Chardonnay or Pinot Noir rather than Sauternes or rosé. That doesn’t mean these wines can’t have a touch of sweetness. Other components in the makeup of wine including tannins and alcohol levels play an important role in the overall flavour profile of wine. Typically Merlot (and Cabernet Sauvignon for that matter) has virtually no residual sugar. 

In the Medoc region of France, some Merlots are blended (these are usually called claret in English speaking countries). These are a little sweeter than pure Merlot, but remain dry nevertheless. 

How Alcoholic is Merlot?

A typical bottle of Merlot contains 15% ABV or 14.5% ABV.

How to Serve Merlot

Is Merlot Better With Food?

You’ll remember that I introduced this subject by mentioning Merlot’s versatility. Well, this is where it comes into its own. Merlot pairs well with almost any food. It is especially delicious with red meat and strong cheese, roast chicken, lamb and veal. But that doesn’t mean the vegetarians have to miss out – Merlot pairs beautifully with pasta dishes, particularly tomato baked ones. It works well with red-berry based desserts, like Pavlova. And don’t be afraid to try it with fish – in today’s world, red wine and fish are compatible.

Do I Need to Serve Merlot Chilled?

No, Merlot should be served at room temperature. Which is around 60-65° F (or 15-18° C).

Now that you know so much about Merlot, continue reading to the 5 best French wines you need to try!


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