Merlot is so many things it is hard to know where to start: it is grown all over the world and is the third most planted wine-making grape variety (any guess what the first two are?); it is one of the primary grapes of Bordeaux; and it is the grape that was famously trashed in the film and book “Sideways”. It also makes Petrus, often cited as the most expensive wine in the world.
Merlot is a purple/black grape that produces a wine of different styles, depending on where it is grown and how the winery wants to treat it. In the most general terms it is similar to Cabernet Sauvignon but generally found to be more approachable due to its lesser tannins and smooth body.
Merlot was first discovered in France and is the son of Cabernet Franc and a brother to Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot (pronounced either as muhr-low or mare-low, both are acceptable) takes its name from the French merle meaning blackbird, the bird that annoyingly likes to eat this grape when it ripens.
Merlot is the most planted grape in Bordeaux and is usually blended with the other Bordeaux varieties, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. But Merlot also thrives in many regions with the most notable wines coming from Italy, Washington State, Chile and California.
As we stated in our primer on Bordeaux, this region is divided by the Gironde River, and the region on the west side is referred to as the Left Bank and the region on the east side is referred to as the Right Bank.
Merlot thrives on the Right Bank, especially in the appellations of Pomerol and St. Emilion where the high clay content of their soils provides a cooler growing environment which is ideal for Merlot. On the Right Bank Merlot shows a medium body and red fruit characteristics of cherry and plum. It tastes quite similar to Cabernet Sauvignon and can be difficult to discern from Cabernet Sauvignon in a blind tasting. Astute tasters will recognize less tannin in Merlot and often less body as well. Both wines will exhibit slight green notes (pyrazines are present in both varieties and cause this) whereas they will evoke more leafy characteristics in Merlot compared to bell pepper notes that can be found in Cabernet Sauvignon. Great examples of Merlot dominant wines coming from St. Emilion would include Angelus, Cheval Blanc, Ausone and Pavie.
In Pomerol we think Merlot reaches its apogee and make the most glorious Merlot-based wines we have ever tasted including Trotanoy, L’Evangile, Petrus, La Fleur de Gay, La Conseillante, Clinet, La Croix St. George among others. To our tastes, and there are of course exceptions to every rule, Pomerol will generally produce wines characterized by richness and power and St. Emillion will often show elegance and finesse.
Washington State grows some truly marvelous Merlot in both the Columbia and Yakima Valleys. Here the wines are big and dark and broad shouldered, often even more so than the state’s Cabernet Sauvignon.
While blending is almost always the norm in Bordeaux, in Washington Merlot is often vinified as a varietal (a wine made from a single grape variety) and to great effect. Woodward Canyon and Leonetti make spectacular Merlot, either on its own or sometimes blended with tiny bits of Cabernet Franc. Andrew Will is a master at blending it with Cabernet Franc and sometimes Cabernet Sauvignon. Two great producers of Merlot at bargain prices given the quality are Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest.
California has significant Merlot plantings but we think the variety is less suited to the terroir or the winemaking style there. Blankiet does a truly outstanding Merlot and Duckhorn makes very good Merlot as well.
But too often we have encountered California Merlot that pushed ripeness to the extreme resulting in jammy wines lacking in structure and complexity.
These wines no doubt brought great pleasure to their fans for the fruit-forward style, soft tannins and plush texture. Many would say right out of the California playbook of pandering to unsophisticated palates. Certainly that was the viewpoint of Miles, the protagonist in Sideways, Rex Pickens’ hilarious novel about a road trip to Santa Barbara wine country with two buddies as a last stand before one of their pending nuptials. The curmudgeonly sad sack Miles is a Pinot-lover and Merlot-hater in this popular story. Following the book being made into a movie, sales of Merlot dropped 2% in the US while sales of Pinot Noir rose by 16%.
Italy is another country that produces some great Merlot. Stylistically we find it somewhere between Bordeaux and Washington. Tuscany is where it seems to grow best and is often blended with the local Sangiovese or Cabernet Sauvignon. Tenuta dell’ornellaia’s “Masseto” and Tua Rita’s “Redigaffii” are two of the world’s great Merlot and among the very best of any wines produced in Tuscany.
Our recent trip to Chile showed us they can do a great job with Merlot and sell it at very fair prices. The wines we tasted had more in common stylistically with Washington state in their full body and relatively high tannins and acid. Casa Lapostolle Cuvee Alexandre and Concha Y Toro Marques Casa Concha are two very good and affordable examples.
The bad rap Merlot took after Sideways was for the most part undeserved. Interestingly as well as paradoxically, Miles ends the movie by finally drinking his coveted bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc he had been saving for a special occasion that just never seemed to come along. He realized that his failed marriage and inability to get his book published did not define who he was. As he comes to understand this he feels finally free of those phony shackles and decides to celebrate his epiphany by sneaking his ’61 Cheval into the local fast food burger stop. You can see from the look on his face that he is drinking one of the most truly profound wines of his life. And the grapes in that wine? About equal portions of Merlot and Cabernet Franc.