Merlot has developed a reputation as a grape that produces soft and gentle wines, but it is far more than that. Although it’s capable of making wines of great elegance and detail when bottled solo, merlot more often makes a major contribution to blends, buffering cabernet sauvignon’s sterner side, adding depth and filling out the palate with fruit.
Also known as
Like most grapes, merlot has many local synonyms, but it is rare for it to be called anything else, except where it is an anonymous component of a blend.
What merlot tastes like
Merlot’s flavour profile can be wildly different, depending on the climate, making valid expressions from the finely aromatic and structured to the decidedly plump and soft. When picked earlier or from a cooler zone or vintage, the wines will have classic leafy tones that are associated with the cabernet family. But given that it ripens relatively early, those flavours are swiftly dominated by forest berries and often in the darker spectrum, with plum also being a notable character at the fuller end of things. As merlot is often oak aged, cedar and vanilla characters are also common.
Vineyard & winemaking
Merlot ripens relatively early, supplementing fruit intensity in the generally leaner cabernet sauvignon, plumping out the mid-palate, softening tannins and acidity. But it is not just an adjunct, with merlot picked at its prime, acidity can be taut and flavours precise. Overall, though, this means merlot can perform in both cool and warmer conditions depending on the end use. Merlot, like its stablemates from Bordeaux, takes to oak ageing well but it is quite capable of producing both bright and fresh styles picked a little earlier and riper softer styles that don’t require the input of oak flavours or tannin.
Where is merlot grown?
Merlot is the second-most widely planted grape in the world, and it’s the most planted in France, where it originates. Merlot is a grape of principal importance in Bordeaux, accompanying cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc in occupying the lion’s share of those famous blended wines, with petit verdot, malbec, and – less commonly – carménère filling in the gaps. Cabernet sauvignon is generally seen as the key driver of Bordeaux, but merlot reaches great heights in one of the most vaunted communes of Pomerol, where it dominates, and in St-Émilion where it shares the billing with cabernet franc. Merlot’s earlier ripening properties and relative production reliability see it dominate most of the simpler wines, and it fulfils this role in other regions, too. Grown throughout the south, it partners malbec in appellations like Cahors, but equally teams up with Rhône varieties in the Languedoc.
Merlot around the world
Outside of France, the largest plantings of merlot in Europe are to be found in Italy, where it is often associated with Tuscany. The grape has been notably used as a supportive and softening addition to Chianti, as well as being used in larger amounts in Super Tuscan wines, mainly, again, with sangiovese. It is also an important player for the Bordeaux-like wines of the Tuscan coast, in the Maremma. The reality is that Tuscany only accounts for about 10 per cent of the 26,000 hectares there, with Friuli matching that, the Veneto more than tripling it and more than half of Italy’s 20 regions having decent plantings. Merlot found a major home in the New World towards the end of the 20th century, with vineyards proliferating in California. Those wines often used merlot’s early ripening properties to produce rich and powerful expressions, accounting in large part to a general perception – and an often misleading one – of merlot making plump and soft wines. Merlot is also grown well in Argentina and Chile, though the latter was once thought to have a lot more of the grape until it was properly identified as carménère.
Merlot in Australia
As in Bordeaux, merlot accompanies many plantings of cabernet sauvignon in Australia, though it plays a significantly smaller role in both vineyards and wines. It still accounts for around 10 per cent of red grapes crushed, but that’s about a third of what cabernet sauvignon does. Merlot has a had a bit of a hard time finding an identity in this country, with cabernet sauvignon reaching ripeness somewhat more easily in many of its prime growing areas than say Bordeaux. Additionally, the vine material that was first imported – in the 1960s – was a clone that favoured yield over quality, so pursuing premium wine was a struggle that was barely worth the effort, especially given what was a fairly lowly status amongst domestic consumers. Today, the quality of vine material has improved, and the variety is fulfilling its promise, though mainly in blends from quality producers, while much of the merlot grown here is in the warmer irrigated regions that flank the Murray River. Coonawarra, Wrattonbully and Langhorne Creek are perhaps the prime territories for merlot, while Margaret River also stakes a major claim.
Some of the best Australian merlot
Some of the icons
Some of the new wave
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