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The Merlot Wine Grape:

Maligned by Sideways, but Much-Loved Nonetheless

Merlot Wine Grape

If you've seen the movie "Sideways" (or even better, read the original book), then you know that the wine-loving main character, Miles, has a big grudge with Merlot. Instead, Miles is enamored with Pinot Noir. For a time, Merlot was almost the 'kleenex' of red wine (as Chardonnay was for white) - the relied-on choice of the wine-drinking masses. How could such a wine be so polarizing?

Merlot's popularity stems from its softer, easier-drinking nature relative to its big brother, Cabernet Sauvignon. Yet when poorly made, this can easily take the wine into insipid territory and lead empassioned wine lovers like Miles to shun it for what they perceive to be greater stand-alone varietals. But Merlot is hardly a lost cause, as we'll highlight in this guide to the Merlot Wine Grape.

The History of Merlot

Researchers at UC Davis believe Merlot is an offshoot of Cabernet Franc, and that both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are "sibling" varieties. Although these three grapes are distinct, that relationship explains in part why they blend together so well - as all three are foundational grapes in the red wines of the famed French Bordeaux region.  

Qualities of the Merlot Grape

Merlot wine grapes have a beautiful blue-black hue. The clusters are large and loosely-formed, comprised of large-sized berries with a thin skin. This means that the ratio of skin to juice is quite low, yielding a wine which is less tannic than others, like Cabernet Sauvignon - since the skins are the source for most of a wine's tannin. The grapes develop high sugar, with low levels of acidity. Taken all together, it's these qualities that make Merlot notoriously smooth and supple, and easy to drink.

Merlot Wine Characteristics

Body: low to medium
Tannins: low to medium
Acidity: low to medium
Flavors: often a mix of red and black fruits, such as plum, red cherry and cassis. Sometimes vegetal or herbal notes - bell pepper, olive, eucalyptus; or vanilla / smoke notes if aged extensively in oak.

Regions Where Merlot is Grown

- Merlot is grown worldwide - it is one of the most popular reds for high-quality growing, just slightly behind Cabernet Sauvignon
- France's Bordeaux is the most famous region known for Merlot, where it is both a blending grape as well as the primary grape for wines from St. Emilion and Pomerol. Large plantings in Languedoc-Roussillion are being devoted to Merlot, and it is also grown in smaller quantities in regions such as the Loire.
- In the U.S., Merlot put Washington state, especially Columbia Valley and Walla Walla, on the map in the '80s. California, including Napa Valley, is also well-known for quality Merlot.
- New Zealand and Argentina also grow and produce Merlot.

Merlot Fast Facts

- For France's 'Bordeaux', wines are blended from five grapes, including Merlot (others are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet France, Malbec and Petit Verdot). Most Bordeaux are predominantly Cab but the famous and rare Château Pétrus is made from 100% Merlot.
- The majority of wines with Cabernet Sauvignon as the primary varietal will also be blended with at least a little Merlot.

- In the U.S. and other New World growing regions, Merlot is often labelled varietally; Bordeaux blends typically using Merlot may be labelled 'Meritage'
- Famous Producers (Bordeaux): Château Pétrus, Château Cheval-Blanc
- Famous Producers (WA
 state): Leonetti Cellar, Chateau Ste. Michelle
- Famous Producers (Napa Valley): Duckhorn Vineyards, Hall Wines
- Typically best drunk in the first five years, though some bottlings can age significantly longer

Merlot Wine & Food Pairing

- Delicious paired with mild cheeses or creamy sauces, mushrooms, salmon or game birds (if lighter-tannin style), pork or beef (if heavier-tannin style).
- Easy Food and Wine pairings with Merlot:
     Trout Almondine with Spanish Tortilla
      Chourico Sausage Pizza with Vegetables
      Braised Short Ribs with Cheddar Polenta

Here are some of our favorites:

2010 Mouton Cadet Rosé, Bordeaux
Made primarily from Merlot, this rosé is deep in color with bold but somewhat simple flavors. ($8)

2007 St. Francis Merlot, Sonoma County
From a highly reliable winery. Pleasant red fruit aroma of cherry and kirsch, with notes of dill and vanilla from American oak. ($20)
Buy at Wine.com

2008 Duckhorn Merlot, Napa Valley, Three Palms Vineyard
Three palms is perhaps the most famous Merlot vineyard in Napa. A powerhouse of richness and depth. Tantalizing.($85)

2010 Falesco Vitiano Rosso, Umbria
A blend of Merlot, Cabernet and Sangiovese, offering rich jammy, plummy fruit flavors. ($12)

2005 Chateau Dauzac, Margaux
Incredibly delicious and rich now with intense fruit flavors, this also has lots of aging potential. ($55)

Next Variety:  Gamay Wine Grape




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