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Merlot 101

If you ask people what they think of Merlot, you’ll likely get varied reactions – some loving it, and some hating it. This reflects the ranging quality and styles available on the market, but also, it likely represents confusion and generalisations about the widely planted grape varietal.

Merlot was first grown in Bordeaux centuries ago, and is still today the most widely planted grape in the esteemed French wine region (despite the common assumption that this is Cabernet Sauvignon). In the 1800’s, the cultivar made its way to America, and has since established itself as one of the most dominant grapes in the US.

Merlot grapes are rich and dark in colour, almost blue, producing deeply coloured red wines

The differences between Old and New World Merlot are quite distinct. Understanding these differences is key to understanding Merlot, and discovering why the varietal has something to offer to new wine drinkers and experts alike.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • France and America are recognised for producing much of the world’s Merlot (though in pretty contrasting styles); there is also significant production in in Chile, Italy and Australia
  • On the wine, Merlot grapes tend to be very dark in colour, almost blue; they produce low-tannin, soft wines that are deep in colour, body, alcohol and fruit (ranging from 13.5%-14.5%)
  • There are a number of differences between cool-climate European Merlots and those from warmer, New World regions:
    • Because of Merlot’s supple texture and smooth profile, winemakers in Bordeaux found the grape particularly useful in blends, helping soften harsher, tannic varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon; today, some of Bordeaux’s best wines are a blend of these grapes
    • In the way France often blends Merlot with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, other wine regions follow suit – in Italy, Merlot is also blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc as well as Sangiovese; in Spain, this is often implemented with Tempranillo
    • Furthermore, traditional Old World methods involve picking Merlot grapes on the earlier side – this preserves some acidity and keeps alcohol content lower for a more medium-bodied wine and notes of red fruit (i.e. raspberry, strawberry) instead of very dark ones
    • In contrast to this French approach, the New World (i.e., Californian) approach to Merlot tends to showcase the varietal on its own, unblended
    • Merlot also tends to be picked later in warmer, New World climates, creating a really full-bodied, higher ABV wine that is very velvety, fruity and (sometimes) elegant
    • Since California dove into Merlot production, consumers came to associate the varietal with big, jammy wines; this  broadened production of single-varietal also meant many cheaper bottles landing on the shelves, some of which left Merlot with a bad rap
    • In recent years, California, Washington and other New World producers shifted these perceptions of Merlot, incorporating Bordeaux-style blending techniques and other means to production; there are some really fantastic bottles coming from each of these markets

Chile produces much of South America’s Merlot, but wineries across the continent, including Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, all grow and produce the varietal

In summary, Merlot runs the gamut in terms of weight, tannins and texture, and fruit can vary depending on where and how the wine is grown, picked and bottled. With such a range, and all of Merlots being quite supple, the good ones do pair well with food, particularly New World Merlot. Old World, lighter-bodied styles work with grilled or charred meats, but the bigger, fuller styles are ideal for rich, earthy dishes – think buttery mushrooms, sautéed greens and decadent platters of cured meats, olives and cheeses.

A side-by-side tasting is a great way to appreciate these differences in style. Something like a Saint-Émillion Cabernet-Merlot and a Sonoma Merlot would showcase this nicely. For something in between, an Australian blend can be an ideal balance – WA’s Mount Trio makes a nice Cabernet-Merlot. Victoria’s Crawford River also make an amazing blend.

Note: you may come across white Merlot (not to be confused with Merlot blanc, which is blended with another varietal) – in making white Merlot, the grapes are left briefly in contact with the skins before being crushed, resulting in a pale pink wine. Majority of the time though, any Merlot you encounter will be a red.

Check out our Top 5 Victorian Shiraz or the Beaujolais 101 for more red wine knowledge.

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