This podcast is a refresher on Merlot (it’s been 12 years, so it’s time!). It’s one of the titans of the wine grapes, and yet it’s not often that we encounter it as a varietal wine. Because it is frequently blended, Merlot can often be forgotten or not given its due.
Photo: Merlot. Getty Images via Canva
But Merlot will not be forgotten! It is the second-most planted grape in the world, the most widely grown grape in Bordeaux, and its pedigree as part of some of the world’s most prestigious and well-known Bordeaux and Bordeaux-style wines makes it royalty in the wine world.
But Merlot is not without challenges. When it’s not grown on the proper soils or managed meticulously, wine made of Merlot bears little resemblance to great wines of Bordeaux or other regions that are famed for blends that use it. The reputation of Merlot as a boring, flabby, dull wine is not the fault of the grape, and although it was a convenient scapegoat, it’s also not the fault of the movie “Sideways.” The fact is that Merlot is not as easy to grow as people thought, and in 1980s and 1990s, opportunistic companies used high-yielding clones on bad rootstock and in bad sites to churn out high alcohol fruit bombs, lacking all the nuance that make the grape esteemed in its homeland.
This says nothing about the grape, but much about the people who defiled it. Although it is entirely capable of making boring, cheap wine, Merlot simultaneously makes up 95% of Château Petrus, Bordeaux’s most expensive wine and is used in fine wines all over the world for its ability to elevate a blend. In this show we pay homage to Merlot, and this time, shed some light on the recent past for Merlot and why, ultimately, it has done little to harm the grape’s reputation among winemakers and those who take the time to know the grape.
DNA and Parentage
- Merlot originates from Gironde or SW France or Basque country. It’s the child of Cabernet Franc and Magdeleine Noire des Charentes from Brittany
- Merlot Gris: Pink color mutation of Merlot
- Merlot Blanc: A cross of Merlot x Folle Blanche created in 1891
- NOT WHITE MERLOT, which is just Merlot made like white Zinfandel
We discuss the history of Merlot – from its first mention in Bordeaux, to its more modern history – its rise in the 1990s and its fall in the early 2000s in California, Australia, and the global consumer market.
Photo: Merlot. Getty Images via Canva
In the Vineyard
- Merlot is an early budding variety, making it susceptible to spring frost – it needs good weather at flowering or it won’t have a great vintage.
- The grape needs cooler, well-drained soils – cooler limestone and clay soils are best
- Because Merlot is thin skinned with loose to medium density bunches it is also susceptible to disease (downy mildew) and botrytis (bad). It is bad in drought, which raises the question: how will it do with climate change, which we discuss.
- Merlot ripens about 2 weeks earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon and it’s the first red grape picked in Bordeaux. That makes it a great agriculture hedge – if it does well, there is less pressure to have a huge Cabernet Sauvignon harvest.
- The grape has milder tannins, higher sugar, and lower acidity (especially malic) than its relations Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. It can be vigorous, so yields must be managed and picking decision is important, since Merlot loses acidity quickly once ripe.
- Two main styles result from picking decisions (among other factors – terroir!):
- Bordeaux style: Merlot is harvested earlier, leading to a more acidic, medium alcohol wine (Pétrus). These wines tend to have moderate alcohol and show more red fruit flavors (cherry) along with “other” things like: green and black tea, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, earthy, mushrooms, green pepper, green olive
- International style: Concentrates on physiological ripeness, with long hang time to have hardened stems and seeds (wines of Michel Rolland). These wines are often inky, purple, dark wines, with high alcohol, velvety tannins, and dark fruit character (plum, blackberry, blueberry). The wine is smooth and can seem sweet due to the high alcohol, strong fruit, and the oak used that brings flavors like caramel, chocolate, coffee, vanilla, nut, and cigar.
Regions: the grape is planted everywhere! This is more or less a list…
Merlot is France’s most planted grape
- Bordeaux is the grape’s native home, and it is the most cultivated grape in the region. It contains half of all the Merlot in France.
- The grape does best on cooler limestone and clay soils of the Right Bank and in pockets of the Left Bank. Climate change is a challenge for Merlot – it will need to be grown exclusively in cooler spots as the climate warms
- Right Bank
- Pomerol: Can be up to 100% Merlot. Wine is luscious, soft, velvety, plummy, iron or clay-like. Famed châteaux are Pétrus, Le Pin
- Émilion: Usually contains 60-70% Merlot with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon. Flavors are more like balsam, dried fruit, with tea notes, but the wines vary based on limestone, clay or sand content in the soil. Famed châteaux mentioned are Angelus and Pavie
- Other high quality Right Bank AOPs with Merlot based wines: Canon-Fronsac, Fronsac, St-Émilion “satellites” (Lussac St. Emilion, Montagne St. Emilion, Puisseguin St. Emilion and St. Georges St. Emilion)
- Left Bank
- A major blending component of AOPs: Graves, Médoc, Saint-Estèphe, Listrac, Moulis, Pessac-Leognan
Other Bordeaux: all Côtes de Bordeaux (I recommend Francs and Castillon), Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur AOPs
Southwest France: Bergerac where it is blended with Cabernets, Cahors where it is blended with Malbec
Languedoc and Loire grow Merlot
Italy: Merlot is the third most planted red in Italy and is made in a number of styles
- In Northern Italy: Alto-Adige, Friuli, parts of Veneto: the wines often have higher acidity, herbal notes and can be blended with other grapes.
- Tuscany: Super Tuscan blends in Bolgheri/Tuscan coast – producers use Merlot to soften Sangiovese or Cabernet in blends. Masseto by Antinori is 100% Merlot on clay soils (it costs more than US$1000 per bottle). Climate change is worrisome in these areas because it is getting too hot for Merlot.
- Other regions: Umbria, Lazio
Other Western/Central Europe:
- Spain: Catalonia, Castilla-La Mancha, Navarra, Aragón
- Switzerland: In Ticino made as a rosé
- Germany: Pfalz, Rheinhessen
- Austria: grown in all wine-growing regions in Austria, basic wines
- Bulgaria: Significant plantings, varietal wines
- Hungary: In Bull’s Blood (Egri Bikaver) with Kekfrankos, Kardarka
- Romania: Most widely exported red
- Croatia, Slovenia (near Italian border), Ukraine, Moldova, Greece,
Washington State: Excellent Merlot with strong acidity, dark color, and lots of interesting earthy, fruity flavor. The long growing season with cool nights lends the wine great structure. This is my top pick for US Merlot!
- Producers mentioned: Leonetti, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Andrew Will, Columbia Crest
- Regions mentioned: Walla Walla, Red Mountain
- In the early days of California wine, Merlot was a varietal wine. Sterling was the first to make a vintage dated Merlot. Warren Winiarski, a leader in California wine in the 1970s and owner of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, promoted Merlot as part of a Bordeaux blend
- We recap a bit of the story of how it evolved in California that we discussed earlier in the show. Then we talk about some of the styles in various regions
Napa: Producers usually dedicate the best soils and sites to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot is an afterthought. Right now there is a bit of a shortage of Merlot because no one has focused on it but demand is increasing as styles have changed.
- Top Producers: Duckhorn, Pride, La Jota
- Regions mentioned for Merlot: Carneros, Mt Veeder, Rutherford, Oakville
Other California: Monterey (bulk), Sonoma (Alexander Valley, some Sonoma Valley)
Photo: Merlot. Getty Images via Canva
Oregon (Rogue Valley), Virginia. Long Island (great stuff! Merlot is their best grape), Texas
Mexico, Canada (most prominent in BC for Bordeaux style blends)
Chile: Producers mistook Carménère for Merlot in the 1990s but they’ve slowly gotten back to real Merlot. Top areas: Colchagua (Apalta sub AVA), Maule, Curicó. I mention the famed wine writer
Argentina: Merlot is made in a ripe style, often blended in with other grapes
Australia: The grape is often used for blending with Cabernet, but had similar issues to California when demand rose in the 1990s – Merlot was overplanted in warm bulk areas like Murray Darling, Riverina, Riverland. Today, quality Margaret River and Western Australia.
New Zealand: Merlot is the second most planted after Pinot Noir. It does especially well in blends coming out of Hawke’s Bay. Merlot also does well in Auckland, Marlborough, and Martinborough
South Africa: Cooler sites in Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek
Other places: Israel, Lebanon, India, Japan, China
Suggested food pairings
- Cabernet style (“big wines”): Roasted, grilled food, “brown food” – hearty stews, meats, heavy dishes
- Soft, fruity styles with high acidity: Mushroom, salmon, spinach, greens
We end with a warning about serving temperature: NEVER SERVE MERLOT TOO WARM!! 60˚–65°F
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