What is Merlot?

The Who, What, and Why’s of Merlot!

What is Merlot?

The earliest known recording of Merlot (that we are aware) was in 1784, when it was listed as a wine varietal in a Bordeaux blend by a French winemaker.  In French, Merle means “The Little Blackbird”.  It is unclear where this definition originated but one source reflects the darkness of the grapes while another report suggests that it could be due to the local black bird who preferred eating the ripe grapes.  Irrespective of how it truly got its name, Merlot produces soft, ripe, juicy textures which has been popularly utilized in blends to help “calm down” or “soften” other varietals that tend to be higher in tannins – think Cabernet Sauvignon.  As a key component within Bordeaux Blends (Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc make up the other varietals), the popularity of Merlot was as far reaching as Bordeaux wines itself.  Where Bordeaux ventured so did Merlot.  The versatility of Merlot allows for it to not only be incorporated into blends but serving as a pure varietal.

Famous Blends: Bordeaux, Super Tuscan

Who is Merlot?

Merlot is the “half-sibling” of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Carmenere!  While it has been known that Cabernet Franc is the father of Merlot, it was until recent researchers at University of California-Davis identified Magdeleine Noire des Charentes to be the mother.  Like Cabernet Sauvignon, the berries are dark – nearing a blue/black hue – however, they have a thinner skin with fewer tannins.  It also has higher levels of sugar giving making it slightly sweeter in nature than its parents and siblings.  Everything put together helps ensure the beautiful color, lower tannin level and overall easy-to-drink taste profile that is sought after by many wine lovers.

Where is Merlot?

As previously mentioned, Merlot is very diverse in its ability to thrive in various climates – ranging from cool climates of France to much warmer climates of Australia and Southern California within the United States.  Due to this flexibility it is the most planted grape in France and one of the most planted grapes in the world!  The vines thrive in areas devoid of water, specifically clay soils found on the sides of hills.  Depending on where the grapes are grown can significantly influence the style in which Merlot is produced:

  1. Favor late harvesting to enhance the overall “ripeness” of the grape which leads to full-bodied wines with a deep purple-inky color. This ripeness also contributes to higher alcohol, higher sugar content and produces plum and blackberry aromas.
  2. Favor early harvest to maintain lower alcohol levels as well as fresh red fruit flavors. Additionally, there is a higher presence of tannins and tobacco notes which may be mistaken as Cabernet Sauvignon.

How is Merlot?

The qualities surrounding Merlot have created a wine that is perfect for virtually any occasion.  Ranging from everyday wine to high end wine worth thousands of dollars, the rich flavors, smooth texture encourages you to pair with food.  Diverse in its flavor profile Merlot produces primary aromas of plums, black cherries, red currant and assorted berries, including black raspberries, blueberries, blackberries.  Secondary and tertiary aromas produce violet flowers, chocolate, vanilla, and cedar.

When is Merlot?

International Merlot Day – November 7th!

Why Merlot?

Finally, Merlot wine is characterized by being relatively fruit forward highlighted by ripe red fruit or jam depending on how and when it was harvested.  It is often more approachable than Cabernet Sauvignon due to lower tannins and higher acidity and sugar.  Beyond the fruit, a variety of spices can be noted including vanilla, tobacco and baking spices.

Tasting of Merlot is best done within standard red wine glassware.  Storage temperature should be consistent with normal cellar temperatures and higher-end Malbec’s typically have higher tannin and acidity allowing them to have high age potential.  While the price range of Merlot is frequently within the $10-20 range, higher-end Merlot panted in prominent vineyards can yield prices well beyond $500 and even into the thousands.  Due to the lower presence of tannins, Merlot wines do not age as well as Cabernet Sauvignon but can still be aged for up to 5 years.

See the following more detailed assessment of Merlot’s that we have tried:

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