Take this opportunity to arrange a Merlot Wine Tasting and get to know this versatile grape. Merlot is one of the most versatile red wines, pairing beautifully with many cheeses and foods although it is soft and fruity enough to be enjoyed on its own as well.
Merlot is in the middle of the red wine spectrum as far as weight goes between Pinot Noir at the light end and Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz at the heavier end. It is also typically medium in tannins, acidity and alcohol levels.
This may be the reason Merlot is the 2nd most planted grape in the world according to Wine Folly and the 2nd most popular grape in America according to Vinepair 101.
The term ‘merlot’ apparently comes from a French (Occitan) dialect word ‘ mèrle‘, the name for ‘a little blackbird’ who liked to eat the grapes. The first reference to Merlot (Merlau) showed up in 1784 in a French officials notes on the Bordeaux regions.
Merlot is now the main grape in some of the Right Bank Bordeaux regions such as St. Emilion, Pomerol and Fronsac. Merlot is still the main blending partner in the classic Cabernet Sauvignon Bordeaux blend.
The father of Merlot is Cabernet Franc. The mother of Merlot was only discovered in the 2000s through DNA testing and it turned out to be a little known varietal Magdeleine Noire des Charentes. This obscure grape was first noticed growing in an abandoned vineyard in Brittany in 1996. They were later discovered growing as ornamental vines in the villages of Poitou-Charentes.
It is thought that the Magdeleine Noire des Charentes grape is so named because the grapes were ripe in time for July 22nd feast day of Mary Magdalene. Merlot ripens a couple of weeks before Cabernet Sauvignon. It has a tendency to over-ripen quickly, in as little time as a couple of days. There are 2 schools of thought on this. Some producers such as the famed Chateau Petrus like to pick the grapes early to maintain the acidity and potential for aging while others favour picking later to obtain maximum fruit body.
In line with its versatility there are a different styles of Merlot. It is equally prized as a varietal on its own or as a blending component.
In a blend Merlot is used to soften the tannins or balance high acids of blending partners such as Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux blends or to soften the Sangiovese grape in Super Tuscans.
As a varietal it can range from
- soft, fruity, low tannins
- fruity with more tannic structure
- bold, full-bodied, tannic à la Cabernet Sauvignon
Cool climate vs Warm climate also produce distinctly different characteristics.
The classic old world Bordeaux style is more earthy than fruity with tobacco notes, higher acid and more tannins. This is also the result of a cooler climate and clay soil.
Merlot is valued in cooler climates like Northern Italy, Washington State, USA and Canada because of its early ripening tendancy, thereby being conducive to a more reliable yield. New Zealand has been increasing their plantings of Merlot in the 2000s.
Warmer climates and sandier soils produce a fruitier, more perfumed, softer Merlot.
California Merlots tend to be fruity with plum, black cherry, black raspberry and blackberry notes. The style may vary from light and fruity to very robust, barrel aged examples.
Fruit: plum, black cherry, blackberries
Vegetable and earthy notes: olives, mushrooms, tea, eucalyptus, mint, thyme, tobacco, leather, cedar
Oak inspired notes: vanilla, chocolate, caramel, mocha, molasses, smoke, walnuts
Cool climate, fruity examples pair well with foods similar to Pinot Noir – salmon, red bell pepper elements and mushroom base dishes.
The lightest, fruitiest examples may also pair with chicken with herbs, burgers, shellfish or dishes with bits of bacon or prosciutto.
Bold examples will stand up to steak, stews and spicy sausages.
Cheese options include from mild to strong – Havarti, Monterey Jack, Pont L’Evesque, Provolone, Aged Gouda, sheeps milk cheese like Istara.
Rich dark chocolate is also a good bet.
Wine tasting strategy
In order to explore the different facets of Merlot you will want to find general examples of:
- a Bordeaux blend dominated by Merlot – Look for Pomerol, St. Emilion or Fronsac Bordeaux and check the label for percentages. This will illustrate the classic Bordeaux blend dominated by Merlot. Look for minerality and tannins. Also look for Australian Margaret River examples to compare old world blend vs new world blend.
- Cool Climate varietal – Look for Washington State, USA, Canada’s Niagara region, New Zealand Hawke’s Bay Region or South Africa Paarl or Stellenbosch regions.
- Warm Climate – Definitely include California Merlot from Napa or Paso Robles. You could also look for Australian Merlot from Murray Darling, Riverina and Riverland regions or Chilean Merlot from Central Valley (the Maipo Valley, the Rapel Valley, the Curicó Valley and the Maule Valley).
Suggested Merlot wines from March 17, 2018 LCBO Vintages Release
PRÉLUDE DU CHÂTEAU HAUT-PEZAT 2014
AC Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux, France
TASTING NOTE: This is a blend of 80% Merlot with 20% Cabernet Franc; these two grapes form the
basis for most blends in Saint-Émilion. This one offers up a complex, oak-inflected nose that suggests coffee and mocha alongside cassis and plum notes. The palate is soft and elegant but not without some grip. Fresh and fruity throughout. Try this with braised pork ribs, or filet mignon in a red wine sauce. (Vintages panel, April 2017)
Medium-bodied & Fruity
750 mL (XD) $29.95
IRONSTONE MERLOT 2015 Lodi, California, USA
The always lush and affable Ironstone Merlot remains a tried-and-true customer favourite. Year in and year out, this rich, intensely flavoured wine has delighted fans with its dark smoky fruit and spice and its bold but approachable personality. Pour this with smoked ribs or a smoked beef brisket. Full-bodied & Smooth
750 mL (D) $17.95
NAPA CELLARS CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2014
Napa Valley, California, USA
TASTING NOTE: Aromas of tar and licorice with [lots] of ripe fruit. Full body, round and juicy fruit
and a sweet undertone. Soft and pretty. Drink now. Score: 91 (James Suckling, jamessuckling.com,
May 5, 2017) Full-bodied & Smooth
750 mL (XD) $34.95 2432211
WILDASS MERLOT 2016
VQA Niagara Peninsula (Stratus Vineyards), Ontario, Canada
TASTING NOTE: From the 2016 vintage, which offered great consistency and quality across all of
Ontario’s varietals, this hand-harvested Merlot is mouthfilling with good concentration and depth.
Lots of complexity here, with a nice mélange of dark and red fruit, smoke, chocolate and a low-toned earthy note. Good balance and structure and a luxurious velvety feel. An easy choice for a casual meal like a meaty pizza or meatloaf, but with enough presence to step up to more serious fare such as a lamb dinner. (Vintages panel, Feb. 2018)
Medium-bodied & Fruity
750 mL (D) $18.95
KIM CRAWFORD MERLOT 2016
Hawkes Bay, North Island, New Zealand
TASTING NOTE: Sunny Hawkes Bay is the secondlargest wine-producing area in New Zealand. The
soils here are a real mixed bag, with areas of gravel, limestone, sandy-loam and clay allowing for great nuance and variation in the wines produced. The region is ideal for Bordeaux grapes, and this 2016 Merlot really shines, with its smooth, caressing mouthfeel and rich, ripe array of dark fruit, earth, spice and hints of bramble. Very food-friendly. Pair this with sautéed veal medallions in a mushroom sauce or with grilled pork tenderloin in a wild-berry sauce. (Vintages panel, Feb. 2018)
Medium-bodied & Fruity
750 mL (XD) $19.95
Check for other good value wine recommendations from the LCBO Vintages Release March 17, 2018.